Victims of the attack find different ways to move on with lives
Victims of the attack find different ways to move on with lives
By Joseph Gerth
Missy Jenkins: The Murray State student watched a taped TV interview with Michael Carneal, whose shot paralyzed her from the waist down. ''I didn't forgive him to make him feel better. I forgave him to make me feel better, to help me move on.''
PHOTOS BY PAM SPAULDING
Hollon Holm: Holm, who was wounded, said, ''it's what I saw after I was shot that bothers me most . . . seeing the people on the floor.''
HEATH, Ky. -- Pop. Pop. Pop.
As Hollon Holm stood in the checkout line at a Wal-Mart last year, the sound of bursting balloons brought back a flood of memories.
''I felt all the color just drain from my face,'' said Holm, who was wounded by a bullet that grazed his head five years ago today when Michael Carneal, a 14-year-old student, opened fire on a prayer group at Heath High School.
''I don't think that feeling will ever leave.''
The attack, which killed three students and wounded five, has left physical and emotional scars on everyone who was a part of it: survivors, the families of those killed and others who simply witnessed the carnage.
It altered careers, fractured relationships and changed -- for a while, at least -- how people in Western Kentucky and throughout the state feel about school security.
For former principal Bill Bond, the attack has meant years of questioning what he could have done differently to save lives. It also meant a new career. He now advises schools on safety issues.
For Missy Jenkins, who was paralyzed from the waist down when a bullet severed her spinal cord, it means she walks only in her dreams, sometimes dragging her wheelchair behind her.
She has forgiven Carneal, if only to move on with her life.
For Sabrina Steger, whose daughter Kayce was killed, it has meant the end of her marriage as she and her husband dealt with their grief in different ways.
For Holm, whose injuries were superficial, it has meant a struggle so solitary that only recently has he been able to talk openly about what happened.
''I cried that day, but I remember not crying for the whole year following that,'' Holm said. ''Even with funerals for relatives, I didn't cry. I was just empty for that year.''
And for Carneal, the attacker who now sits in a psychiatric ward at Kentucky State Reformatory in LaGrange, it means knowing every day that his actions caused so much pain. Carneal was sentenced to life without parole for at least 25 years after pleading guilty but mentally ill.
''I can't change anything that happened, by dying or anything else,'' Carneal, inmate No. 151121, told The Courier-Journal in September. ''I wish I could change things but I can't.''
Gunfire in the halls
People in McCracken County don't talk much about the shooting.
Danny Orazine, the county's judgeexecutive, said most people probably knew someone who was affected by the attack.
Orazine, a Heath High graduate, said many wish the stigma would go away -- and to some degree it has.
''It used to be when I went someplace, they'd say, 'Oh, you're from where they had the shooting,' '' Orazine said. ''I hardly ever hear that anymore.'' The Memorials
There are reminders of the shootings throughout Heath High School -- a memorial garden, above, a tombstone-like memorial near the front door, right, and a display about the victims where the shooting occurred.
However, there is little talk about the incident. Time has healed some wounds. And, ''We need to continue to love and respect those who were hurt here, but it's time to move on,'' said Cheryl Lawson, a spokeswoman for the McCracken County School District.
But most everyone knows the story well, Orazine said.
It was the first day back from Thanksgiving break. Most students were catching the holiday spirit.
Carneal, who had stolen a cache of weapons from the father of a friend, brought the guns to school that morning, wrapping several long guns in a blanket and telling his sister and teachers the bundle was a prop for an English project.
He had warned some students that something big was going to happen that day, but didn't say what. Others, he told to stay away. As the prayer circle ended, he opened fire with a .22-caliber handgun, not aiming at anyone in particular.
Jenkins said 14-year-old Nicole Hadley was the first to be shot, hit in the forehead. There were a few more single shots, and then a flurry.
''It was like he figured out that if he just held down on the trigger, the gun would keep firing,'' said Jenkins, who froze, unsure whether it was real or a wild practical joke.
In the flurry, Jenkins was hit in her chest. Her spinal cord was severed.
Holm was walking away from the group when the shooting began. He doesn't recall what happened next -- only regaining his senses after a bullet grazed his right temple to see Carneal laying the gun on the ground.
''If the bullet had been one inch to the left, I wouldn't be talking to you today,'' he said. ''But it's what I saw after I was shot that bothers me most -- . . . seeing the people on the floor.''
Bond heard the shots and bolted from his office.
''It was 12 seconds,'' he said. ''In my mind it was 12 seconds, and that was because of the rhythm of the gunfire and the rhythm in my head. When you have a rhythm in your head, the rhythm stays there. It's just like a drumbeat, over and over and over again.''
Sabrina Steger: Steger, who carried a Winter Olympics torch, lost her oldest daughter to the gunman's bullet.
Bill Bond: The ex-principal said it's futile to wonder ''what if'' he had acted quicker, but he does.
Bond moved toward Carneal, using a ceiling support column as a shield. When he got within a few feet, Carneal squatted down and put the gun on the floor. It had one bullet left in the chamber.
''I looked at him and he just had this glazed look in his eyes,'' Bond said. ''When I got the gun, I told him to go to the office and sit down. He didn't react any more than if I had caught him smoking in the boys' room.''
In the aftermath, Steger, Hadley and Jessica James lay dying on the floor. Jenkins, Holm, Craig Keene, Kelly Hard and Shelly Schaberg were bleeding from their wounds.
Carneal, then a tiny wisp of a boy but now more than six feet tall and heavyset, says he killed, in part, because he had been bullied and mocked, a common claim in school shootings.
Holm, now 19, returned to school just two days after the attack.
''We tried so hard just to get everything back to normal,'' said Holm's mother, Nancy Holm. ''He tried to jump right back and say everything was fine, and it wasn't.''
It was years before Holm would talk about the shooting, largely, he said, because his injury seemed insignificant to him -- ''just a big scrape'' that runs down the right side of his head and is visible only when the barber trims his hair too close.
Holm's mother said she never heard him talk in detail about the shooting until the spring of 2001, when he became involved in an organization that urges students to speak up if they know of threats against schools or students.
He spoke of it again in his valedictorian speech later that year. He told the school it was time to move on, that the last group of students who witnessed the assault was leaving.
''He was dealing with it in his own way,'' Nancy Holm said. ''We didn't try to push him.''
It was tough on his parents, too.
''I went through depression for more than a year after,'' his mother said. ''But with medication and prayer, I was OK.''
Jimmy Holm, Hollon's father, said that although his son didn't talk about the attack, subsequent school shootings in Jonesboro, Ark., and at Columbine High School in Littleton Colo., near Denver, seemed to affect him.
''I think the roughest time came when the Columbine shooting happened,'' he said. ''You could see it in him each time. For me, Columbine was the worst because people there kept saying, 'We didn't think it could happen here.' When will people wake up and realize it's going to happen anywhere?''
Jenkins has responded by using her story to put a human face to what happens when there is gun violence in schools.
''I am the best person to show what violence can do,'' said Jenkins, who is studying at Murray State University to be a social worker. The shooting ''has kind of given me a purpose for what I want to do for the rest of my life,'' she said.
Jenkins is pursuing medical treatments that she hopes will allow her to use her legs.
''I will walk again,'' she said -- and she has made some progress. When she graduated in 2000, she used a rigid brace-walker device to cross the stage to pick up her diploma.
Now 20, she has dealt with the tragedy by talking -- and by forgiving Carneal. ''I didn't forgive him to make him feel better. I forgave him to make me feel better, to help me move on,'' she said.
But she said unsolicited phone calls and letters from Carneal since the attack left her feeling ''creepy.'' He has written her and called her on the telephone twice since the shooting, she said.
The first call, he left a message on the answering machine.
''It was like, 'Hi, Missy, this is Mike. Just calling to see how you're doing. Give me a call when you get a chance,' '' she said. ''It was like he wanted to be my best friend or something. He killed three girls and he wants to be my best friend?''
After a second call, answered by Jenkins' father, the family asked Carneal's lawyer to put an end to the communications.
Jenkins has appeared on numerous national and local television shows, talked to newspaper reporters and is appearing in two TV commercials for Channel One, an educational channel that reaches schools throughout the country.
In the ad, she urges students to report any school shooting plots. In 2000, she was in a TV commercial for former U.S. Rep. Scotty Baesler, supporting his position in favor of gun control.
She coped with her loss with the support of her family, friends and thousands of strangers who sent her cards and letters. Five years later, she still hasn't read them all.
''One day, I promise myself, I will read everything,'' she said.
The Steger family
Life changed profoundly for Sabrina Steger after her oldest daughter, Kayce, was killed.
She and her husband split up, and her other two children now live with their father. Steger moved back into the home where she grew up, following the death of her father.
The only thing that hasn't changed is her job as a nurse at Lourdes Hospital, where Kayce died, but Steger still avoids the emergency room.
On the day of the shooting, Steger got a call and rushed to the hospital, only to learn that Kayce had died. Years later, when her father was ill and was rushed to the hospital, she asked that he be moved out of the emergency room. She couldn't bear to go in.
Steger compared the pain of losing Kayce to a big boulder in the ocean.
''With time the boulder can lose its sharpness, but there are still times when it feels as sharp as ever,'' she said recently.
The toughest day for her is Thanksgiving. That's the last holiday she spent with Kayce and the last time they spent a lot of time together, making the family's turkey dinner.
Steger spends her free time working for two groups that try to stop school violence. She travels the region talking to teachers about her experience and what needs to be done to make schools safer.
She also works with a national student organization that urges students to tell an adult when another student is planning an attack. Had someone at Heath High done that, Kayce might still be alive, she believes.
She has let go of some of the anger and resentment she had for Carneal. She would have preferred the death penalty for him, but now she isn't sure.
''Five years ago, I wouldn't have had the same answer. My son is the same age he was then,'' Steger said. ''I understand the mind of a 14-year-old boy a little more. It's easier to see a 14-year-old is still a child and has a lot of growing up to do.''
Throughout the fall, she finds her mind drifting back to Kayce. That's when her birthday was, and that's when she died.
''I wonder what she would look like now,'' she said. ''I wonder would she still be as enthusiastic about being a police officer. I just wonder about her. In my mind, she's always 15. She'll always be 15. She won't get any older.''
His perfect retirement, Bill Bond always thought, would be to use his cabin at Kentucky Lake to go fishing.
The shooting changed all that.
Although he retired after the 2000 school year, Bond, 57, now works as a school safety consultant for the National Association of Secondary School Principals and travels the country offering advice on preventing school shootings.
When there is a school shooting, Bond takes the first plane there. The last one that involved him was in March 2001 at Santee, Calif., when a 15-year-old student shot and killed two classmates and wounded a security guard and 12 other people.
Bond said he still flashes back to the Heath High lobby and wonders whether he could have saved lives if he had acted quicker. And then he tries not to think about it.
''That is a futile effort -- trying to go back and 'what if,' '' he said. ''. . . You have to focus on what you can do to make a difference now because you can't make a difference in what happened in the past.''
A few common themes run through virtually every shooting, said Bond, who served on a Secret Service task force that studied school shootings.
The shooter almost always tells someone what he plans to do, and he almost always believes he is being picked on or bullied, Bond said.
Both were true in the Carneal case.
In the interview with The CourierJournal, Carneal said there was no single reason for his shooting spree but that he mistakenly believed his parents didn't love him and that other students had taunted him and falsely accused him of being gay.
Carneal told the newspaper that students would punctuate everything they said to him with the names ''faggot'' or ''queer.''
While Bond said he holds Carneal completely responsible for his actions, he said schools must work harder to cut down on bullying -- beginning in elementary school and continuing through high school.
Tim Heller, superintendent of McCracken County schools, said the county has done that -- bringing in parents for conferences when children are caught hazing other students and trying to intervene early.
''We've got to take this seriously and not just say 'boys will be boys and girls will be girls,' '' said Jon Akers, executive director of the Kentucky Center for School Safety at Eastern Kentucky University.
The center was created following the Heath High shooting to find ways to make schools safer. In the past year, it has trained more than 4,000 teachers and administrators across the state to deal with issues ranging from bullying to developing relationships with students so they'll notify adults if they hear of a plot.
Changes at Heath
Shortly after the shootings, McCracken County's board of education posted armed officers at Heath High and at other county schools, erected a tall chain-link fence around the high school and implemented other security measures.
But some of that security has eased. The school district no longer requires students to wear photo ID tags, and they aren't required to use see-through bookbags.
And last summer, officials cut in half the number of armed officers in the schools after a federal grant ran out. Faced with a shrinking budget, Heller said the choice between laying off teachers or security personnel was easy.
Commonwealth's Attorney Tim Kaltenbach said he fears some of the lessons learned from the tragedy were short-lived. The security officers have played an invaluable role in rooting out other school crime, he said, and he thinks they significantly lessen the chance of a repeat shooting.
Kaltenbach was surprised when only a few objections were raised in the community about the layoffs of some security personnel. And he was shocked in October when a McCracken County jury acquitted a teen-ager of the most serious charge involving .22-caliber rifle shots fired by a group of boys into a middle school. No one was injured in the shootings that occurred after school hours, although some teachers and students were still in the building.
The jury convicted Justin Shaffer Doss of third-degree criminal mischief, which carries a sentence of 90 days in jail, instead of felony first-degree wanton endangerment, which carries a five-year penalty. Doss, who was 14 at the time, was the only one of the four boys charged as an adult.
''We thought we needed to try the case just because we had the Heath shooting here,'' he said. ''A few years ago, I couldn't have imagined he wouldn't have been convicted.''
Despite constant reminders at the high school -- a memorial garden, a tombstone-like memorial near the front door and a display about the victims where the shooting occurred -- there is now little talk of what happened.
''We need to continue to love and respect those who were hurt here, but it's time to move on,'' said Cheryl Lawson, a spokeswoman for the McCracken County School District.
Current principal Barbara McGinty said she occasionally hears the parent of a new student mention the shooting, but usually in passing -- and no one dwells on it.
''I don't like to talk about it,'' said McGinty, who was assistant principal when the shooting occurred and who called 911.
When students return to school tomorrow, they will find a spray of flowers at the memorial garden, which was built with donated funds. Students also intend to place single roses on the graves of Kayce, Hadley and James.
Each year, $500 college scholarships are awarded to students who share the same interests the dead girls had -- music, sports and community service. The parents of the girls are invited to the ceremony where the scholarships are awarded but seldom attend, McGinty said.
[This message was edited by Max on Dec 02, 2002 at 02:26 PM.]
[This message was edited by seneca on Dec 02, 2002 at 03:15 PM.]
Michael Carneal can't explain why he shot his classmates five years ago. Missy Jenkins, now paralyzed, goes on with life but can't go back.
Michael Carneal can't explain why he shot his classmates five years ago. Missy Jenkins, now paralyzed, goes on with life but can't go back.
(CHRISTOPHER BERKEY / For The Times)
By Stephanie Simon, Times Staff Writer
The flashbacks start, for Missy Jenkins, with "Amen."
She is holding hands with friends in the lobby of her high school, praying. It is the Monday after Thanksgiving. She skipped church the day before to see a movie. But she never misses morning prayer circle.
The three dozen students drop hands.
Then Missy sees a girl, a friend, crumple. She hears a pop. Nicole is on the floor, limp, bloody. Missy can't make sense of it. A prank, she thinks. Man, she thinks, man, is someone going to be in trouble. She hears screams. She sees students whirling, a blur of motion. Another pop.
Missy feels herself sliding to the floor. Her twin sister, Mandy, dives on top of her. The screaming is so loud. She can't think. And then, she can. And then, she knows.
"Mandy," she says. "I can't feel my stomach.
"I can't feel my stomach! What does that mean?"
The flashbacks start, for Michael Carneal, with chipped plaster.
He can't make sense of it.
He remembers, as through a mist, loading two shotguns, two semiautomatic rifles and 700 rounds of ammunition in the trunk of his sister's car that morning, the whole arsenal wrapped in blankets. An English project, he had explained. He remembers lugging the bundle into school. He remembers chatting about nothing with his friends. He remembers pulling a fifth gun, a revolver, out of his backpack as morning prayer circle broke up.
And now he's staring at this gouge in the wall, at plaster knocked loose by a bullet.
Michael looks around. He sees kids on the floor, crying, screaming. His friend Nicole is down there. She's still. Then he sees another student walking toward him, a boy, approaching slowly through the noise.
"What are you doing?" the boy asks, calm.
"Shooting people," Michael hears himself answer.
"What for?" the boy asks. He draws closer.
Michael answers: "I don't know."
The flashbacks come again and again and again.
Five years ago, Michael Carneal, a skinny freshman, opened fire at Heath High School in West Paducah, Ky. He killed three classmates: Nicole Hadley, 14, who marched with him in band, 15-year-old Kayce Steger, and 17-year-old Jessica James. He also wounded five. Most of the injuries were minor. Missy Jenkins' was not.
The bullet entered just below her left collarbone, slammed through her -- nicking her lung, her spinal cord -- and came out by her right shoulder blade. She is paralyzed from the chest down.
The bloodshed in the working-class river town -- the young girls gunned down in the Bible Belt as they prayed -- rattled the nation. Exactly two months earlier, a 16-year-old boy had stabbed his mother to death, then killed two classmates at his high school in Pearl, Miss. But that tragedy had not grabbed national attention the way the shootings in western Kentucky did.
Carnage in other schoolyards would follow, all too often: in Jonesboro, Ark., and Springfield, Ore., in Conyers, Ga., and Fort Gibson, Okla., at Santana High School near San Diego and at Columbine High in Littleton, Colo., where two students killed 12 classmates and a teacher before turning their guns on themselves.
Michael Carneal would hold himself responsible for inspiring such rampages.
Missy Jenkins would make it her mission to prevent them.
He would feel guilt ripping at him, through the flashbacks. She would shake off each nightmare with fresh resolve. Neither one wants that shattering morning to define them. But it has.
"I think about it all the time," Michael Carneal says.
He slouches into his chair in a conference room at the Kentucky State Reformatory in LaGrange. He is 19 years old now -- tall, pudgy, pasty, with a scraggly beard and clunky square glasses. It's hard to see in him the scrawny, skittish freshman who pulled out a .22-caliber Ruger, pressed foam plugs in his ears and opened fire that Monday morning.
It's hard even for Carneal.
He knows he shot his friends. He remembers planning it. He remembers thinking the night before, after a game of chess with his dad: "Tomorrow, I go to prison." And now he is in prison, told when to shower, what to wear, his biggest treat the microwave popcorn he earns by keeping his cell tidy. It still does not feel real.
"I know it was me," he says, "but it doesn't fit my character. I'm not a violent person. A lot of people think I'm evil because of what happened. That's not true. I made a mistake. A big mistake."
He is on the psychiatric ward at the state reformatory, mellowed by 11 pills a day. The medications push away the monsters he used to see leering at his windows.
The monsters came often in the months before the shooting. Carneal would cover up the vents in the bathroom so the bad guys could not grab him. At night, he felt them clutching his legs. He lived in terror. Yet he told no one. He played baritone in band. He played pranks on his friends. His parents noticed nothing.
Carneal told several classmates before Thanksgiving that "something big" was going to happen in school. He warned them the "day of reckoning" was near. But he was always goofing around -- passing off parsley as pot, wearing the mat from a Twister game to school as a cape -- and no one paid much attention. He felt always alone.
"I thought I might as well go to prison because I didn't have anything to lose," he says.
That doesn't explain why he murdered, though. Michael Carneal has spent five years searching for an answer.
He doesn't have one.
"That makes it all that much worse," he says.
He watches news of other kids killing kids in other schools and he feels helpless to stop the spasms of violence, the awful trend he believes he touched off that awful morning. "If I don't understand my own motivation," he says, "how can I understand theirs?"
He says he's sorry. He says it often. His voice is flat. His eyes are blank.
In a sagging brown jumpsuit and high-top sneakers, Carneal spends his days in the medium-security prison playing crazy eights or shooting pool, reading, writing, talking to psychologists. He is locked in his cell only at night. It's a single cell, with a TV and a radio. His parents come to visit every weekend. They bring him cash, now and then, to buy oatmeal cream pies at the canteen.
Carneal was given a life sentence but will be eligible for parole in 20 years. He does not allow himself to think what he might do if he gets out. He really has no idea.
He never thought much about the future, back when he had one.
Missy Jenkins, three weeks shy of her 20th birthday, wheels through the holiday clutter of her apartment in Murray, Ky., dodging poinsettias as she maneuvers to the VCR. She picks through the tapes: "Scent of a Woman." "Young Guns." Then she finds what she's looking for, and pops it in.
Her own image fills the screen: a slight teenager with long blond hair seated at a pink vanity table, putting on makeup. "My name is Missy Jenkins," she says in voice-over. "I had a GPA of 3.3. I was homecoming queen runner-up. I was vice president of my junior class. I was shot by a classmate."
The camera pans to show her black wheelchair, her long, thin, useless legs. "I'm one of the lucky ones."
It's a public-service announcement she filmed this year for a national anti-violence campaign in the schools.
She has been lending her voice to similar efforts since the day after the shooting, when she answered questions from her hospital bed on national TV. She has taken her message to the White House and on MTV, has spoken before tens of thousands of students across the country.
All the while, she has pushed through a grueling rehabilitation, learning first to live using a wheelchair and then to walk short distances with special braces. Three years ago, Mandy as always at her side, she walked across the stage at Heath High to claim her diploma. The next year, she shuffled the first quarter-mile of the Los Angeles marathon, in pouring rain, just to prove she could.
Her efforts have earned her acclaim: She won a federal crime-prevention award. She appeared onstage at the 2000 Democratic National Convention, in a tribute to heroes.
But Missy Jenkins does not want to be a hero.
She wants to be exactly what she is: A college junior at Murray State University in western Kentucky, majoring in social work.
She wants to get to her manicure appointment on time, persuade her sister to help her write a play for drama class, gossip with a roommate about the guy she hopes will ask her out. She wants to raise money for arthritis research with her sorority.
She wants to marry. She wants to be a mom. She wants to get an agent, to act in L.A.
She wants to do everything she would have done had Carneal not squeezed that trigger. She wants to be the same person she would have been.
"I think I am the same person," she says, "the exact same person."
And yet, now and then, loss shadows Jenkins' bright, open face. She wonders how she will be able to lift a crying baby from a crib. She wonders how she will be able to grocery shop for a family.
She misses dancing.
She wonders when she should tell her boyfriends all the embarrassing truths about her body. When she should show them her catheter. Or the 16 pills she takes each day to ward off muscle spasms and bladder infections.
She hates to be alone, because sometimes she falls as she hoists herself from wheelchair to bed and finds herself stuck on the floor, needing rescue.
Missy Jenkins may be the exact same person. But she is forever changed.
"I think about it every day," she says.
Missy and Michael knew each other in high school. It would have been surprising if they hadn't, in a school with just 486 students. They marched together in band. They teased each other.
One day, as one of his practical jokes, Michael wore a button he had made with a picture of the blond-streaked twins. The next day, Missy and Mandy countered with their own homemade Michael buttons. "He was a fun guy," Missy says. "Not creepy. The class clown. I try to picture him with the gun, but it's hard, because I knew him."
A year after the shooting, Michael tried to reach out to Missy. He wrote several letters. He called. Finally, Missy's father contacted an attorney. Michael was ordered to stop.
Looking back, he says he's not sure what he so urgently wanted to tell her. That he was sorry? That he could not explain?
Missy did not want to hear from him. She had confronted him once, in court. She wheeled up to him and, holding his gaze, told him about her catheter and muscle spasms, about her fears, her loss, her determination to make her pain mean something.
"I told him I forgave him, not to make him feel better, but so I could move on," she recalls. "I told him I would miss out on a lot, but I would not miss out on life." He listened to her in silence.
He falls silent now, thinking of what he would say to Missy if he saw her. The silence stretches a long moment. He gives up. "There's nothing you can say."
Students walking into Heath High this morning will see a wreath on the memorial stone in the school courtyard. No public ceremony is planned. There is no need. Reminders are everywhere in West Paducah.
Teachers stand each morning at the high school's door. They search book bags. But they also talk, and listen, trying to win students' trust, to counsel and console, to reach out to anyone who seems edgy. Almost all the teachers who were on staff during the shooting remain at Heath. Not one asked to transfer.
The Carneal family is still in town too. Michael's sister graduated from Heath High seven months after the shooting, as class valedictorian. His father, an attorney, still works downtown. His mother waves back at the neighbors, as always.
The Steger and James families remain in West Paducah as well, near the gravestones of their girls. The Hadleys moved to Chicago. Former Principal Bill Bond saw every student touched by the tragedy through graduation. Then he took a job as a national school safety consultant. He starts to say that life is back to normal now. Then he corrects himself:
"It will never return to normal. Those 12 seconds changed everything for everyone involved."
Christmas decorations twinkled in West Paducah this weekend. But through the cheer, on this devastating anniversary, many will mourn. Many will remember.
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