On Sunday morning, the parking lots outside Ralph Wilson Stadium looked, smelled and sounded like they do on the morning of any other Buffalo Bills regular-season opener.
Fans clad in the jerseys of Bills present and past chatted and drank beer. They tossed footballs, blasted rock music and grilled food on a cool, cloudy September day.
Fans in the camper parking lot across Abbott Road from the stadium were going through game-day rituals, as well, but they were also reflecting on the tragedy in their midst from the night before.
“Everyone’s talking about it,” said Shawn Hanson.
Late Saturday, fans in the sold-out lot reserved for campers and RVs were counting down the hours to Sunday’s game. At one of the parking spots, where a brown and beige camper was attached to a black pickup truck, a group of tailgaters danced to a DJ’s music.
Then one member of the group shot himself, and the atmosphere drastically changed.
Chris Hurley, a Vermont resident who, along with his brother is a season-ticket holder, was just going to bed in a nearby camper when the shooting happened at about 10:20 p.m.
“There was a bunch of screaming,” Hurley said Sunday morning.
Witnesses said police rushed to the scene but were unable to revive the man, whom police still would not identify late Sunday. Orchard Park police said the Western New York man, who was described only as middle-aged, died at the scene.
“It was pretty quiet and somber after that,” Hurley said.
None of the fans interviewed said they knew the man. They also said that when the shooting happened, it wasn’t immediately obvious what had occurred. Fireworks were being shot off elsewhere, so fans either didn’t hear the shot, or mistook the sound of a gunshot for fireworks.
One woman saw the man collapse, but thought he had just fallen down.
“I heard a ‘pop’ and looked down,” said Steve Trow of Ohio. He then saw a man on the ground and people trying to revive him.
When police arrived, they told everyone to go back into their campers, said Perry Carter of Angola, who saw a handgun next to the victim.
Fans said they did not recall seeing or hearing a confrontation before the shooting. It left them more perplexed about what prompted the incident.
“They had disco lights and a DJ going,” Carter said.
A woman who asked not to be identified said she was visiting with the man’s group for a while Saturday night and did not notice anything amiss before the shooting. “He was dancing like everyone else,” she said.
But just after she walked away, she heard a commotion. Concerned that a fight had broken out, she and others went back and saw a man lying on the ground. Judging by what they saw, they first thought the man had been struck in the head with a beer bottle.
Sunday morning, the truck and camper next to where the shooting occurred remained parked in place. Some parking spaces in the sold-out lot near the vehicle had been vacated. Hurley pointed to what appeared to be a bloodstain on the pavement, near the truck’s passenger-side front door.
Hurley has been a fan of the Bills going back to the 1980s and enjoys what he called the “family-type” atmosphere of the camper lot. Fans easily mix with each other and share supplies if needed, he said.
“The more you come, the more you get to recognize the same people,” he said.
Hanson slept through the incident, and was stunned to learn the news when he woke up Sunday morning.
The local native now lives in Connecticut and saves up for this trip every year. He was dressed in a Phil Hansen jersey and hoping for a Bills win against the Indianapolis Colts. But he was stunned by what had happened the night before.
“It’s like a pit in your stomach,” Hanson said.
Orchard Park Police Chief Mark Pacholec declined to identify the victim or confirm his occupation, even when asked about rumors that the man worked in law enforcement. “We do not, as a policy, release names of (suicide victims),” he said.
Pacholec had held a news conference just after midnight Sunday morning. Pacholec said he decided to do that because there were so many people gathered where the incident occurred, and he wanted to dispel any fears of an “active shooter” in the parking lot.
The Erie County Medical Examiner’s Office has the victim’s remains, and it will be “weeks” before results of toxicology testing are obtained, he said.