LISBON FALLS, Maine (AP) — Most survivors of the mass shootings at a Maine bowling alley and a bar heard the gunfire and tried to escape.
For a group of deaf bowlers, the shattering din of bullets fired from a high-power rifle reached them only as a jolt. There were nine deaf bowlers Oct. 25 when an Army reservist started his attack at the alley. All but one were struck by bullets. Four survived and four died, delivering a blow to the state’s tight-knit deaf community.
Among those killed was Josh Seal, an American Sign Language interpreter who gained notoriety as a translator at Maine’s daily COVID-19 briefings during the pandemic.
The 36-year-old father of four deaf children was director of interpreting services for Pine Tree Society, an organization that helps people with disabilities, and he started a camp for deaf kids and teenagers. But most of all, he was a doting, energetic, outgoing father who loved his kids dearly, his wife said.
“I want the world to remember him and his passion, his love, his patience, his kindness, his motivation, his zeal for life, his ability to get things done and his humor,” Elizabeth “Liz” Seal, who is also deaf, told The Associated Press through an interpreter.
Liz Seal is one of dozens of family members left to pick up the pieces after an Army reservist opened fire with a rifle at Just-in-Time Recreation, a bowling alley, and at Schemengees Bar & Grill, which was hosting a cornhole tournament.
The gunman apparently died by suicide, and his body was found Friday. Five months before the shootings, his parents had alerted police to concerns about his mental health; after he began acting erratically at a training facility last summer, he had undergone a mental health evaluation.
At the Seal household in Lisbon Falls, just outside Lewiston and several blocks from the Androscoggin River, Josh Seal’s tradition was to wake up his daughter by communicating, “Good morning, sunshine,” before getting the rest of the kids up and ready for school.
The father of four children — Jayson, 12; Sephine, 9; Jarrod, 6; and Jaxton, 3 — kept the family on the go, Liz Seal said. It was rare that the family didn’t have something planned for weekends, like camping and snowmobiling. Josh Seal also found time for his own passions, including playing disc golf.
“There was never a dull, quiet moment,” she said.
Some home improvement projects were neglected at the expense of family adventures, but “I’m actually really happy because I have so many amazing memories of all the things we did together,” she said.
Josh Seal had just become a certified interpreter when he was called upon shortly after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic to translate daily news briefings that were televised and streamed online.
“At first he was pretty nervous about that,” Liz Seal said. “And then he said, ‘You know what, I gotta roll up my sleeves and do this.’”
He had to learn the spelling of complicated medical terms. There was a sense of mutual respect between him and Dr. Nirav Shah, the former director of the Maine Center for Disease Control. He also signed for Democratic Gov. Janet Mills.
His employer, Pine Tree Society, issued a statement saying Seal created a lasting legacy with his Pine Tree Camp Dirigo Experience for deaf youth. “He made communication and understanding possible in countless situations as an interpreter, mentor and tireless advocate,” the organization said.
“Josh always had ideas. He was a big planner, dreamer, thinker. He was always plotting out the next thing,” said his wife, who is president of Maine Hands & Voices. Whenever he thought of a project, she would cheer him on and tell him to “make it happen,” she said. “And he would.”
After the shootings, Liz Seal spent the evening trying to get answers, knowing her husband and friends were at the cornhole tournament. A friend told her about gunfire and later, survivors who are deaf said they could feel the blasts, alerting to them that something was amiss. One of them pretended to be dead on the floor, and could sense every gunshot being discharged.
Of the nine deaf people present, four were killed and four were injured, she said. Only one survived with no injury.
It wasn’t until noon, hours after the killings, that her brother was briefed and shared the news. Her two oldest kids saw the expression on her face and knew immediately what had happened.
“We just let it all out at that point,” she said. “We held each other hard.”
The end of the search for the gunman allowed the healing process to start, she said. Several thousand people attended vigils over the weekend, and this week kids are returning to schools after the stay-at-home orders were lifted.
Liz Seal, however, was preparing herself to receive her husband’s body from the medical examiner.
“I’m hoping that some of these things will give me closure but it’s just still feeling like I’m waiting to wake up from a bad dream and he’s gonna be there,” she said. “I feel like when I see his body that will feel more like it’s real. And I can have that closure to move ahead and move on.”
On Monday, Josh Seal’s sister gave birth to a daughter. They named her Olivia Joshua Skye.
“My sister-in-law told me when she held that baby, she just felt Josh with her and it soothed her in her heart because he was there in spirit,” Liz Seal said. “And I held the baby and I felt it too.”
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