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4 members of Maine's deaf community were killed in Lewiston mass shooting

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Lewiston, Maine, last night, people gathered to remember 18 people killed in last week's mass shooting.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Billy Bracket. Bryan MacFarlane. Joshua Seal. Stephen Vozzella.

INSKEEP: Those four victims named there were deaf, believed to be the deaf community's greatest single loss to gunfire in U.S. history. Maine Public's Steve Mistler reports.

STEVE MISTLER: On Wednesday night, Steve Vozzella, Bryan MacFarlane, Billy Bracket and Joshua Seal went to Schemengees Bar & Grille in Lewiston to play in a cornhole tournament for the deaf. They were avid players, but more than that, the tournament was a gathering for members of a deaf and hard-of-hearing community that often relies on one another to stay connected. In many ways, Joshua Seal was the conduit for those connections, especially during times of crisis. Seal was an American Sign Language interpreter. He would often appear on television to interpret the frequent pandemic briefings with former Maine CDC director Dr. Nirav Shah.

NIRAV SHAH: For so many in the deaf community in Maine, Josh was, in quotes, "the voice" of COVID and the face of COVID.

MISTLER: They worked together for almost two years. Seal had been brought in to communicate the latest updates on the virus and vaccines to people who needed to hear them, but often couldn't. His translations of mRNA, monoclonal antibodies and other pandemic vernacular were high energy and helped make him a star among the deaf and hard of hearing. But then, Shah says, Wednesday night happened.

SHAH: Here today, went to a cornhole tournament with his community, and then he was gone. That's really tough to get your head around.

MISTLER: At approximately 7:08 p.m., Joshua Seal and his three friends were hit by bullets of a gunman who had entered the billiards hall. All four of them were killed. Three of them - MacFarlane, Bracket and Seal - had been students at the Maine Education Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, according to director Karen Hopkins. Hopkins, via text, said the killings have rocked the community. That sentiment was shared by the Pine Tree Society, where Seal was the director of interpreting services and coordinated summer camps for deaf and hard-of-hearing kids to keep them from feeling isolated.

REGAN THIBODEAU: (Through interpreter) We will miss him. I will miss him. He was a wonderful colleague. I was so proud to work with him in so many different areas of my life.

MISTLER: Regan Thibodeau is an ASL interpreter who worked with Seal translating the CDC briefings. Speaking through interpreter Stacey Bsullak, Thibodeau found herself translating press conferences about a mass shooting that killed 18 people, including four from her community. And she says the reason she's doing it is simple.

THIBODEAU: (Through interpreter) Their friends and family are deaf. Their families are deaf. They use American Sign Language. All they want is equity in communication access. It is really important to have American Sign Language on the screen at the same time that everyone is getting the information.

MISTLER: Even if that information is heart-wrenching. Family members could not be reached for this story, but many have posted remembrances on social media. Elizabeth Seal, Joshua's wife, wrote, quote, "he was the world's best father to our four pups," end quote. Seal pups - that's how she describes the four young children who lost their father Wednesday night.

For NPR News, I'm Steve Mistler in Lewiston, Maine.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Journalist Steve Mistler is MPBN's chief political correspondent and statehouse bureau chief, specializing in the coverage of politics and state government.