Courtesy Pizzeria Paradiso

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Luigi Procopio and four friends had the perfect perch for watching the Pride Parade this year. As the jubilant crowds decked out in rainbow colors marched about Dupont Circle, Procopio’s party had front row seats from Pizzeria Paradiso on P Street NW. But what’s normally one of the District’s most joyous days took a frightening turn.

A man flashed a BB gun, creating panic that there was an active shooter threat. At least seven people were injured in the stampede that followed as parade attendees tried to take cover in nearby businesses, including Pizzeria Paradiso. Some parade-goers reported hearing loud bangs. The Metropolitan Police Department said there was no evidence shots were fired.

“Five of us were enjoying the parade going by,” Procopio says. “That’s when the shit happened. Everything moved in slow motion. We heard the sound and then didn’t think much about it until we heard screams and people were running down the street. We thought, ‘Oh my god, this is serious.’” 

What happened next surprised Procopio. Pizzeria Paradiso’s general manager, Laura Moukalled, sprung into action making sure that patrons were as safe as possible. “She recognized what the situation was and grabbed all of us from the front of the restaurant where we were most vulnerable and pushed us literally to the back of the restaurant past the pizza ovens and into supply cabinets where we would be most protected,” Procopio continues. 

Moukalled not only looked after patrons and her fellow staff members, but she also ventured out into the street and pulled in as many people as she could, according to Procopio. Moukalled declined to be interviewed for this story because she didn’t want to relive that day. Emotions were running high.

“One of the things that stood out in my mind was a young African-American girl in this really gorgeous jumpsuit with rainbow pride colors who was on the phone with her mother and she was crying into the phone,” Procopio recalls. “We tried to console her but she was distraught.” Others were crying too and glasses were breaking.

Throughout the chaos, Moukalled kept her cool. So much so that Procopio and three other patrons present that day emailed the restaurant to thank her. “Not only did the manager on duty follow through with her responsibilities in terms of the active shooter situation, but she had such compassion,” Procopio says.

Moukalled and her team were prepared because back in 2017 they participated in a free training offered by the Metropolitan Police Department. “It’s a civilian awareness presentation on active threats,” explains Lt. Carlos Mejia. “This is open to anybody that requests it and it doesn’t cost anything.” The crux of the training is a showing of a video produced by the Department of Homeland Security that instructs people facing an active shooter threat to run, hide, or fight depending on the situation.

Mejia says they’ve offered the training as least as far back as when he joined MPD in 2013, but there’s been an uptick in requests lately. “We were doing one a month in 2013 and now we’re doing up to 30 a month,” he says. “Whenever something happens here in the U.S. or across the world, people start becoming aware of any number of vulnerabilities their location has.” The lieutenant did not share which other restaurants had participated in the training, citing privacy concerns. 

The Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington has also been working with MPD to host active shooter trainings at least annually for the past six years. According to the trade association anywhere between 20 and 70 restaurant operators and workers sign up for each session, depending on what’s happening nationally or locally. 

According to Pizzeria Paradiso’s director of operations Matt McQuilkin, the restaurant group sought active shooter training in 2017 after Edgar Maddison Welch fired an AR-15 rifle inside Comet Ping Pong. “I remember reading all of the articles about it and I realized I had no protocol for how to deal with that kind of situation,” McQuilkin says.

He invited the manager of each Pizzeria Paradiso location to attend so they could then incorporate active shooter training into new employee on-boarding. “It’s a pretty terrifying video to watch,” McQuilkin says, referring to DHS’s run, hide, fight curriculum. There were takeaways for each strategy. 

In the “run” scenario, Pizzeria Paradiso management selected nearby meet-up spots for each location. Should employees and patrons need to hide, management identified small areas inside each restaurant where employees and patrons could barricade themselves until an all clear signal. Finally, McQuilken says, “In the fight scenario, you need to identify things that can be used to defend yourself or harm the shooter to a point where they can’t harm others. In restaurants there are a lot of sharp objects.”

McQuilkin noticed that the managers watching the video and listening to MPD were paying close attention even though they were a little freaked out. “In a perfect world, the thing we’re worried about is making sure we give good customer service,” he says. “We’re conditioned to deal with high stress and urgent scenarios, but this is a whole different ball game. Everyone was a little shaken.” 

Restaurants interested in hosting a training can reach out to MPD  at mpd@dc.gov.

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