When a gunman opened fire in the early morning hours at a Waffle House in Tennessee, chaos erupted. Employees and customers feared for their lives, with some hiding and others playing dead.
Amidst all of the fear in that Waffle House, one courageous man did the only thing he could think of: he fought the gunman with the intent to save his own life. But what wound up happening is he saved the lives of others in the process and became a hero. Here’s his incredible story.
In the earning morning of April 22, 2018, a shooter opened fire at a Waffle House restaurant in the Antioch neighborhood of Nashville, Tennessee. The shooter, armed with a semi-automatic rifle was partially naked, wearing only a green bomber jacket when he approached the Waffle House. After sitting in a pickup truck in the parking lot for four minutes, he came out holding an AR-15-style rifle and fatally shot two people outside of the restaurant.
The man went inside the restaurant and continued to fire shots, killing a third person and fatally injuring a fourth, who wound up dying at the Vanderbuilt University Medical Center. Four other people were treated for related injuries, one of those customers being 29-year-old James Shaw Jr.
Shaw Jr. had gone out with his best friend to a club on Saturday night, and afterward, the two went to a Waffle House on Bell Road. That Waffle House was too crowded so they drove to the one at 3571 Murfreeboro Pike. According to the Metro Nashville Police Department, the shooter, Travis Reinking (pictured), arrived in the Waffle House parking lot at 3:19 a.m. on Sunday.
James Shaw Jr.
Moments before Reinking took the first shot, Shaw Jr. was watching a Waffle House employee wash dishes. When the first shot was fired, he thought that the tower of plates had come crashing down, he explained at a news conference. After the third gunshot, the window burst and Waffle House employees scattered.
From His Eyes
Shaw Jr. saw someone lying on the ground near the door and he jumped toward the restroom to seek cover. He explained to the Tennessean newspaper that as he was standing behind a swivel door, a bullet grazed his arm and that’s when he decided to act.
“I kind of made up my mind because there was no way to lock that door, that if it was going to come down to it, he was going to have to work to kill me,” he said. But when he heard the shooting stop, he rushed out. Shaw Jr. saw the shooter was either reloading the gun or that the firearm had jammed, so he saw this as his only opportunity.
Wrestling The Gunman
He wrestled the gun from the shooter and threw it over the counter. Still, he feared for his life, so he rushed toward the front door of the restaurant and pushed the shooter out also. According to police reports, the shooter took off his jacket less than one block from the restaurants, and two magazines were found in his pockets.
It Happened Fast
“He clearly came armed with a lot of firepower intended to devastate the south Nashville area,” a spokesperson from the police department said. Shaw Jr. went back inside the restaurant to see if his friend was alive, and thankfully he was only injured. “It was so fast,” he said. “It was almost light-switch-type fast.”
He was taken away in an ambulance and when a paramedic asked about himself, Shaw Jr., an AT&T worker remembered his 4-year-old daughter, who was staying with family at the time. He was taken to TriStar Southern Hills Medical Center at about 4 a.m., where he was treated for minor injuries and until he was released at 7:30 a.m.
Almost 12 hours after the shooting, he spoke at a news conference, where he was thanked for his heroism by Nashville Mayor David Briley and others. “You don’t get to meet many heroes in life, Mr. Shaw, but you are a hero, you are my hero,” Walt Ehmer, the president and chief of Waffle House told Shaw Jr. “I’ve talked to some of those people you saved today, and they will think of you for the rest of their days, as will I. We’re forever in your debt.”
A Regular Person
But contrary to what others think, Shaw Jr. doesn’t think he’s a hero at all. “I want people to know that I did that completely out of a selfish act,” he said. “I was completely doing it just to save myself. I’m not a hero. I’m just a regular person, and I think anybody could have did what I did if they are just pushed into that kind of cage,” he continued.
“You have to either react or you’re going to fold, and I chose to react because I didn’t see any other way of living, and that’s all I wanted to do. I just wanted to live.” After leaving the hospital, Shaw Jr. went home to change his clothes and then attended church with his family at about 10:30 a.m.
When he was asked about it later, he said he was not particularly religious but that he felt like God was a voice in his head telling him to act in that moment. He said that he went to church to get past the shooting. “I don’t want this to be the focal point of my life,” Shaw Jr. said. “I don’t want this to be a major moment in my life.”
But, whether he likes it or not, he is going to be remembered as the man responsible for saving the lives of many people. The day after the shooting, he visited the victims in the hospital, who told Shaw Jr. they owe their lives to his heroism. Shaw Jr. also created a GoFundMe page to help the families of the shooting victims. “Please take the time to donate as all of the proceeds will be given to the families,” he wrote.
While his goal for the GoFundMe was to raise $15,000 for the deceased families and the other injured victims, he wound up raising $241,731. In response to the outpouring of love and generosity, Shaw Jr. wrote, “To the thousands of people who have expressed their care, prayers and made financial donations, I can only respond by saying ‘Thank you.’ Your gifts to the people who lost their lives and suffered injuries mean so much for all who were impacted by this terrible tragedy.”
According to Shaw Jr.’s family, he is a family man and his 4-year-old daughter Brooklyn is always first on his mind. In the days following the horrific incident, he thought a lot about Brooklyn, who was visiting family in Chicago. “I thought I could have possibly never seen my daughter again,” he told the Tennessean. “That hurt.”
Shaw Jr. works at AT&T and helps out doing odd jobs for small, local businesses. Shaw Jr. is the youngest of three children. “He is the baby,” Shaw Jr.’s sister Brittani said. But now that he is grown up, he is a lot like his dad, James Shaw, who is an electrician and rarely puts his emotions on display.
But the moment Shaw Jr. saw his daughter he started crying. “Today when he saw Brooklyn, that’s the first time we saw him shed a tear. He tried to act all big and bad about the situation,” Brittani said. “The first time Brooklyn FaceTimed him, that’s when he broke down. I can tell you how much she means to him.”
Police arrested the shooter, Travis Jeffrey Reinking, the day after the shooting. Reinking was from Morton, Illinois, and he had a history of erratic behaviors and delusions. In May 2016, sheriff’s deputies in Tazewell County responded to a call from Reinking’s parents in the parking lot of a drugstore, where a paramedic said Reinking had delusions that Taylor Swift was personally stalking him and hacking his phone.
Reinking was charged with four counts of criminal homicide, four counts of attempted homicide, and one count of having a firearm while committing a dangerous felony. Forensic psychologists who examined Reinking determined that he suffered from severe schizophrenia and in August 2018, a judge found him incompetent to stand trail and ordered him to be committed to a mental hospital for treatment.