Warning: Content in this story may be disturbing for some viewers.
CINCINNATI -- As Whitney Austin lay bleeding, trapped inside a revolving door at the Fifth Third Center in Downtown Cincinnati, she thought about her two young children.
She thought about how they asked for a second kiss when she left home that morning. Austin was in a hurry, but she paused and kissed them again.
“I kind of had that memory in my head as everything was going down,” Austin said Tuesday in an interview with Good Morning America.
As images of her children and her husband ran through her head, Austin lay on the ground motionless so the shooter would think she was dead. She had been shot 12 times in the chest, neck, arms, torso and foot.
“It was a dead end,” Austin said. “You’re coughing up blood, you can’t get away, this is it -- you’re dying.”
Austin, Fifth Third Bank's vice president and digital product lending manager, recalls the moment she was shot 12 times when a gunman opened fire at Fifth Third Center the morning of Sept. 6.
The gunman, Omar Santa-Perez, strode into the lobby around 9 a.m. and shot five people with a 9 mm handgun before responding officers shot and killed him.
The shooter killed Richard Newcomer, 64; Prudhi Raj Kandepi, 25; and Luis Felipe Calderón, 48. Austin and another person, Brian Sarver, survived the attack.
Austin was running late to work that day. People were waving her down, trying to warn her not to go near the building. But she was focused on a conference call. Her phone was pressed to her face as she approached the entrance.
“I immediately started to cough up blood,” Austin said. “And that’s when my brain immediately went toward, ‘I’m dying.’”
She pretended to be dead until she saw a Cincinnati police officer.
“I’m shouting at him, ‘I have a 5- and a 7-year-old who need their mother!" Austin said. "You need to save me! Come get me."
Officer Al Staples, a 28-year veteran, was the first to get to her.
Staples said he tried to treat Austin’s wounds as best he could until medical personnel arrived. He said she asked him to call her husband, Waller Austin, so she could talk to him.
“I was able to get in touch with him, and they were able to speak for a few minutes,” Staples said. “I reassured him and gave her a little comfort that she was able to speak with her husband again.”
Officer Staples said he prayed for her as he waited for first responders to arrive. He wanted her to see her family.
Staples said something in Austin’s eyes told him she would survive.
“I want to say it was the will to live, the will to see her family again, which really ignited me ... she told me upon my arrival to see her that she is married and she has two little kids and she wants to be a mommy … and that really struck me,” Staples said.
Austin spent five days in the hospital. Bullets grazed her neck and left foot, and several grazed her breast. She has four in-and-out wounds on her left arm and others all over her chest. Bullets shattered her right arm, but they did not shatter her resolve.
Less than a month after the attack, Austin has since started the Whitney Strong Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to reducing gun violence through responsible gun ownership.
“This is about making sure that our kids can go to school, and they don’t have to participate in active shooter drills on a monthly basis,” Austin said. “This is so people like me can walk into their place of employment and not get shot 12 times.”
Gun violence up close and personal: Nearly 7 hours of surgery; 1 spacer, 3 plates, 25 screws, and 75 staples. UC Medical teams are second to none. Here’s Dr. Wyrick’s handiwork. Thanks for putting me back together! This violence must end. #WhitneyStrong #CincyStrong #negligence pic.twitter.com/J8iehywyPC
— WhitneyStrong Foundation (@whitstrongfdn) September 25, 2018
Asked how she feels about Santa-Perez, Austin replied, "sorrow and sadness."
"You had a mental illness, you needed support and you didn't get it," she said in a second interview from her home in Louisville. "So, you ended up in that awful situation where you felt compelled that there was no other out, you needed to come into a public building and take other lives."
Austin said she's gotten emotional at times — not for herself, but for the three people who died.
"When I cry, it's because I think about Luis and Pruvdhi and Richard," she said. "That's why I cry — because their situation and their family situation is entirely different than mine. What do I have to be sad about? I survived. I now have an opportunity to make a real difference in this world."
Austin is healing. But, in a way, she said she hopes she never fully heals; she hopes some of the pain she feels remains, and she hopes it fuels her to make a change.