Unharmed by Highland Park gunman’s bullets but unable to sleep or eat and feeling survivor’s guilt

Zoe Pawelczak, 28, is grateful she and her father weren’t hurt, but she’s struggling with the randomness. “It doesn’t feel fair that I’m here, and someone I saw a few arm lengths away from me is not here.”

SHARE Unharmed by Highland Park gunman’s bullets but unable to sleep or eat and feeling survivor’s guilt
Zoe Pawelczak Highland Park

Zoe Pawelczak, who with her father escaped unharmed by the Highland Park Fourth of July parade gunman’s bullets, is having trouble sleeping, doesn’t want to eat and suddenly will feel her body start to shake.

Brian Rich / Sun-Times

In the days since the Highland Park Fourth of July parade mass shooting that killed seven people and left dozens wounded, Zoe Pawelczak hasn’t been doing well.

Pawelczak, 28, and her father were able to walk away from the mayhem unharmed physically.

But she’s having trouble sleeping. She has zero appetite. Suddenly, she’ll feel her body start shaking.

And she has this nagging feeling she can’t get past.

“I’m, of course, so grateful,” Pawelczak says that she and her father weren’t shot. “But it also just doesn’t feel fair, either. It doesn’t feel fair that I’m here, and someone I saw a few arm lengths away from me is not here.”

She and her father got there early Monday for the parade and grabbed a spot across from Port Clinton Square so they’d be able to see kids marching through the streets before the parade began.

It took her a few moments to realize what was happening when the shots came. When she heard screaming, though, she knew.

“I just grabbed my dad’s arm and dug my nails into it,” Pawelczak says. “We start running, and I looked back at him just to make sure he was there. And right when I looked back, about 30 feet away from us, maybe less, a girl just was shot and down. It looked like one in every 10 people was falling.”

Pawelczak and others tried to break into a store that was closed and locked up for the holiday to find a place to hide. But they couldn’t get in.

“We just were hiding, but we could still see people, like, just falling all over,” she says. “It didn’t look like real life. It felt like we were in a horror movie.”

When the shots stopped, Pawelczak and others ran. She helped watch over two kids whose father put them in a dumpster while he searched for other relatives. They were let into a store and stayed inside there until the police came later and escorted them from the crime scene.

That first night, she couldn’t sleep and was up until 4 a.m.

“I went downstairs to watch TV, and, sure enough, my dad’s already down there, sitting up, wide awake, watching TV, and we just sat there,” she says.

Free counseling was offered at Highland Park High School. She and her father went.

Free counseling continues to be offered at the Family Service of Lake County, 777 Central Ave., according to Highland Park city officials.

Pawelczak was supposed to start graduate school classes this past week but has put that off for now and contacted a therapist.

“It just feels like I’m walking in a daze,” she says.

Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.

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