Kentucky Shooting Survivor Paralyzed in Carjacking Builds New Life Dedicated to Fighting Gun Violence
Terrell Williams was just 21 years old when he watched someone attempt to drive off in his car as he stopped for a soda on his way to his brother's house. Gunfire erupted, and the next thing Williams knew, his legs felt like heavy bags of water.
When Terrell Williams lay bleeding on the concrete, convinced each shallow breath he took would be his last, he thought to himself, “damn, my life’s over already.” He was 21 years old at the time, and all he could think was that his life had barely just begun.
He had been on his way to his brother’s house in what many would consider the rougher side of Louisville, Kentucky, when he stopped at a convenience store to pick up chips and soda. Williams left his car running, and on his way back to his vehicle, he spotted a man attempting to drive off with it.
A violent exchange of gunfire and a wrecked car later, Williams lay motionless outside the store, watching the world around him dim. Bullets had pierced his neck, chest and spine – a fate nobody survives, he believed.
What Williams didn’t know at the time was that his story wouldn’t end there. He would go on to survive the serious injuries, albeit paralyzed from the waist down from the bullet that hit him in the spine.
In many ways, Williams says, that was moment was when his life began. “I wasn’t into anything bad, but I was just kind of existing, moving through the daily motions,” he explained. “Now, it’s totally different than what I could have imagined.”
How a Day That Began Like Any Other for Terrell Williams Became Anything But
Like many others who experience life-altering events, Williams recalled the late March day in 2017 starting out like any other. “It was around the first day of spring – the first good day of spring, bright blue skies, no clouds,” he said. “It was a normal work day, everything was smooth, I actually finished up a little early, I was getting off around 3 o’clock.”
He planned to meet up with his brother, originally hoping to get to the boxing gym for a workout, but instead decided to go over to his house in Shawnee, a neighborhood located in western Louisville that sees a disproportionate amount of crime per capita.
According to a 2016 census, Shawnee sees nearly 1,200 violent crimes per 100,000 people – a rate almost twice as high as all of Louisville, which sees about 600 violent crimes per 100,000 people.
The median household income in Shawnee is also about half that of the rest of Louisville, and the median assessed value of a home is just over $40,000, less than a third that of the rest of Louisville, where the median assessed value of a home is just under $140,000, according to census data. Eighty-five percent of Shawnee residents are Black.
Williams was only around the corner from this brother's house when he stopped at the convenience store F&H Food Mart. He only planned on being in the store for less than a minute to pick up chips and a drink, and he left his car running.
As he came back to his car, he noticed someone sitting in the driver’s seat. “My windshield wipers were moving back and forth,” Williams said.
Williams reached for his gun – which he was legally permitted to have, he said, noting that many in the neighborhood carried firearms– and aimed at the car. But before he could fire a shot, he felt a bullet pierce his chest.
“What I never noticed was he had other people across the street looking out,” Williams said. “So as soon as they saw my gun, they started shooting.”
Another bullet hit him and he fell to the ground. “I jumped into survival mode. I picked up my gun and started shooting at the only target I saw, which was my car,” he said.
Williams tried to get up, but was unable. He reached for his legs, but they felt heavy, like bags of water. He would later find out that one of the bullets that hit him pierced his spine, instantly paralyzing him from the waist down.
Williams watched helplessly as his car crash into a nearby telephone pole before its driver exited the car and began shooting at Williams. “He didn’t want my car anymore, he just wanted to kill me,” he said. “I literally see the concrete sparks flying, I knew it was a matter of time (before being shot again).”
He then felt another bullet hit him in the head. He later learned that the bullet had gone through his dreadlocks, hit the pavement, and ricocheted into his chin.
“I played dead. Didn’t move,” he said, believing that would be the only way to stop the perpetrator from shooting at him again. “I waited and waited, and then something clicked. (I thought) ‘You need to pray because you’re about to die.’”
During what he believed would be his final moments, he prayed for God to take care of him and keep him safe.
The Fight to Survive Begins
When the gunfire finally stopped, Williams opened his eyes. By then, Williams' shooter was long gone. No one has ever been arrested in connection to his attempted murder.
Williams looked around after realizing he hadn't been shot dead and saw people from the neighborhood coming to his side. “They were kind of surrounding me, like I was food on the ground and they were ants,” he said, “No one could do anything except help me make my last phone call.”
One woman helped Williams call the brother, who rushed to be by his side.
“Not even a minute later, I see my brother running up the street. He bust through the crowd and I see his face,” he said. “He was surprisingly calm. ‘You good, brother. You gonna make it.’ He was saying words to reassure me that I was going to be OK.’”
Williams laughed as he recalled his brother’s reaction. “Even then, in my mind, I was like, ‘Yeah, you don’t know what you were talking about but thank you, I guess. But I don’t know about that,’” he said. “We talked about it since and he told me that he was discombobulated. He was distraught and everything at that moment.”
But even when the ambulance arrived and first responders began treating him, Williams believed he was soon going to take his last breath. “Bullet to the chest, bullet to the neck, nobody survives that,” he said. “Some people don’t even survive one, so there’s no way I’m going to survive this.”
He began to lose consciousness. “Everything started getting black, and I started fading out,” he said. “I told them, I remember clearly, ‘I think I’m about to go, y’all. I think I’m about to go.’”
Not even an instant later, he felt life come back to him. One of the bullets had caused his lung to collapse then fill with blood, and when first responders inserted a chest tube, “It shot the blood out and I got that air back,” Williams said. “I remember taking the deepest breath in my life.”
Terrell Williams Joins a Club No One Wants to Be Part Of
Williams later learned he was paralyzed. At first, he didn’t accept his diagnosis. “I was in denial,” he said. “You go from doing something for 21 years, running, walking, jumping, doing all of this stuff. And then in a matter of seconds, it's just all taken away.”
But he soon began getting to know other people who used wheelchairs, which opened up to him a world of possibility and a support system. “Without them, none of this would be possible. Going through an injury like this, you can’t do it by yourself,” Williams said.
Part of that support system was Kaelin Hall. Though Williams met Hall while going through physical rehabilitation therapy, they actually met in the aftermath of another tragedy caused by gun violence. “The first time I met Kaelin … it was actually at my cousin’s funeral. My cousin got shot and killed, and I see another guy rolling in in a wheelchair,” Williams said. “I wondered if he got shot.”
That's the first thing that comes to Williams' mind when he sees another Black man in a wheelchair. “Any Black male in a wheelchair. The first thought is: I wonder if he got shot, too... It shows the damage gun violence really has on our community.”
Black Americans are disproportionately impacted by gun violence. They experience 10 times the gun homicides, 18 times the gun assault injuries, and nearly 3 times the fatal shootings by police of white Americans, according to Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit organization that advocates for gun control and against gun violence. And a review of 2020 gun deaths in the U.S. conducted by the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions found that Black Americans ages 15 to 34 experience the highest rates of gun homicides across all demographics.
And Williams had, in fact, been correct to assume Hall was paralyzed due to gun violence. “I was in the streets. I pretty much signed up for what came to me, you know?” Hall said of his own paralysis. “I didn’t want to be in the streets no more, but at the same time, it was my normal and I didn’t see no problem with it.”
He, too, leaned on support groups following his injury. “Everybody in this group, we have the same story. We lost friends. I lost my mother a year later,” he said.
Hall's daughter was 3 when she watched him get shot. “I knew I let my daughter down and I needed to rebuild our bond by doing the right things in my life. I owed so many people that believed in me,” he said.
Hall now integrates that mantra in his everyday life, supporting those who walked in the shoes he once walked to find a life outside of violence. “I want young dudes to know that it’s not worth it,” he said. “The streets don’t love you. Even if you love them, the streets don’t love you.”
Another source of support for Williams was Whitney Austin, who he met while sharing his story at a University of Louisville trauma survivor’s event. Austin had just begun work on her gun violence reduction nonprofit Whitney/Strong after surviving a mass shooting in Cincinnati in 2018.
“We experienced two different kinds of gun violence – hers, mass shooting; mine, I guess you can call it street violence,” Williams said. “It was amazing that we still experienced a lot of the same feelings and so we connected on the level that only gunshot survivors can connect on.”
Terrell Williams Begins His New Life
Williams began working with Whitney/Strong to give back to his community and address gun violence with youth growing up in areas similar to Shawnee.
"I grew up in this neighborhood. I grew up in these neighborhoods. I’ve seen gun violence and it’s normalized. While it’s normalized to me, it shouldn’t be,” Williams said. “I can use my voice, because even though I lost my physical abilities, one thing I didn’t lose is my voice."
Today, Williams is the director of community outreach for Whitney/Strong as well as a member of its board.
One of the responsibilities of that position entails is hosting conversations with at-risk youth, like an event he and the Whitney/Strong team held at the Cabbage Patch Settlement House in Louisville in May. For about an hour, he spoke with a small group of teenagers who seemed all too familiar with guns, and answered questions – some serious, some silly and some concerning.
In sharing his unfiltered experience in growing up in neighborhoods that see significant street violence, Williams forged a special connection with his teen audience. “I can empathize and sympathize with them," he explained.
Williams is also now on his way to earning his master’s degree.
“Before I got shot, I tried to go to college a year after graduating from high school,” Williams said. “It did not work out at all. It just was not for me. School was not for me and I knew I would never go back.”
But months after the shooting, Williams decided to re-enroll in school. Last spring, he completed his bachelor’s degree at the University of Louisville and he is now attending North Carolina State University to obtain his master’s in accounting.
“I just never thought I’d be doing any of the things that I’m doing,” Williams said. “[The shooting] was the most unfortunate fortunate thing that happened to me, but if it had not happened, I wouldn’t be me.”
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