Lily Wathen, a junior studying biology at Michigan State, stood in line waiting to march in her family's hometown Fourth of July parade when the unimaginable happened.
On July 4, 22-year-old suspected gunman Robert Crimo, opened fire at the Highland Park parade in Illinois. Seven people have been killed and more than 30 were wounded by the gunfire. The suspected gunman is looking at a life sentence for the lives lost and lives changed at the parade that day.
Like many families looking to enjoy the holiday together, Wathen's whole family was eagerly awaiting to see her march in their annual parade.
“They sat in front of Walker Brothers Pancake House specifically so that when I walked by, I would be able to find them in the crowd because I would know their location…and that happened to be where [the gunman] was shooting at,” Wathen said.
When Wathen heard the first shots fired, she was far back in the lineup, waiting to march at the Highland Park Train Station, watching the start of the parade from afar, unable to discern the danger at hand.
“I was still waiting to start marching, and all of a sudden we heard popping noises," Wathen said. "At first people said ‘It’s just fireworks; people are probably setting them off just to signal the start of the parade.’”
Wathen explained that the whole back half of the parade was clouded with denial of the terrifying truth of the event. Even when she saw a crowd of people running at the group of marchers, they assumed that there was a race occurring during the parade. Wathen said at the time that a 5k in the middle of a parade made more sense to her than the idea of a shooting occurring in the town she had grown up in.
Wathen said her demeanor changed when the cops and firefighters that were supposed to signal the end of the parade flew around the group of marchers with their sirens on to get to the scene.
“That’s when everyone looked at each other and realized that it was real and we needed to run away, to just get out of there, and hide because this was something that was happening,” Wathen said.
As Wathen decided on the next course of action to take, she was in denial that she and her family were in imminent danger. Her mother called her and explained she had to run to her grandmother's house down the street to escape. Wathen was more worried at the time about finding and staying with the people she had come to march with. The next words her mother said solidified the true nature of the shooting to her:
“‘Lily, you don’t understand. We’re running through broken glass and blood right now. You need to get out of here.”
The next call was from Wathen's father, telling her what everyone dreads to hear when trapped inside a dangerous situation.
“My dad called me a couple minutes later and said ‘Your grandpa’s been hit,'" Wathen said. "Even when he said that I was like ‘What do you mean hit?’ because what went through my mind was that …someone slapped him because I couldn’t comprehend that what he meant by that is that my grandfather got shot by a bullet.”
Wathen later learned that the bullet had just grazed his right shoulder with fragments, missing his lungs by just a few inches. While he was released that day from the hospital due to the fragments missing any major arteries or organs, Wathen only focuses on how lucky her grandfather was.
Within 24 hours, Wathen was still processing what she and her family has been through at that parade. However, part of her processing was to be aired on live television; CNN had decided to interview her, wanting to air her and her family's story on one of the most prominent news outlets.
“On one hand, it was really cool, but on the other hand, you always wish there were better circumstances," Wathen said. "It was good to be able to talk about what happened to process that a little bit and get your story out there.”
Wathen said that the reporters were really nice and she could tell they had covered these tragedies millions of times before, knowing how to approach her without pushing her too far on the trauma she had just endured.
However, Wathen does not need to be pushed to speak on her beliefs on gun control. This tragic event only proved to strengthen Wathen's political beliefs that she has always been outspoken about.
“I was already pro-gun control," Wathen said. "There’s no reason that a civilian needs a semi-automatic rifle, but I think that it really solidified that belief. They always say the answer to a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, but we were surrounded by police. The whole Highland Park police department was there. There were police barricades everywhere…and yet they still couldn’t stop this and the guy still got away for hours.”
Wathen explained that while she's not sure how this traumatic event will shape her in the coming future, only being able to just process the horror of the event, she is sure how she feels politically: on the side of change.
“I think it’s just really made me more sure that we need to advocate for change and to make sure that real laws are passed that have an actual impact on our lives and this shouldn’t be able to happen again,” Wathen said.
She explained that no one should have to be wary that going to a Fourth of July parade with your nine-year-old cousins should result in them coming out of it scared to ever go in public again.
The outspoken survivor said that while she is healing, she is also fighting for a better future so that the next generation won't have to go through the horrors of gun violence she has been through.
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“It might seem like it will never affect you but you never know if you’re safe or not," Wathen said. "It could happen to you. It could be you next, so we need change. Now.”
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