DALLAS (AP) — Close your eyes, she says. Now, tell me. Where are the exits?
The Dallas Morning News reports this is a drill Suzanna Hupp has done with her two sons. She realizes it may seem paranoid, sitting in a restaurant thinking about things like that. But her sons, both grown now, get it. Bad things happen. Evil exists. Better to be prepared.
Hupp knows. In 1991, she was eating lunch in a Luby's cafeteria when a gunman drove a blue Ford pickup through the restaurant's front window, got out and started shooting. He killed 23 people, including Hupp's mother and father, before finally shooting himself.
In its time, the massacre in Killeen, Texas, was the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. Now it ranks sixth, just behind Sunday's murder of more than dozen people at Sutherland Springs First Baptist Church outside of San Antonio.
What happened inside Luby's is never far from the minds of Hupp and other survivors. And with each mass shooting that follows, they relive their own experiences.
"It brings everything back," said 71-year-old Kelley Fitzwater, who saw two women shot in the head that day. She can hardly watch the news this week.
"I watch maybe five or ten minutes, and then I just have to change the channel," Fitzwater said. "Because it brings all those feelings back. It brings back all of the very bad memories for the families that lost loved ones, as well as the survivors."
She and her husband were in the Luby's serving line when George Hennard, 35, of Belton, smashed his truck through the restaurant's façade. When he started shooting, Fitzwater's husband told her to get on the floor.
"Is he here to rob us?" she recalls asking. "No," she says her husband replied. "He's here to kill us."
Fitzwater and her husband managed to escape. She and other survivors say talking about what they went through was a key to dealing with it.
"We had group sessions that we went to, where the survivors and those that had lost loved ones, we all came together," Fitzwater said. "Really I found for myself, right after this happened, that the more I talked about it, the better off I was."
Fitzwater said it took her about a year to decide she could move on.
"It was very hard to do," she said. "At first you deal with guilt, as to why you were a survivor and they weren't."
You never forget, she said. "But you learn to move on. Or it would just drive you crazy."
Hupp, 58, agrees. "You've got a couple of different ways to handle stuff like this," she said. "You can go crazy, or you believe that things happen for a reason. Believe me, I'm going to be one of the first in line when I die with a list of questions for God."
Those questions boil down to: why do you let terrible things happen?
Hupp says she worked through her grief with help from a supportive family. She also wrote a book about her experience, and she became a state legislator who advocated the right to carry concealed weapons. (Just before the Luby's massacre, Hupp had left her own gun in the car.)
"That gave me some outlet for anger, anger both at myself and at the legislature, that I felt had legislated me out of the right to protect myself and my family," she said.
Hupp says people have asked her if it isn't a bit paranoid to still be checking restaurant exits after all these years. She asks them if they have smoke alarms at home.
"Sometimes houses do burn down, and we know that a smoke alarm can give you a little early warning that might mean the difference between life and death," she says.
Bobbie Crawford, now 85, was eating with a friend inside Luby's that day. A teacher's aide, she knew several other school district employees who'd come for lunch. Several of them were shot to death.
Crawford says her own mental recovery was long and difficult. Like Hupp and Fitzwater, she said talking about how she felt — especially at the group counseling sessions — was essential.
"It really helped to be able to talk to people that understood, and to get it out," she said.
It was months before she could go into a restaurant again. Then she was eating at a Red Lobster, and a busboy accidently dropped the handle of a carpet sweeper. The sound of it hitting the floor rang out.
"I came unglued," Crawford said. "I just screamed out, it frightened me so bad."
Twenty-six years later, loud noises still get to her. Even thunderstorms.
And like Hupp, Fitzwater and others, Crawford said she doesn't sit in a restaurant without checking her surroundings and noticing who's coming in the front door.
"I don't sit by a front window," she said. "And I know where the exits are."
Information from: The Dallas Morning News, http://www.dallasnews.com