Monday, April 23, 2018
Public safety

Woman recovering after being hit by falling bullet in Temple Terrace

TEMPLE TERRACE — Just before the finale of the Fourth of July fireworks show, Laura Kaatze threw her 7-year-old son off her lap and screamed.

"My leg is on fire!" shouted Kaatze.

She stumbled toward her husband, Bill, and their friends, who were sitting in lawn chairs on the first fairway of the Temple Terrace Country Club.

In the dark, they thought they saw blood on her right thigh. Seconds later, as the fireworks started up again and doused the fairway in light, they were sure of it: Her blood had splattered even on her husband's face. The children started sobbing.

Not until hours later, after the doctors returned with X-rays, did they realize what had happened: A bullet had fallen from the sky, striking her right thigh and traveling about six inches.

"It was clear as day," said Bill Kaatze, a software salesman for an engineering firm. "It was only later on at the hospital that we learned the bullet is hot."

Laura Kaatze, a 42-year-old stay-at-home mom, was treated at Florida Hospital and released. Doctors wanted to let her leg continue to heal before deciding whether to attempt to remove the bullet. Her husband said she did not feel like talking Friday afternoon.

She was the second Tampa Bay resident struck by what is thought to be celebratory gunfire while watching Fourth of July fireworks. Richard Smeraldo, 74, was hit in the face by a falling bullet while enjoying the fireworks show in Safety Harbor. He was also treated and released.

Temple Terrace police have no leads on who was firing shots into the air. "Unfortunately, bullets can come from quite a distance," said Sgt. Mike Lowell of the Temple Terrace Police Department.

Bill Kaatze said he and his friends had come up with theories as they waited for help at the golf course. They wondered, for instance, if a stray firework had somehow hit Laura. No one suspected gunfire.

Upon finding out it was a bullet, everything changed.

They kept thinking about their 7-year-old son, Max, who ended up on his mother's lap because he'd been fidgeting everywhere else. They thought about how he was gazing at the sky just as the bullet rained down, how he was squirming just inches away from where it landed.

"Our lives rushed across us," said Bill Kaatze. "You get kind of emotional."

Kaatze said he doesn't own a gun but has never been a strong advocate for gun control, either. He said he believes most gun owners are responsible. But he tried Friday afternoon to sort through his opinions and emotions.

"It was very upsetting, to think this was such a needless thing and how careless people would be with a serious weapon," he said. "I think there are a lot of responsible people out there and I don't like penalizing everybody for a few. But somehow we need better patrols. . . . I don't know, it's a difficult thing to solve, but maybe if everybody is more aware?"

That's what the mother of 13-year-old Diego Duran has been trying to do. On New Year's Eve, Diego was hit in the head by a falling bullet as he watched fireworks near his home in Ruskin. After multiple surgeries, he has made progress but still has intermittent trouble with short-term memory, according to Sandy Duran, his mother. He also has lost his sense of smell.

Sandy Duran has launched a public awareness campaign called Bullet Free Sky to educate people about the dangers of celebratory gunfire.

In the meantime, Laura Kaatze is home. Her leg is swollen and sensitive to the touch. Like everyone else, their two young sons are still trying to make sense of the accident. "Their mom got shot," said Bill Kaatze. "It wasn't intentional, but they recognize it's a serious thing."

Jodie Tillman can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374.

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