Gunshots drowned out the words of Vicki Gardner early Wednesday as she spoke at one of Smith Mountain Lake’s most recognizable landmarks, Bridgewater Plaza.
An area known for boat rentals, mini-golf, retail shops and restaurants became the epicenter of sadness in the tight-knit region.
“Our community has the task of now trying to rally in spite of tragedy and reconnect to this idyllic life,” said Jerry Hale, a leader involved in the planning of the lake’s 50th anniversary celebrations.
Hale and Gardner, executive director of the Smith Mountain Lake Regional Chamber of Commerce, were at Bridgewater Plaza being interviewed live Wednesday by a WDBJ-TV (Channel 7) news team for a segment about the lake’s upcoming anniversary of reaching full pond.
Hale’s interview came first, and he said he decided that, instead of watching the segment with Gardner in person, he would watch from home. He saw nothing suspicious.
Moments after Hale left, as WDBJ reporter Alison Parker, 24, interviewed Gardner, a disgruntled former reporter from the station approached the women and shot them both along with videographer Adam Ward, 27, according to police. Both Parker and Ward were killed.
Gardner was shot in the back and was stable following emergency surgery at Roanoke Memorial Hospital, spokesman Chris Turnbull said.
The lake, a retirement destination that shares its summers with tourists from across Virginia and beyond, stretches into three counties: Bedford, Franklin and Pittsylvania. Despite that extensive reach, the sense of community is strong.
“The Smith Mountain Lake community will band together and persevere during this difficult time,” said Annette Stamus, marketing manager at the Smith Mountain Lake chamber.
Ed Waters, developer of Bridgewater Plaza, expressed condolences to the families of the victims.
“Obviously this is a tragedy,” Waters said. “We want Bridgewater Plaza to be a safe place for people to come with their family.”
The shootings happened just a few dozen feet from where children gather on weekends to feed carp around Bridgewater Plaza’s decks. The bucolic lake community suddenly was in the eye of a media storm.
“Smith Mountain Lake is a laid-back small community,” said Ron Willard Sr., president of The Willard Companies, which has developed The Westlake, The Water’s Edge and other properties around the lake. “I’ve lived here my entire life and it was always the same kind of laid-back, caring community.”
Willard praised Gardner and her work with the chamber. “You’re not going to find a better human being to work with,” he said. “Thank the good Lord she lived through this.”
For hours after the shootings, both lanes of Virginia 122 were closed to traffic.
Troy Keaton said he was at home when he heard the news and went to lock down Eastlake Community Church in Moneta, where he serves as pastor. He also locked down the Eastlake-affiliated Smith Mountain Lake Christian Academy, a pre-K through 12th grade Christian school at Halesford Baptist Church near Westlake Corner.
Keaton, who is also chairman of the chamber’s board, visited Gardner in the hospital.
“As Vicki has been a champion for us for more than a decade, we’re going to stand with her,” he said. “She’s with her family. They need space, prayers and support.”
Asked how the shootings would affect the lake, Keaton said he tried to imagine Gardner’s response.
“Vicki always looks for the silver lining,” he said. “If she were here, she would say while this is tragic, how can we use this to make something better?”