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‘Silence, and then screams’: Panic and numbness amid Labor Day weekend shootings in Philadelphia

The unofficial end of summer didn't slow a record year of gun violence. Between Friday and Sunday, at least 13 people were shot in Philadelphia, two fatally.

Police investigate a double shooting on the 1500 block of South Cleveland St., Friday, September 3rd.
Police investigate a double shooting on the 1500 block of South Cleveland St., Friday, September 3rd.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

Forty minutes feels like an eternity when lives are on the line.

That’s how long it took Brandon Collins to get home from work Friday evening after his sister called frantically: Someone had sprayed bullets right outside their home on the 1500 block of South Cleveland Street in Point Breeze. And Collins was terrified for his 58-year-old mother’s safety.

She was physically unharmed, but Collins was left shaken. “Things happen in a split second,” he said.

Police said two men had been shot and were hospitalized in the incident — a 33-year-old hit in the arm and hip, and a 24-year-old struck in the foot. An SUV that belonged to an uninvolved resident was riddled with bullet holes. No one was arrested, and police haven’t determined a motive.

That was how Labor Day weekend began in Philadelphia as the city’s unrelenting gun violence crisis continued. Even as the Made in America festival packed Center City and some residents bolted for the Shore, others across the city were left fearful for their family’s safety, or their own.

“I have a love-hate relationship with the city of Philadelphia. I love my neighbors,” said Mike Woodward, 59, the block captain on Cleveland Street. He gestured toward officers counting shell casings as nighttime fell. “I hate this.”

Between Friday and late Sunday, at least 13 people were shot, two of them fatally. A 25-year-old man who police haven’t identified was struck 20 times at about 5 p.m. Saturday on Sheridan Street in South Philadelphia and pronounced dead minutes later. In the middle of the morning Sunday in North Philly, a 43-year-old woman was killed after being shot multiple times — a case of domestic violence, police said.

Hours after that, a 17-year-old girl was shot at a Port Richmond strip mall and hospitalized.

More than 1,500 people have been struck by bullets in Philadelphia this year, and the city has recorded 358 homicides, most by guns. Police officials said during a news conference last week that 179 people were shot over four weeks in August, a 23% decrease compared to the previous four weeks.

But that decrease was from a historically high level of gun violence in July. And the 186 shooting victims in all of August was more than in any month between 2015 and May 2020, when shootings spiked dramatically.

The gunfire this summer has been concentrated in some of the city’s most disadvantaged pockets, and it has left residents balancing emotions of fear, trauma, and resignation.

Less than five hours after the shooting in Point Breeze, Star Johnson walked to pick up Chinese food near 16th and Erie streets in Tioga when bullets started flying outside. A 16-year-old girl was shot in the leg, and police raced her to Temple University Hospital. She was placed in stable condition.

Johnson, 36, stood at the restaurant’s door frame and watched officers handcuff a young man and shuffle him into a van. Police would not confirm an arrest but said a weapon was recovered.

“It happened so fast,” Johnson said.

An hour later and a half-mile away, police converged on an RV parked near 15th and Allegheny Streets, where a 39-year-old man was shot in the neck. Police drove him to Temple, where he was hospitalized in stable condition.

Officers at the scene, though, didn’t know whether a shooter remained inside the vehicle. After banging on the door for more than 20 minutes, one cop with his gun drawn climbed atop the RV and gained access through a hatch on the roof. The perpetrator wasn’t inside, but there were shell casings and blood.

Barry Williams, 70, who said he lives on the block because he has heart disease and it’s close to a hospital, came to the scene to make sure his car wasn’t struck by bullets — which has happened before. He said gunshots are a “daily occurrence” and described the violence over the past year as “vicious.”

In some communities where gunfire is perpetual, residents feel responsible for protecting themselves and their neighbors. Pete Carrasquillo, a 61-year-old Army veteran, lives on the 3300 block of Argyle Street in Kensington, blocks from the epicenter of one of the country’s largest heroin markets and where gun violence fueled by drug disputes is strikingly regular. He yells “hooah” to encourage vigilance on his block, saying “my platoon now is my neighbors.”

On Saturday afternoon, police swarmed his block after a man was reported shot inside one of the homes. Hours later, authorities determined that he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Before that was known, a woman came to the scene, spoke to a police officer, and dropped to the ground sobbing.

But around her, neighbors said they felt numb to it all. Carrasquillo painted a railing next to crime scene tape, and children darted on bikes around the investigators. Miguel Garcia, 46, said he’s used to what his neighborhood has become. Sirens wail through the night and he’s desensitized to the sound.

“Actually, when you don’t hear it,” he said, “is when you start to worry.”

» READ MORE: Even as pandemic lockdowns ease, Kensington’s heroin economy thrives

Residents on Sheridan Street in South Philadelphia expressed a similar mix of trauma and resignation after a man was fatally gunned down Saturday in daylight. A 4-year-old said, “The other night I heard a gunshot,” as her mother played surveillance footage that picked up the explosive sound.

Debbie Ancello, 58, whose grandchildren live on the block, tearfully stood on the edge of the crime scene, thanking God that no one in her family was hit but “so sad it had to happen to somebody else’s.”

And a woman who was in her living room on the block when shots were fired outside her window was sore on Sunday because of how hard she threw herself onto the floor. The resident, who didn’t want to be identified for fear she’d be targeted, said she winced as the barrage of bullets echoed.

“Then after that, it was silence, and then the screams,” she remembered. “That’s how you know someone got hit.”

There’s a similar familiarity at the Westpark Apartments near 46th and Market Streets, a complex of three 19-story buildings that are the last remaining public housing high-rises in West Philadelphia. Group feuds have for years devolved into violence, evident Saturday when gunfire erupted and investigators found 20 shell casings outside one of the towers.

Police sources said two men likely posted behind a ledge like snipers and fired toward the other tower but didn’t strike anyone. That was just two days after a 43-year-old man was shot in the leg there, and 11 days after a 47-year-old man was fatally wounded.

A grandmother sat on a nearby park bench Saturday as investigators processed the scene, lamenting that she couldn’t let her 6-year-old grandson outside because the playground sits directly between the buildings where bullets fly.

And the gunfire at Westpark didn’t end Saturday. At about 8:20 p.m. Sunday, calls came in that someone was shot. Philadelphia Housing Authority police found a 29-year-old man struck multiple times.

He was hospitalized in extremely critical condition.

Staff photographer Jessica Griffin contributed reporting.