Some said it was the screams. Others said the crunching of bodies or the “loud pop” of cars colliding. For those who witnessed the fatal terror attack in Charlottesville on Saturday, the sounds were impossible to forget.
Wesley Barton was standing only a few feet away from the road as 20-year-old James Fields, an apparent white supremacist, allegedly plowed his Dodge Charger into a crowd of anti-fascist protesters. Barton could feel the air rush past as the car accelerated. The 32-year-old chef pushed his younger sister out of its path and watched in horror as it sped down the street.
“You could hear bones cracking. You could hear everything,” he said.
His mother, 51-year-old Ngozi Beaufort, a lifelong Charlottesville resident, was a block away when she heard the screams. She rushed towards the noise, fearing her children had been killed.
As she reached the corner of Water Street and Fourth, she saw the woman who was killed, 32-year-old paralegal Heather Heyer, lying on the concrete. She was receiving CPR, but her body was already limp, Beaufort said.
“It put me in a sort of daze. I’ve never seen anything like that,” she said, almost disbelievingly. “That girl died right there in front of me. I’ll live with it for the rest of my life.”
The violence on Saturday that left Heyer dead and 19 others wounded was the culmination of a summer of antagonism and racism in Charlottesville, as the city and its bid to remove a public monument to the Confederacy became the target of a sustained campaign by white nationalists. The climate of terror has been felt no more acutely than among African Americans residents such as Barton and Beaufort.
“Back in the day, you knew who didn’t like you and who were your friends,” said Beaufort. “But those monsters that I saw on Friday and Saturday, they looked like they were your everyday CEO, your professor, your doctor, your lawyer, your police. They were clean-cut. So now I’m kind of suspicious of anybody who is white.”
Emily Gorcenski, a 35-year-old prominent local anti-fascist activist, was standing at the opposite end of the street to Barton, watching as the Dodge Charger accelerated towards her and the large crowd on Saturday afternoon. It sounded like a pop as it collided with another vehicle in front, she said.
“It was a sinking feeling. I knew instantly it was an attack,” Gorcenski said. “My first thought was that he’s going to run out and start shooting people.”
Rather than freeze, Gorcenski said she ran straight towards the vehicle, and unholstered her Sig Sauer handgun. In her mind, she was prepared for a gunfight.
A Charlottesville resident of nine years, Gorcenski, a trans woman, backs strict gun control. But earlier in the year, after online death threats from white nationalists intensified, she felt compelled to purchase a firearm for her own protection, she said.
As Fields quickly reversed the car away from the protest, Gorcenski realized her weapon would not be needed. She turned to see “blood on the streets, bloodied people everywhere”, and set about trying to help the wounded.
It was only later that she realized a close friend, who did not want to be named, had been badly injured, suffering spinal damage and two broken legs. Since the weekend’s violence Gorcenski had not left her home. The experience, she said, was too traumatic.
Atreyu Jackson, 20, came face to face with torch-wielding white nationalists the night before the fatal attack, when a group of around 400 marched through the University of Virginia campus and set upon a group of students.
“They kept yelling white power, white lives matter, and blood and soil,” Jackson, who is African American, said. “I was disgusted.”
Shortly before he witnessed the Dodge steer into the crowd on Saturday, his friend Deandre Harris, a 20-year-old who moved to the city two years ago, was beaten with poles by a group of white men. His face was left so bloodied that Jackson did not recognize him from the photograph of the beating that went viral.
After Fields’ car had reversed away, Jackson helped an injured woman he had never met walk up the road to safety.
“You could see the fear in her eyes. She was shaking,” he said. “You should never have to see another human like that. I couldn’t sleep the whole night after.”
Seth Wispelwey, a co-moderator of the local Sojourners United Church of Christ, struggled to describe the aftermath of the attack. “It was,” he said, pausing for a moment, “awful.”
He added: “Bodies writhing on the ground, medics, and people utterly distraught. Blood and glass everywhere.”
The community organizer was distressed at vows by white nationalist leaders to return to Charlottesville again after the weekend’s violence.
“This is a raw wound,” Wispelwey said. “And it is going to take a long time to heal.”