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Lewiston's mass shooting deals devastating blow to deaf and hard of hearing community

Regan Thibodeau, an American Sign Language interpreter and colleague of Joshua Seal, one of four deaf or hard of hearing people killed in the mass shooting in Lewiston, looks on during the OneLewiston Community Vigil in the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Lewiston, Maine, on Sunday, Oct. 29, 2023. (Raquel C. Zaldívar/New England News Collaborative)
Raquel C. Zaldívar
/
New England News Collaborative
Regan Thibodeau, an American Sign Language interpreter and colleague of Joshua Seal, one of four deaf or hard of hearing people killed in the mass shooting in Lewiston, looks on during the OneLewiston Community Vigil in the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Lewiston, Maine, on Sunday, Oct. 29, 2023. (Raquel C. Zaldívar/New England News Collaborative)

The shock and anguish from the mass shooting in Lewiston that killed 18 people and injured 13 others continues to ripple across Maine. And the deaf and hard of hearing community is experiencing those feelings acutely.

Four of the eight men killed at a bar and billiards hall were gunned down in what it appears to be the worst mass shooting of deaf people in U.S. history.

On Wednesday night, Steve Vozzella, Brian MacFarlane, Billy Brackett 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, Seal was the conduit for those connections, especially during times of crisis.

Brian MacFarlane (from left), Billy Brackett and Steve Vozzella
Facebook photos
Brian MacFarlane (from left), Billy Brackett and Steve Vozzella

"For so many in the deaf community in Maine, Josh was the voice of COVID and the face of COVID," said former Maine Center for Disease Control director Dr. Nirav Shah, who is now the deputy director at the U.S. CDC.

Shah worked alongside Seal for almost two full years during the pandemic. Seal, an American Sign Language interpreter, had been brought in to communicate the latest updates on the virus and vaccines to people who needed to hear them, but often can'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 Wednesday night happened.

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

Grappling with the unthinkable is precisely what the deaf community is trying to do now.

At approximately 7:08 p.m., Seal and his three friends were hit by the bullets of a gunman who had entered the billiards hall. All four of them were killed. Three of them — MacFarlane, Brackett and Seal — had been students at the Maine Education Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, according director Karen Hopkins.

"This tragedy has greatly impacted our deaf community," she said. "We are a small, close-knit community and our community is shaken."

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 engaged and not feel isolated.

"We will miss him. I will miss him," said Regan Thibodeau, who spoke to Maine Public through interpreter Stacey Bsullak. "He was a wonderful colleague. I was so proud to work with him in so many different areas of my life."

Joshua Seal was one of four deaf or hard of hearing people killed in the mass shooting in Lewiston on Wednesday.
Pine Tree Society via Facebook
Joshua Seal was one of four deaf or hard of hearing people killed in the mass shooting in Lewiston on Wednesday.

Like Seal, Thibodeau helped translate the CDC briefings during the pandemic.

Now she's translating daily 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.

"Their friends and family are deaf, their families are deaf. They use American Sign Language," she said. "All they want is equity in communication access. It is really important to have (ASL) on the screen at the same time that everyone is getting the information."

Even if the information is heart-wrenching.

"It is a tragic, tragic loss for our community," Thibodeau said. "Many deaf people are impacted by this event. All over America. This is the first time in history that we have lost that many deaf people at once in a mass shooting."

Family members could not be reached for this story, but have posted remembrances on social media.

Elizabeth Seal, Joshua's wife, wrote, "He was the world’s BEST father to our four pups."

Seal pups — that's how she describes the four young children who lost their father Wednesday night.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.
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