Denise Massey saw the muzzle flash from the gunshot reflected in the windows of Vista businesses in the early hours of Sept. 16.
She saw blood squirting from her head after the bullet entered her right cheek, nicked an artery and fractured a vertebra in her neck.
She saw “black, white and grey” before losing consciousness while lying on the pavement outside a Park Street bar.
And now, two months after the shootout that rattled the popular Columbia nightlife district and injured Massey and eight other people, she sees herself as lucky.
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“I know that sounds weird,” Massey, 52, said by phone from her Kentucky home. “But I feel lucky because it could have been a lot worse. At the same token, a lot of people look at it as, ‘You were very unlucky because you were hit by a bullet.’ ”
‘Spur of the moment’ trip to Columbia
Massey grew up a University of Kentucky fan in Paris about a half-hour drive northeast of Lexington.
“The football goes with the territory,” she chuckled. “We are a basketball school.”
Still, she and her fiancée, Jimmy Brannon, try to make the occasional road trip to support the Wildcats during football season, usually anything within driving distance. Brannon, an attorney, had been thinking about making the trip to Columbia for the Kentucky-South Carolina game on Sept. 16. He called Massey around 1 p.m. on Sept. 15.
“It looks like I’m gonna be out of here in a little bit,” he recalled saying to her. “Can we be ready to go by 2?”
They each packed a bag – enough for two nights – and made the seven-hour drive to Columbia, checking into their downtown hotel around 9 p.m.
‘All I saw was the blood’
After dinner at Pearlz Oyster Bar in the Vista and drinks at a couple of other bars, Massey said they ended up at The Oyster Bar Columbia on Park Street.
“A lot of people hanging out, loud music, good food, nice people — I really enjoyed it,” she said of the Vista. “That didn’t last very long.”
Just after 2 a.m., Massey and Brannon said they were standing by their car in front of The Oyster Bar, talking with some other patrons, when they heard “pop, pop, pop, pop” off in the distance.
The next round of pops was much closer.
“I heard all four of them,” Massey said. “And then when I heard the fourth one, I felt the impact of the bullet.”
Massey said she saw the flash from the barrel of the gun as it fired. What she thought was a pickup, she later learned were two men leaning out of a car, one out of the driver’s side window and the other out of the passenger window.
“It felt like somebody hit me with a two-by-four,” she said of the round hitting her in the face. “It wasn’t painful. It was a stunning blow.”
The next thing Massey said she remembers was telling herself not to move.
“I saw blood shoot out of my head, and then I saw two more shots of blood,” she said. “At that point, all I saw was the blood. ... I remember overhearing Jimmy scream my name, and somebody screaming, ‘We have to stop the bleeding!’”
‘Strangers helping strangers’
Chris Mastasio, the bar manager for Pearlz, was taking out the trash when gunshots pierced what he said had been a peaceful night in the Vista.
“Everyone reacted really quickly,” he said. “It was really amazing how people can step up to the occasion like that. It was just strangers helping strangers.”
Footage from a security camera on the front of The Oyster Bar shows one man pulling off his shirt, apparently to use to help stop Massey’s bleeding. Several people are seen pulling out cellphones to make calls, presumably to 911.
Brannon, who said he feared Massey was dead as she was loaded into the ambulance, received an act of kindness from an Uber driver who was parked in the Vista when the mayhem broke out.
Frantic because he could not ride with Massey in the ambulance, Brannon said he was ushered away from the scene by an officer, who was trying to find a taxi cab for Brannon. A man who said he was an Uber driver came up to Brannon.
“He says, ‘Get in, I’ll take you wherever you need to go,’” Brannon recalled.
But Brannon didn’t know where Massey was taken. The driver took him to two or three hospitals before realizing Palmetto Health Richland is the only area trauma center. But when they arrived, the hospital was locked down, meaning no one could get in or out.
“He stayed there with me for several hours,” Brannon said of the Uber driver, whose name he could not remember.
Paramedics in the ambulance checked Massey’s neurological function by asking some basic questions such as her name and telling her to move her toes, and Massey said she remembers being asked the same questions later, likely in the emergency room.
The next thing she remembers is someone saying, “It’s Sept. 19.”
“I knew in my head three days had gone by,” she said.
The round that hit Massey in the face shattered her right lower jaw, nicked an artery on the right side of her neck and fractured her C2 vertebra, she said.
After a week that Brannon described as “a roller coaster,” Massey’s condition improved, and doctors took her out of the intensive care unit and removed the ventilator tube from her throat.
That first night out of ICU, the two were watching the Kentucky-Florida football game from Massey’s hospital room.
Brannon said Massey could speak very little after the ventilator came out, and it was difficult to understand her. And then Kentucky scored a touchdown.
“Denise sits up in the bed and yells, as clear as anything, ‘Yes!’” he said.
That prompted Brannon’s celebratory Facebook post of “Denise Massey said YES!” — which prompted a flurry of congratulatory responses from well-wishers believing the couple had gotten engaged.
“I thought, I’ve dug myself into a real mess,” Brannon said. The two have known each other since high school, and after a discussion, Brannon said he asked Massey if she would like to get married, to which she said yes.
“She didn’t say it quite as loudly as the touchdown,” he said.
‘A guardian angel over my shoulder’
The wedding will be Dec. 16 in Lexington.
After Massey returned home, she underwent surgery that resulted in her jaw being wired shut for 21 days. She still is unable to chew food. Currently, she can only have liquids and soft foods, and has dropped from 115 pounds to just over 97 pounds.
Adding to the complications are mounting medical bills from a spectrum of surgeons, and Massey said collecting disability payments has been difficult because of the bureaucracy. She does not know when she’ll be able to return to her job as an order picker for Amazon.
Still, Massey says she is lucky. She notes that one shooting victim suffered brain injuries, and another is paralyzed.
“There’s a guardian angel over my shoulder, or I’d be paralyzed,” she said. “The bullet exited at the base of my spine, right by my spine.”
A couple that Massey and Brannon met in the Vista before the shooting that night will be guests at their wedding next month.
In the holiday movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Clarence the guardian angel writes a note to George Bailey, saying, “No man is a failure who has friends.” Noting the calls, messages, prayers and kind acts from Kentucky and South Carolina fans, school officials, family and friends and even strangers online, Brannon said that will be a theme at their reception.
Massey had surgery recently to restore her ability to chew, but it was unsuccessful. She’s unsure if she will be able to eat at the reception.
“I’m maintaining,” she said. “That’s all I can tell you. I’m doing well enough that I’m good. I’m not dying — not anymore.”