The mass shooting in Lewiston, Maine, which killed 18 people and injured more than a dozen, has hit one community particularly hard: the local Deaf community.
Four of the victims of the mass shooting were Deaf, and had gathered at Schemengees Bar and Grille Restaurant Wednesday evening for a tournament organized by American Deaf Cornhole. The victims have been identified as Joshua Seal, Billy Brackett, Steven Vozzella and Bryan MacFarlane.
“These four guys are well known [in the] Maine Deaf community,” Waterboro resident John Post, who is Deaf, said over Facebook Messenger. “Our Deaf community is so small.”
Post knew all four of the men who died and said that the community needed space to “grieve together.” He organized an online candlelight vigil through social media on Thursday evening with only a few hours notice, expecting a few people to show up. More than 200 people attended on Zoom, holding up candles to their screens and making the sign for “candle” and “I love you.” Several family members of the victims attended, and thanked community members for support.
Many attendees expressed that the tragedy has sent shockwaves through the tight-knit Deaf community in Maine and across the country.
“The Deaf community is like a family,” one attendee said.
Post said the tragedy is “a big impact for Maine and deaf community nationwide.”
Seal, a Deaf ASL interpreter, worked for Pine Tree Society as the director of interpreting services. Seal was often seen interpreting Maine’s press conferences during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“He was committed to creating safe space for Deaf people and was widely known as the ASL interpreter for Dr. Shah’s pandemic briefings. The ripple effects of his loss will be felt by countless Maine people,” Pine Tree Society said in a statement.
On Facebook, Seal’s wife Elizabeth said she is mourning her “soulmate” and the father to her children.
“Not only was he an amazing father, he was a wonderful husband, my best friend, and my soulmate. He was also a wonderful boss, an incredible interpreter, a great friend, a loving son, brother, uncle, and grandson. He loved his family and always put them first. That is what he will always be remembered for,” she said.
The Governor Baxter School for the Deaf in Falmouth, Maine, said that the tragedy is “unimaginable” for the state’s Deaf families.
“Our MECDHH/GBSD [Maine Educational Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing/Governor Baxter School for the Deaf] Community is grieving deeply. We lost four of our cherished community members in last night’s Lewiston shootings. Including two fathers of children in our programs. Some of our staff were very close to these members of our community,” Executive Director Karen Hopkins said in a statement. The school said it plans to host support sessions in ASL and offer resources to families who are struggling.
The wider New England Deaf community is mourning the losses, said Joe Toledo, a Deaf interpreter who works for the Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. Toledo said that Vozzella, who attended Beverly School for the Deaf, was well known in Massachusetts.
“All of us were shocked about him,” Toledo said in ASL in a video.
The day after the shooting, a Facebook groupformed to support the Deaf families who had been impacted. More than 1,000 people from all over the country had joined as of Friday afternoon, where they shared stories of the victims, organized food drives and posted resources for mental health support available for people who use ASL.
The tragedy has raised questions about the accessibility of emergency response and communication. Many members of the Facebook group noted that major media outlets often cut out the ASL interpreter during broadcasts of news conferences related to the shooting. Some in the Deaf and hard of hearing community told GBH News that the violence rattled them and made them feel unsafe.
“This tragedy impacted me in a way because I am myself Deaf. Our Deaf community is so small and tight,” said one woman, who went to school with Vozzella, over email. She asked GBH News to remain anonymous. “I am going to be aware of my surroundings from now on due to my hearing loss.”