“Do you know what happened to you?” Alanna Romain, 32, mother of five children, remembers the doctors at LSU Interim Hospital asking after her surgery.
She recalls replying in a groggy voice: “Yes: I got shot.” Bullets tore into her leg and stomach area. The surgeons stitched her up. “You’re going to be okay.”
After the anesthesia wore off, she says, the doctors told her more about the Aug. 10 drive-by shooting in the Lower 9th Ward that left two people dead. Five were others wounded, including Alanna, her daughter Halanni Romain, then 13, and her two youngest sons, Kyle Romain, then 4, and Jamal Riley, 2.
“They [doctors] said both my boys had been shot, too, but they were doing very well.” Kyle was blind. Jamal suffered a serious brain injury, but the boys would survive.
It was an early Christmas for the Romains, a large black family in New Orleans, boasting at least three generations of homebuilders, masons and bricklayers. “My first thanks is to God,” says contractor Randy Romain, 26, an uncle to Kyle, Jamal and Halanni. “I didn’t lose a family member. People in ‘The Incident’ lost family.”
Shortly before 8 p.m. Sun., Aug. 10, New Orleans police say, armed men in a dark-colored Honda rolled up on the 5400 block of Burgundy Street. They were supposedly looking to resolve a dispute with Terrance McBride, 33, an alleged drug dealer with a gun and a girlfriend who allegedly lived in the residential neighborhood.
The gunmen apparently spotted McBride and opened fire, police say, without regard for innocent women and children nearby. McBride, the intended target of the shooting, was one of two people killed in the attack. The second victim was Jasmine Anderson, 16.
Alanna Romain and her daughter, Halanni, were standing on the porch of the family rental home when the shooting started. Alanna was shot in the abdomen and leg. Bullet fragments struck Halanni in the knee. Kyle and Jamal were shot as they played in the yard of a next-door neighbor’s house.
Authorities quickly arrested six people in connection with the drive-by shooting. Randy Romain says the family doesn’t want to appear ungrateful to law enforcement, but would have preferred the pro-active police patrols that discourage reprisal shootings in other parts of New Orleans.
Jamal, 2, clung to life after a bullet blew away part of his skull. Doctors feared they would lose him, family members say, but the boy with the bright smile pulled through. He was sullen and uncommunicative for days after the shooting, but brightened while recovering at Children’s Hospital with his hospitalized brother Kyle, family members say.
Kyle was permanently blinded by the gunfire. A bullet smashed through his head and cut through an optic nerve. “The bullet went through both eyes,” says Pamela Romain, the boys’ step-grandmother and a former information technology project manager from California. Kyle’s left eye was shattered. A prosthesis was put in his right eye.
Before he was shot, the boy eagerly anticipated the summer movie Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, in which the animated crime-fighters heroically battle an evil kingpin.
“He never got to see the movie,” Kyle’s uncle, Randy Romain, says angrily. “And the doctors say he’ll never see again.”
Halanni, the third Romain child injured in the shooting, disagrees. “My brother will see again if he has to wait for me to become a doctor,” says Halanni, a confident and gifted student at a Kipp Academy high school.
The rest of the Romain family is also determined to see that Jamal and Kyle grow up to live normal, productive lives despite their overnight disabilities.
“We’re not giving up on college for them,’ says the boys’ grandfather, Wayne Romain Sr.
Six weeks after the shooting, Mr. Romain hosts a festive family birthday party for grandson Kyle, who will turn 5 in several days.
Kyle and Jamal are surrounded by doting aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, other relatives and family friends. There is plenty of red beans and rice, barbecued chicken, refreshments, laughter and cheering of pro football teams on a big screen TV.
A huge cake awaits the blind boy, who sports a new silver Oakland Raiders cap. A thick wad of dollar bills is pinned to his pullover shirt. At this moment, he’s outside “riding” a new bicycle on the sidewalk – with the help of family friend Ryan Williams Jr., 15, who steadies the handlebars.
Inside the house, Jamal, 2, arrives in the front room of the party, during one of his many orbits through the house. He grins, constantly, from under a blue protective helmet with a Saints decal he has worn since the shooting. He will wear the helmet until he has surgery to install a non-metal plate in his head.
The boys’ sister, Halanni Romain, now 14, is walking without crutches. An aspiring anesthesiologist and pediatrician, Halanni recalls questioning her future medical peers in detail as they prepared her for surgery to remove the bullet fragments from her knee. She says she was satisfied with their responses – except for her anesthesiologist. “He just told me to count backwards,” Halanni says, apparently still annoyed.
Alanna and her three wounded children have all been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress, says step-grandmother Pamela Romain. Kyle sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night, crying about “fire,” family members say.
Barbara Romain, the boys’ grandmother, says Kyle believes he and his family were all hurt in a “fire” – not a drive-by shooting. “He says he saw a ‘fire’ coming from the street.”
Halanni’s 16-year-old friend, Jasmine, was killed in the shooting.
While speaking with a reporter, Halanni becomes noticeably irritated by a constant pounding coming from another room.
It is her blue-helmeted brother, Jamal, celebrating Kyle’s birthday, by banging on his new set of drums.
Six weeks after the shooting robbed him of his sight, Kyle clutches a big, soft Ninja Turtle. Each of the four turtle characters is named for a Renaissance artist. Kyle’s turtle is Donnatello, distinguished by his purple mask. Named after an Italian sculptor and artist, Donnatello the Turtle is an engineer who by reputation prefers to resolve conflicts without violence, but who always backs his brothers in battle.
Kyle’s tiny fingers trace the outline of the stuffed toy.
The blind child cocks his head upward, as if listening for the coming rescue of his superheroes.
Jamal suddenly pulls on Donnatello. Kyle pulls the turtle back: “No Jamal!” A tug-o-war ensues.
“They’re still boys,” the boys’ grandmother, Barbara Romain sighs. Pamela Romain nods in agreement and offers words of thanks. “We are thankful to everybody for their prayers, for reaching out to us and for all the information people are giving us [about] the injuries to Kyle and Jamal. We need any kind of information to help Kyle continue his education and live a normal a life as possible.”
This column is dedicated to the memory of my father, Allen Johnson Sr., who died at 90 on Oct. 17, 2014. His many talents included covering crime and the New Orleans Police Department as a reporter for The Item newspaper in the 1950s.