BUFFALO, N.Y. – Crouched on a sidewalk over her fallen husband, a woman whose first-anniversary party was shattered by gunfire pumped his chest in vain and begged him: "Don't die! This is our anniversary; please don't die!"
A survivor of the shots that killed four people during the weekend gathering at a Buffalo restaurant provided The Associated Press on Monday with a matter-of-fact account of a carefree night of dancing, music and champagne that devolved into chaos and, ultimately, heartbreak.
Authorities sought the public's help in finding a suspect Monday, a day after they declared they had arrested the wrong man and dropped murder charges. The Buffalo News quoted anonymous sources as saying two rival street gangs may have been involved, but officials would not comment to the AP on the report.
One of the guests of honor, 30-year-old Danyell Mackin, was among the two men and two women killed after a crowd of guests began pouring out of the City Grill restaurant early Saturday. Four men were injured, among them Tillman Ward, 27.
"The party was real nice, everybody dancing," said Ward, who had been invited to the party by the man who was wrongly arrested. "It was a real good vibe."
Soon the lights dimmed, the music stopped and staff announced the party was over, with word filtering in that people outside were angry at being denied entry because "it was too packed," Ward said. Some 200 people crowded onto the sidewalk, some trying to quell a shoving match in the parking lot.
The first two bullets ripped into Ward from just a few feet away. One went clean through his shoulder, but the other snaked through his arm and crushed bones in his elbow. Subsequent volleys of gunfire sent bystanders scurrying for cover, though Ward managed to remain standing even as his upper body went numb.
"I saw bodies falling all over, people landing on the ground," Ward said. "It ain't last no more than two minutes."
That's when he saw Tanisha Mackin over her husband, who had traveled with his wife from their home in Austin, Texas, to celebrate their year-old marriage with Buffalo-area friends and family. She was not injured.
Funeral arrangements are being made for the dead: Danyell Mackin; Tiffany Wilhite, 32; Shawntia McNeil, 27; and Willie McCaa, 26. Ward and two other survivors have been released from hospitals. Demario Vass, 30, remains in critical condition.
Ward's friend Keith Johnson, 25, was arrested within hours and charged with four counts of murder, but the charges were dismissed the next day. Police and city leaders said the real killer, who remains at large, appeared on surveillance tape, and they renewed their pleas Monday for witnesses to speak up.
Though authorities have not publicly drawn a connection to gangs, witnesses to gang violence are often reluctant to come forward out of fear of reprisal.
"There were hundreds of people outside the bar when this incident took place," Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda said. "We need people to come forward and let us know what they've seen. ... We know there were people who were right there."
After Johnson's arrest, Derenda said, witnesses began calling to say they had the wrong man. But when investigators arrived to question the callers, "half of them disappeared," he said.
Mayor Byron Brown pleaded for the public's help in the City Grill shooting and three other unsolved weekend shootings, two of them fatal. Derenda declined to say whether investigators believe any were related.
Tommy Dates, 35, said he was at the bar area of the restaurant with his friends when he noticed a party had broken up. People started leaving the restaurant but rushed back inside minutes later. "It was real quick. It was real chaotic," he said.
McCaa, among the dead, had been shot before in April 2008 while leaving a store. Ward, who said he attended community college for two years in hopes of becoming a paralegal and has worked assembly-line jobs, also has endured his share of turmoil.
In November, he was shot in the neck, and his cousin, Francois Mitchell, 25, was killed in an attack outside a neighborhood store. And in 2007, his brother, Rome, was found shot to death in an abandoned house.
Johnson was released on parole in July after serving two years for assault. He remained in jail Monday on an allegation of a parole violation for being at the bar Saturday, and investigators said he could be a witness in the City Grill case.
"So much is going on to be sad about," Ward said. "Lost a lot of family, a lot of friends. We try to avoid trouble, but so much is happening."