Azana Salon and Spa owner Tami Gemmell's European vacation was ending, but her worst nightmare had just begun.
Having just landed in Chicago, she casually checked her phone messages as her flight taxied to the gate. She fired off a response to a funny text from a friend, Mario.
He responded with a call, and Gemmell's smile quickly faded as his words flowed from the earpiece.
"What I'm about to tell you is not good," she remembers him saying, before he got cut off as her phone blew up with texts and phone calls.
"Some of the texts said 'My thoughts and prayers are with you. Can I do anything? Are you OK?' " she said. But she didn't know what was wrong, she told Brookfield-Elm Grove NOW in her first one-on-one interview since the tragedy.
The messages continued to pour in for several minutes, Gemmell growing more confused and concerned with each.
"Then I got a call from my insurance agent. He said, 'I called the carrier. My thoughts and prayers are with you,' and I still have no idea what's going on."
Gemmell's wandering mind was brought to an abrupt halt.
"He said, 'There's been a shooting at your salon.' And I hung up on him."
The deepest cut
It was Oct. 21, and earlier that morning Radcliffe Haughton had taken a taxi to Azana Salon and Spa. When he arrived, he opened fire.
The spa wasn't unfamiliar territory for Haughton. It was the workplace of his estranged wife, Zina.
Haughton killed three women - including Zina - and wounded four others before killing himself. Witnesses reported seeing clients in bath robes and slippers screaming and running out of the salon.
After struggling to get through customs, upset and feeling helpless, Gemmell arrived in Milwaukee at 2:15 p.m. Her mother filled her in on the few details she had learned.
"When I got to Milwaukee, I tried to get to Froedtert (Hospital) first to be with my employees that were injured, and I wasn't able to because it was on lockdown," she said. So she headed to the salon, a place she has run for 13 years. "My main concern was my employees - who was injured, who was not."
As the authorities scrambled to gather evidence, Gemmell joined the vigil outside a neighboring bank, grateful that her sister who worked at Azana had escaped, but in full disbelief that three of her friends and employees had been murdered.
Living in memory
Gemmell recalled meeting Haughton once.
"I was at one of Zina's birthday parties and he was there, many years ago, maybe six years ago, but I had never seen him in my salon," she said. "He seemed like a nice guy. There was no indication that he was unstable or irrational."
Zina had worked at the salon for eight years. Gemmell remembers her as being kind-hearted, never giving clues that things weren't right at home.
"She was stoic. She was always smiling, singing, happy. There was no indication," she said.
Cary Robuck and Maelyn Lind also died at Haughton's hands.
"They were unbelievable individuals. Maelyn was a brand new grandmother and had a great laugh. Cary was soft-spoken, but she had a big heart. She was the biggest sweetheart," Gemmell said.
All three were mothers.
Since Gemmell was out of the country during the 12 days leading up to the tragedy, she wasn't aware Haughton had come to the salon to slash his wife's tires, or that she was granted a restraining order against him four days before the shooting.
Gemmell still feels aftershocks from the emotional earthquake she endured.
"It still hits me. It's an ongoing event for me," she said.
Gemmell remains quiet as she and her employees continue to heal.
"My main goal is to get my family back together. I don't want to focus on the negative," she said.
Azana Salon and Spa will reopen Dec. 1, but Gemmell said the repair process is far from over. The building suffered extensive damage as a result of a fire Haughton started. Employees are receiving counseling and are slowly preparing to come back to work.
"We have been physically injured and emotionally injured. We're taking care of each other; it's an ongoing process," Gemmell said.
Azana clients are anxious for the salon to reopen and are not deterred by the recent tragedy, she said.
"I have clients constantly sending me messages that they will be there. It's inspiring and overwhelming."
Shutting down permanently has never been an option for Gemmell.
"I did not work this hard for 13 years to let someone like that take this away from me and my employees."
The tragedy has shaken Gemmell, but it hasn't stopped her. She plans to continue to fundraise for domestic violence and the victims' families while rebuilding her business and honoring the memory of those lost.
"I believe we will be better, we will be stronger," Gemmell said confidently.
"We are all forever changed. Out of these ashes, we will make something beautiful."
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