Americas

‘All I Can Think About Is Her’: Families Grieve for Victims of Atlanta Attacks

ATLANTA — From early in the morning until late at night, Hyun Jung Grant was at work. She was a single mother with life’s unyielding obligations: two sons who needed college tuition, the rent on the home they all shared, the relentless drumbeat of bills.

An immigrant from South Korea, Ms. Grant, 51, did not talk much about her job at Gold Spa, a massage parlor in a neon-lit stretch of strip malls in northeastern Atlanta. She preferred to tell people that she worked at a makeup store.

“She didn’t want us to worry about her ever,” said her son Eric Park, 20.

Ms. Grant was among eight people shot to death on Tuesday evening. Another victim is still hospitalized.

They had come a long way to the storefronts set inconspicuously amid the crowded commercial unspooling of metro Atlanta. They had come from Korea, from China, from Guatemala, from Detroit, from right up the road in Acworth, Ga. Most had come to work, perhaps to put some aside for children and even grandchildren, to carve out a little bit of security and independence for themselves and their families.

Then a young man with a gun arrived, and over the course of a single violent hour, years of work and accumulated opportunities were put to an abrupt end.

“All I can think about is her,” said Mr. Park, recalling the days at the mall and aquarium, just him and his brother and his mother, the bowls of soondubu at Korean restaurants, the kimchi jjigae she made herself. Ms. Grant had encouraged Eric in his dreams of becoming a chef. They were a close-knit trio, relying on one another.

“It’s just us two now,” Eric said.

Twenty-five miles up the interstate from Gold Spa, amid the strip malls and parking lots of the Atlanta suburbs, sits Young’s Asian Massage, a shop that was kept running through long days and late evenings by Xiaojie Tan.

“She worked from 9 to 9 almost every day,” said Ashley Zhang, a friend of Ms. Tan’s, who like her was a Chinese immigrant. “We’re here for opportunity,” she said. “We work so hard. We want the American dream to come true.”

Ms. Tan, a mother and businesswoman who was known to her friends as Emily, owned the spa and had made it into a place where patrons felt at home, said Greg Hynson, a longtime customer who had seen her last weekend. She was “just the sweetest, kindest, most giving person,” he said, and she set a tone that the other employees followed.

“They welcomed you,” Mr. Hynson said. “If you were a friend of Emily’s, you were a friend of theirs.”

One of those workers was Daoyou Feng, 44, who according to Mr. Hynson had started working at the spa a few months ago. She was among those killed on Tuesday.

When the gunman showed up, Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33, was there with her husband, having arrived shortly beforehand. Unlike the others who were killed, Ms. Yaun had been born and raised in the area.

She knew about hard work.

“I’ve worked with a lot of people in my life,” said John Beck, 27, who had been Ms. Yaun’s manager at a nearby Waffle House. “Delaina was the most hard-working, most determined, most outspokenly good-hearted person I’ve ever met.”

She had been a server and master grill operator at the Waffle House, Mr. Beck said, arriving in the morning blasting gospel music and often buying eggs and grits for homeless people who had no money for food. She was raising a son by herself, but she also kept a motherly eye on Mr. Beck, checking in regularly to make sure he was OK.

Her big dream, Mr. Beck said, was to get married. And last year, she did just that, marrying Mario Gonzalez, whom Mr. Beck said she had met at the Waffle House when he showed up as a customer. They soon had a daughter. It was “real love,” Mr. Beck said.

Tuesday was a date — they were going to get massages together.

Paul Andre Michels, 54, an electrician, was also killed at the spa on Tuesday. He was a “workaholic,” said his brother Fred Michels. He grew up as the seventh of nine children in a working-class Catholic family in Detroit that had a long history of building and fixing things. His father painted Cadillacs at a General Motors plant, his mother kept the family fed with pierogies and stuffed cabbage, and he went off to join the Army.

Mr. Michels returned to Detroit but eventually settled in Atlanta, his brother said, marrying and starting his own electrical business.

As the employees met with patrons inside the business, Elcias R. Hernandez-Ortiz, 30, was out front, walking to a money exchange business next door. He had come to the area from Guatemala about 10 years ago, “like most immigrants living here,” his wife, Flor Gonzalez, said, leaving home “to look for a better life.”

He found work as a mechanic, sending some money to his family in Guatemala and taking care of his family here — the couple had been planning for next week’s birthday of their daughter Yoseline.

Mr. Ortiz-Hernandez, who was shot but survived the attack, remains hospitalized in critical condition.

Back in northeastern Atlanta, on the border of one of the most upscale parts of town, sits a small pocket of tattoo shops, strip clubs and massage parlors.

A Rise in Attacks Against Asian-Americans

    • Eight people, including six women of Asian descent, were killed in the Atlanta massage parlor shootings. The suspect’s motives are under investigation, but Asian communities across the United States are on alert because of a surge in attacks against Asian-Americans over the past year.
    • A torrent of hate and violence against Asian-Americans around the U.S. began last spring, in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. Community leaders say the bigotry was spurred by the rhetoric of former President Trump, who referred to the coronavirus as the “China virus.”
    • In New York, a wave of xenophobia and violence has been compounded by the economic fallout of the pandemic, which has dealt a severe blow to New York’s Asian-American communities. Many community leaders say racist assaults are being overlooked by the authorities.
    • In January, an 84-year-old man from Thailand was violently slammed to the ground in San Francisco, resulting in his death at a hospital two days later. The attack, captured on video, has become a rallying cry.

    Among these are Gold Spa, where Ms. Grant worked alongside Suncha Kim, 69, and Soon Chung Park, who, at 74, was the oldest person to be killed on Tuesday.

    Ms. Kim, a grandmother who enjoyed line dancing in her spare time, had been married for more than 50 years, a family member said. She had immigrated to the United States from Korea “to provide us a better education and better life,” said the family member, who asked not to be named for privacy reasons. “Just a regular American family and worked really hard.”

    Ms. Park had lived in New York before moving to Atlanta, a son-in-law, Scott Lee, said in a brief interview on Friday. She had stayed close with her relatives, many of whom still live in New York and New Jersey. “She got along with her family so well,” Mr. Lee said in Korean.

    Across the street from Gold Spa is Aromatherapy Spa, where Yong Ae Yue worked.

    Ms. Yue, 63, moved to the United States from South Korea in the 1970s, coming with her husband, Mac Peterson, whom she had met while he was stationed in the Army. They had one son before moving to Fort Benning, Ga., and having another son, Mr. Peterson said.

    Ms. Yue found work as a cashier at a grocery store outside of Fort Benning and the couple stayed there until getting divorced in 1982. Their families had been close — “She used to take my sister to the spa,” Mr. Peterson said — and they had kept in touch, having lunch together as recently as last summer.

    “She was a good mother,” Mr. Peterson said. “She was always there for her kids.”

    Ms. Yue was the last person killed in the shootings on Tuesday.

    Ms. Grant’s sons, Eric and his brother Randy, 22, first learned about the attacks from a Gold Spa employee’s daughter. They did not know that their mother had died until late that night, after a relative in Korea saw Ms. Grant’s name in a news report.

    On Friday morning, the brothers were at home, looking through photo albums for their mother’s upcoming memorial.

    This was a new place for them, relatively. They had moved into the house, a rental, from an apartment last year, a moment of celebration because it was a step closer to Ms. Grant’s dream of buying a home.

    But Ms. Grant had not spent as much time in it. She was gone for days and weeks on end, Randy Park said. She often stayed at Gold Spa or at a friend’s place near the business, he said, because she did not have a car and the commute to work was lengthy and tedious.

    Still, Randy Park said his mother called every night after work to check in on him and his younger brother. The last time she called was Monday evening, he recalled. She asked if they were doing OK and if they had eaten, and then wished them good night.

    “I knew she was working for us,” said her youngest son, Eric. “So I never resented her for when she wasn’t around.”

    Juliana Kim reported from Atlanta, Corina Knoll from New York, and Campbell Robertson from Pittsburgh. Reporting was contributed by Richard Fausset, Jack Healy, Inyoung Kang, Linda Qiu, Rick Rojas and John Yoon from Atlanta, Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio, Sarah Mervosh and Edgar Sandoval from New York, and Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs from Tivoli, N.Y. Susan C. Beachy contributed research.

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