DAYTON, Ohio — There is a deep, fresh scar in the ground that runs behind Dion Green’s house, marking the path that tornadoes cut in late May, uprooting trees and flattening homes, leaving some lots empty. Blue tarp covers what’s left of siding, columns barely hold up mangled and buckled front porches, and pieces of insulation from a school a few hundred yards away are still scattered across his property.
The swirling winds ripped the roof off Green’s house, and the work to repair it isn’t quite finished. But just when he thought the worst was over, another disaster hit Dayton, another disaster hit Green. As he and his father, Derrick Fudge, were spending a night on the town last week, a gunman appeared, a bullet was fired, and Fudge fell, lifeless.
The son held the father until he died, when it felt the roof had again been lifted off Green’s entire life.
“Finally when I get to breathe, I’m back to holding my breath again,” Green said.
During the past several weeks, Green and greater Dayton have suffered devastation on top of devastation. Their lives have been torn apart by tragedies and challenges that have left this region of Southwest Ohio reeling and in mourning. First a group tied to the Ku Klux Klan came to town. Then came the freakish tornadoes. And last Sunday, in the span of just 30 seconds, a troubled 24-year-old turned the historic Oregon District’s charming lamplight streets into a killing field.
The Midwestern city now has a spot on an ignominious list that keeps growing and growing: Columbine, Newtown, Aurora, Blacksburg, Virginia Beach, Parkland, Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs — and those are just some of them. Just in the past two weeks, add Gilroy, El Paso and Dayton.
The upheaval here preceded the twisters. This part of America’s heartland is emblematic of the nation’s urban-rural and ideological divides. Job losses, a struggling economy and a debilitating opioid epidemic have punished the population.
Now come the wounds of gunfire that are by now too familiar from coast to coast. The nine lives lost here were just the beginning. Then came the turmoil of politics, protest, media attention and visit of a polarizing president.
In his grieving, Green said he wondered what he and Dayton did to deserve this.
“I have questions for the person up above,” Green said. “Now the house is on hold and I gotta. . .” His voice trailed. “ . . . Put my dad in the ground.”
If Dayton’s heritage is ingenuity — from the Wright brothers’ flying machine to metal cube trays and pull-tops of pop cans — its present is resilience. In late May, more than a dozen tornadoes shred across Dayton neighborhoods, destroying homes and businesses, injuring scores and killing one. Earlier that same week, about 20 members of the Ku Klux Klan came to town looking to spread hate, but they were overwhelmed by hundreds of counterprotesters.
Then early last Sunday morning, after a night of communing and revelry in Dayton’s historic Oregon District, another tragedy. The gunfire ripped through an entertainment hub that attracts Ohioans from miles away with its art, live music and welcoming spirit.
Disbelief quieted a deserted Fifth Street in the hours after the shooting. But Daytonians say they weren’t going to let the shooting define their home. By that afternoon, the bloody massacre was washed away by fire hose. Crime-scene tape came down in time for a dusk candlelight vigil. Bullet holes were filled with flowers and messages of love were chalked onto the sidewalk where casings had clanged. Strangers embraced in the streets.
And that Monday, Brittany Smith opened her shop to sell “Dayton Strong” tees.
The business executive was at a bar that night when she was rushed into an upper room. When the bangs stopped, she descended onto the body-strewn street.
Smith did what Daytonians do, she went to work. Together with the manager of another bar, she cleaned dishes, swept floors, gathered up tabs left open by fleeing patrons, collected cellphones abandoned in the chaos and took a gulp of whiskey in between. Every so often, Smith said she would stop to cry, trying not to look out the windows.
“I didn’t really know what else to do,” Smith said. “Once you live here, you never want to leave. We’ve been through a lot of hate, and I am not going to let this stand.”
Dayton commissioner Christopher Shaw shivers at the thought of that night. He said he sat with families waiting for word about their loved ones. One by one, when called, they stood up and walked into another room. The door closed. The blinds shuttered. And after a brief hushed silence, the wailing began.
“I’m very, very angry,” Shaw said, pressing his eyes shut. “We’ve been on the outside looking in when these things happen. . . . But now it’s us.”
Throughout the assault, there were “individual heroics,” said Premier Health chief executive Mary Boosalis, whose hospital treated 23 victims. There was the bouncer at Ned Peppers who was shot while shepherding terrified people inside. There were the six officers who ran directly into danger to stop the gunman. There was the man who laid on top of his friends to protect them and was grazed by a bullet.
Late that Sunday, nine heart-shaped flower displays with the name of each victim were placed in the neighborhood as part of a growing memorial.
“Let our bloodstained street scream our need for peace,” read a laminated sign posted near the scene of the carnage. “We rallied against hate. We stood up to Mother Nature. We will defeat terror with community.”
As each day passed, the why of the deed was overwhelmed by the enraging question of how. How could someone get 100-round drums? How could the killer modify his weapon to be so lethal? How could someone not have noticed any signs it was coming or have done anything to stop it?
Sorrow has turned to anger.
Back at home, alone, Green struggles with the what-ifs.
He was ordering late-night tacos that Sunday morning when he saw a shadowy figure with a mask step out from a dark alley. The gun exploded a few times, but he said his mind could not register what was happening. He thought it was a crazy drunk.
Fudge collapsed a few feet away. Green’s fiancee, Donita Cosey, got down but miscalculated and fell on her seat, unfolding faceup on the street. She watched the shooter’s black silhouette step over her as she tried to play dead. Cosey hasn’t been able to sleep for days, that haunting image in her head.
Green, 36, ran to his family as the gunman walked away, urging them up from the ground. But Fudge didn’t move. His eyes were open and he was struggling to breathe. Green said he searched his father’s body for gunshot wounds but it wasn’t until he touched his head that he saw the blood spilling out from behind his ears.
“I just lost it,” Green said. “I’m just yelling ‘Come on, Dad. Let’s go! Come on Dad!’ and he’s steady looking up into the sky. I felt when he left me.”
They were father and son but in many ways were more like brothers, family and friends said. The two fished together, squabbled over food, competed over card games, bailed each other out of trouble and liked to have a little Tennessee whiskey — or “sip Jack” — after a long day.
They drove each other crazy, but when it mattered, Green said, his father was there. When a tornado yanked the roof off Green’s house, Fudge was there to help. He rarely missed a family gathering. Fudge had wanted to repaint his granddaughter’s room while she was spending the summer away on the West Coast, a birthday surprise for later this month.
But Niara Green, 10, came home earlier than expected for Fudge’s funeral.
Green said he is trying not to torture himself. He finds solace in listening to Anthony Hamilton’s “The Point of it All.” But he keeps thinking that had he not invited his father to go out that night to celebrate a relative’s birthday, Fudge would be alive.
Fudge was one of six brothers and sisters who grew up in nearby Springfield, Ohio. The night he was killed, his younger brother Jeffrey Fudge was hosting a family reunion. When he finally returned the calls he had missed that night, the younger Fudge turned off the music and tried to send everyone home.
Jeffrey Fudge has been watching his nephew carefully these days and is playing the role of his second father. He has tried to shield Green from the burden of arranging a funeral and attending to relatives flying into town.
He’s angry, but he’s not free to release it. The 56-year-old found himself kicking cans early one morning in frustration. But he’s got to repress it for Green’s sake, he said. He’d like to laugh without crying, remembering how his brother used to passionately sing the Commodores’ “Jesus is Love” in a voice low enough that he thought no one could hear him.
“He couldn’t sing a lick,” Jeffrey Fudge said. He’d like to smile at how he used to deliberately tangle his brother’s fishing line, jealous that he was catching more fish. His big brother was his protector in youth, but they had switched roles as they became older men.
Mostly, Jeffrey Fudge said he would like to see his older brother again to whoop him at cornhole and horseshoes.
“You know I’m sick of it. It makes me sick,” Jeffrey Fudge said. “My brother was killed by someone that don’t even know his first name.”
As the pink streaks of a summer sunset faded to darkness one day last week, a car pulled up in front of Fudge’s house. Green jumped out, screaming for his uncle.
“Where my Uncle Jeff at? Where my Uncle Jeff at!”
Jeffrey Fudge pushed the front door open with his arms outstretched to grab and hold his nephew coming up the porch steps. He took him inside, trying to get Green to sleep, but every time the young man closed his eyes, he arose in a panic asking for his father.
They now want to mourn quietly.
At St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church on Saturday, the family could no longer contain their pain. They howled when they saw Derrick Fudge in his casket, dressed in the black suit and slick red tie they chose for him earlier in the week.
Green, his face streaked with tears beneath aviator sunglasses, mourned with Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley and later collapsed before the funeral as Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and his wife joined the throngs of mourners in the small church sanctuary.
“We’re going to need more tissues,” an usher said to a church deacon.
Jeffrey Fudge was the first of his family to speak. He begged everyone to practice more love and togetherness because love is undefeated.
When asked who he blamed for his father’s slaying, Green named one culprit: Hate.