Aurora remembers Henry Pratt Co. shooting victims, first responders one year later

Owner recalls his business being command center after Aurora shooting

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When a gunman shot 10 people at an Aurora company in February 2019, more than 300 first responders turned Luigi’s Pizza and Fun Center into their command center.

“What shocked me was, I just can’t believe the response that came from 50 miles around. We had people from Crystal Lake here, Somonauk was here. Yorkville, Willowbrook. All of these communities came like that,” said Bill Poss, owner of Luigi’s Pizza and Fun Center.

Gary Martin opened fire, leaving four employees and an intern dead and five police officers injured Feb. 15, at the Henry Pratt warehouse after he was told he was being fired for a safety violation.

“When those cops went in, they were getting shot at right through that door, right through the windows. They couldn’t see who was shooting at them. They didn’t know where he was. It was something that was unbelievable,” Poss said.

Police officers, paramedics, SWAT teams, firefighters and military from surrounding cities all gathered at Luigi’s about 5:30 p.m. after the shooting. They spread their laptops across the tables in a room as big as a warehouse going over what happened while the banquet rooms filled with witnesses who detailed the incident to the police, Poss said.

Luigi’s Pizza and Fun Center, only a block away from the shooting, was put on lockdown for three hours after an officer came in and commanded, “Nobody leaves, and nobody comes in here,” Poss said.

“When you get into a lockdown that you’ve never experienced before, you’re kind of frozen. Slightly frightened. They said the active shooter has been detained or something,” he said.

While Luigi’s was on lockdown, some businesses, such as the Petit Professional Auto Mechanical Care, owned by Luke Petit, only had the option of self-defense. Petit’s son-in-law, the only other employee at the auto shop, heard gunshots while driving past Henry Pratt. Petit went outside himself and heard seven to eight exchanges from police and the shooter, he said.

“I came in and got my pistol out so I could defend us if need be. From there, it was an influx of ambulances, SWAT teams, police cars from all over,” he said. “I couldn’t leave here if I wanted to. It was an ocean of vehicles.”

Now looking back during the anniversary of the shooting, Poss said he believes people are not safe anywhere.

Although many Petit spoke with weren’t scarred from the incident, he said he never thought anything like this would ever happen in the 36 years of doing business in the area.

“It was a wake-up call,” he said.

But the 95 minutes of terror soon turned into hours of hope when the overwhelming response from authorities assured both Poss and Petit, friends since high school, that the community is protected.

“It was just amazing. I was blown away that all these communities have a safety plan that we don’t know anything about,” Poss said. “They stopped what they did and went into hell’s hole not knowing what was going to happen. They dropped everything. They could have been at a birthday party. They could have been golfing. They could have been doing whatever, but they did it for people that they didn’t even know.”

Poss’ sons and his marketing manager came down to serve pizzas to more than 300 people.

“We quit counting after 125 pizzas,” he said.

Not knowing how long authorities would take, Poss canceled parties, including a surprise 65th birthday. But losing $7,000 to $10,000 for the day didn’t faze him.

“I know Bill, and I know he doesn’t care [about the money], and [being able to help] was more important to him,” Petit said.

What shocked Poss more than anything was the fact that first responders weren’t being paid for their service.

“They were here until 11:15 p.m. That was 6 hours of them not going home, not seeing their wives, not seeing their kids,” he said.

After receiving safety and hope from the responders, Poss decided it was his turn to provide a moment of relief. For him, serving hundreds of pizzas that night wasn’t enough.

“We could’ve had salad for them, I could have done pasta, we could have done appetizers,” he said.

A month after the shooting, Poss threw a celebratory party for first responders and their families. A magician, a finger painter, tattoo artist, a professional photographer, Girl Scouts and more than 43 sponsors came to celebrate the first responders’ actions. Tredwell Coffee in downtown Aurora brought 5 gallons of coffee, Oberweis brought gallons of milk and ice cream, the Oswego Brewing Company brought drinks, and 40 other local businesses also served, Poss said.

“It was just a festive day,” he said. “Three of the five that were shot, that was the first time they saw each other since the shooting,” he said.

Afterward, Poss hung signs around the store, still up today, thanking first responders and sponsors for their selfless efforts.

“It was a community that came together. When they say Aurora is strong, it was strong,” Poss said.