JACKSONVILLE BEACH, Fla. – Anna Chattaway and her friends never imagined a stop at Waffle House after a bowling outing would turn into one of the scariest experiences of their young lives.
The group was eating inside the restaurant in Jacksonville Beach shortly before 10 p.m. Wednesday when gunfire erupted outside. They learned later that a suspect was involved in a shootout with police that left an officer wounded in the parking lot.
Not knowing at the time what was going on, 17-year-old Anna and about 20 others inside the Waffle House ducked and scurried for cover, she said.
“I ran to the back kitchen room and I saw a back door, so I tried to run out there,” Anna said.
But a Waffle House employee stopped her.
“Thank goodness (she) grabbed me, and she was like, 'You don’t know who’s out there. You need to stay with us,'” Anna said.
Anna, who begins her senior year at Ponte Vedra High School on Friday, ended up staying inside the Waffle House for about four hours as police investigated and cleared the scene.
In the meantime, Anna's parents anxiously waited outside.
“There were so many, 'If this happened (thoughts)' that go through your head,” Anna's father, Wayne Chattaway, said. “You’re thankful she’s alive so you can immediately go into that versus the alternative.”
Anna's concern was for the officer she saw wounded and lying beside her orange Mini Cooper. Police later identified him as Cpl. William Eierman, a 16-year veteran of the Jacksonville Beach Police Department. He was wounded in the leg and pelvic area but was released from the hospital Thursday.
Anna said she is grateful for the officer, who's been protecting the Beaches community almost as long as the teen has been alive.
“These people are put out here every single day to protect us,” Anna said. “He was put out on the line and he was out there protecting us.”
The only other person hit by gunfire was the suspect police said started the gun battle -- 27-year-old Jacksonville resident Jovan Sisljagic. He was also released from the hospital Thursday and faced a judge in Duval County on two counts of attempted murder.
In addition to the shock of the shootout, Anna suffered another emotional jolt when she realized her car was part of the crime scene. She found it riddled with at least four bullet holes on the passenger's side.
One of those bullets pierced through the car and came out the driver's side. Other cars were hit, also.
“That just makes it even more real and more horrifying that she could have been in her car or near her car,” Anna's stepmother, Sue Chattaway, said. “It’s your worst nightmare.”
Investigators have the keys to Anna's car, and it's unclear when she'll get them back.
Ironically, Anna's friend was involved in an accident near the Waffle House on Wednesday night, and the officer who responded was Eierman. Police Chief Pat Dooley said Eierman ran from that traffic stop toward the shootout when he heard the gunfire on his radio.
As she prepares to head back to school Friday, Anna said the shootout experience has her pulling her loved ones closer than ever, especially after she and her friends buried a classmate this week who they lost to suicide.
Anna and her parents even returned to the Waffle House on Thursday for lunch, determined to continue living their lives despite Wednesday night's brush with violence.
Anna said the Waffle House employees, who kept feeding the trapped customers Wednesday night, paid for her lunch. Their response during the crisis kept everyone calm and safe, Anna said, and she and her parents will always be grateful.