TAMPA — Seconds after gunshots rang out on Seventh Avenue, two friends lay bleeding on the concrete.
Kila Ryker and Emily Perez had donned costumes and headed to Ybor City to celebrate Halloween. They’d come to love the lively entertainment district. Now they feared they would die there.
Terrified they would get shot again, as chaos swirled around them, Perez and Ryker caught each other’s gaze.
“I reached out for her, and she was crying and I was crying,” Ryker recalled.
Paramedics whisked them away to different hospitals, but not before Ryker saw another shooting victim, a 14-year-old boy, whose life did end on the avenue early Sunday morning. Police had covered part of his body with a sheet. Another man would die at the hospital. A total of 16 others were injured, all but one of them by gunfire.
Ryker, 20, and Perez, 18, were among the wounded — their lives forever changed by gun violence.
“I got shot!”
Ryker and Perez had met just a few months earlier through a mutual friend, but they clicked right away.
“We’re vibrant, we’re outgoing, we don’t take crap from nobody,” Ryker said in a phone interview from her bed at Tampa General Hospital on Thursday as Perez, who’d come to visit, sat nearby.
Ryker is a Missouri native who moved with her family to Tampa when she was 12. She graduated from Chamberlain High and stayed in Tampa when her mother moved back to Missouri. Florida was home now, Ryker decided, and she had been working at Wendy’s with plans to enroll in cosmetology school.
Born and raised in Tampa, Perez graduated from Tampa Bay Tech and is taking courses through Hillsborough Community College. A kitchen manager at the Chipotle on South Howard Avenue, she is studying biotechnology and considering a job in the medical field, maybe as a surgeon.
The friends had spent lots of nights in Ybor City. They’d seen some fights, but nothing involving guns, nothing that made them feel unsafe.
Ryker on Oct. 28 wore a black dress, glow-in-the-dark jewelry and a mask out of the dystopian horror franchise “The Purge.” Perez went as an angel, clad in a simple white dress and a fuzzy halo perched on her head.
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Ryker drove Perez and another friend. It was about midnight by the time they parked, touched up their makeup and made their way to Seventh Avenue.
Balking at the high cover charges to get into 18-and-over clubs, they decided to walk the avenue. Ryker hadn’t been to Ybor when it was that crowded, but she and Perez said they felt safe because there were so many police officers on the street.
At 2:43 a.m., they saw a fight. Ryker pulled out her phone and started recording video. The skirmish was unrelated to the dispute that ended in gunfire just a few minutes later.
At 2:47 a.m., the friends were watching Ryker’s video as they walked toward their car. That’s when they heard screaming and gunshots.
They ducked and ran. Perez suddenly felt pressure on her left leg and fell. She didn’t realize she’d been shot until she touched her leg and saw blood on her hand. Another round had struck her left buttock.
Ryker headed back to help when a bullet tore through her left thigh, and she, too, fell. The round hit her femoral artery and exited through the back of her leg.
Perez remembers locking eyes with Ryker as she went to the ground. She saw the look of trauma on Ryker’s face and blood on the ground as bystanders moved her to safety.
Ryker tried to get up but felt weak and lost consciousness.
Using the medical training she learned as part of her schooling, Perez put pressure on her own leg wound. Two Tampa police officers came to help.
In a video posted on social media soon after the eruption of gunfire, Perez can be seen lying on the sidewalk, blood staining her white dress and her halo still on her head as an officer pressed towels onto one of her wounds.
Panicked, Perez asked one of the officers if she was going to get shot again.
“He’s like, ‘We’re not going to let that happen, you’re surrounded by people that are going to protect you,’” she said.
The other officer asked Perez questions to keep her conscious until paramedics arrived. What was her name? Where does she go to school?
One of the officers found Perez’s phone, and she called her father.
“I was screaming, ‘I got shot, I got shot!’” she recalled, “and all I can hear was him screaming on the other side of the phone, ‘What do you mean? Are you OK?’ He had to give the phone to my mom.”
They stayed on the phone for the entire trip to St. Joseph’s Hospital near Raymond James Stadium, about 5 miles away. Perez asked paramedics if she was going to lose her leg, if she’d be able to walk again.
“They kept giving me a look like they didn’t know, and I was like, ‘Please tell me something,’” she said. “But I remember I wiggled my toes and I was like, that has to mean something good.”
When Ryker awoke on the sidewalk, a security guard and police officers were tending to her.
“They kept saying, ‘You gotta fight, you gotta fight,’ and I finally got my name out and I told them I was trying but I was cold and I was tired and I was ready to close my eyes,” she said.
She told them to save her life and her leg, and asked about Perez. She called her mom and told her she’d been shot.
And there was that moment when she met Perez’s gaze as they both lay on the ground, and she reached out to her. Then the people tending to Ryker repositioned her head, and she lost sight of her friend.
Doctors at St. Joseph’s told Perez she was lucky — neither bullet had caused major damage. They decided not to operate, and she left the hospital later that day, both rounds still inside her.
Ryker, though, was critically injured. A doctor at Tampa General Hospital told her the damage to her femoral artery could have caused her to bleed out in five or six minutes, and that whoever tied a tourniquet tightly around her leg likely saved her life. She learned later that it was a security guard who got to her first and used some first-aid equipment he had on hand.
When she got out of surgery, she didn’t know if Perez had survived. They finally connected in a tearful phone call.
By Thursday, Ryker had already had two surgeries. Doctors used part of a vein in her uninjured leg to repair the damage. She didn’t yet know when she would be released.
Ryker at that point was one of five Ybor shooting victims who were still hospitalized as of Thursday, according to Tampa police.
Police have not released the names of anyone who was shot due to Marsy’s Law, but families have identified the two people who died as Elijah Wilson, 14, and Harrison Boonstoppel, 20, both of Tampa.
Hours after the shooting, police arrested 22-year-old Tyrell Phillips on a charge of second-degree murder in Wilson’s death. Investigators believe one or two more shooters opened fire and have asked the public to use a new website to submit tips, photos and video.
The shooting has sparked another debate over how to make Ybor nightlife safer. As officials and the community consider the district’s future, Perez and Ryker are adjusting to life as mass shooting survivors.
Ryker must uproot the life in Tampa she loves so much and return to Missouri to recover, said her mother, Rachel Sims, who arrived in Tampa on Monday.
“It’s the hardest thing as a parent to get that call from your child that she’s been shot,” Sims said. “You’re a thousand miles away and you’re so helpless.”
Sims said she felt comfortable with her daughter doing media interviews from her hospital bed.
“Because I want people to put a face with it, like these are real people, real lives, that are forever changed,” Sims said.
Perez will have to do physical therapy and hopes to return to work later this month. Her professors suggested she end her classes for the semester, but she said focusing on school is better for her. The shooting and being tended to by medical professionals reaffirmed her decision to enter the medical field and help other people.
Ryker and Perez said more needs to be done to quell gun violence, in Ybor and beyond.
“They say it’s going to stop, they say they’re going to try to change, and in a couple more months, it happens again, or in a couple more weeks, it happens again,” Perez said.
They said the experience has forged a lifelong friendship. Ryker’s mom calls them “bullet buddies.”
Both said they don’t think they’ll ever return to Ybor, which Perez called heartbreaking.
“If I ever go there again and I walk that same sidewalk, I’m going to just have too much memory of me there and all the blood that I saw,” she said.
“I can’t un-see where I was laying literally dying,” Ryker said.
On Wednesday, the South Tampa Chipotle where Perez works held a fundraiser for her. She smiled as she posed for photos next to a neon yellow sign on the wall. Handwritten in black marker and featuring a photo of Perez in a taco costume, the sign urged visitors to “Donate to the best burrito maker in SoHo!!”
The sign included another descriptor she’ll carry for life: “Ybor shooting survivor.”