COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Thomas James prefers to be called Tom, not hero.
"I joke around with friends with the hero stuff from time to time," James said. "One of the jokes regarding accolades was, 'I wish someone would just name a sandwich after me.'”
Originally from West Virginia, James has seen some of the most beautiful parts of the world during his 12 years serving in the U.S. Navy.
"I've seen the best and worst in people," James said when speaking with Denver7 in Colorado Springs, where he currently lives. “I am 30 years old... I feel about 40. A mix of, I guess, taking my body for granted in the military and just everything that happened.”
James was one of the people who stopped the Club Q mass shooter in November of last year, likely saving countless lives in the process. Derrick Rump, Daniel Aston, Kelly Loving, Raymond Green Vance, and Ashley Paugh were killed at the LGBTQ+ club that night.
“I initially wasn't going to go out that night. I had flipped a coin for it," James said. “It was November, it was cold, and I was sleepy. And I had a bottle of wine at home. I had a plan already. But my friends were like, 'No, it's going to be fun, you're going to enjoy yourself.' And they were right. Up until that point, I really had a great time.”
Club Q was a space where James felt comfortable, and he had been there several times before that November night.
“I am a member of the community. I am bisexual. And I just wanted a place to, you know, freely express that," James said. “I didn't feel that anywhere else except here [Club Q], where I felt like I can actually be myself for once.”
James was on the back patio talking with a friend when the shooting started.
“At first, I thought it was part of the rhythm of the song that was playing. And then I started to hear the screams and I realized what was truly going on," James remembered. “There was a break in the bullets after I saw one of my friends, Derrick Rump, fall through the glass, and I charged in and just started swinging.”
The years James spent in the military defined the decision made when his flight or fight instinct was sparked.
“The Navy kind of ingrained that in me, that I can't just run," James said. “You exhaust every means possible to save your ship. And only then, after everything's been kind of used up, is when you eventually have to abandon... I guess I'm all fight and no flight.”
From what James was told, he wrestled with the shooter for around 90 seconds.
“I had been shot, after the initial swing. We were rolling and fighting all over the place. It felt like hours. And at that point, I wasn't sure what was next for me," James said. “At some point, I grabbed on and was just holding on to try and stop them from getting access to their gun any further... At that point, the fear was out of me for what they could do to me, but what they could do to my friends."
James called out for help, and Richard Fierro, who was there with his wife, daughter, and daughter's boyfriend Raymond Green Vance, rushed over to where James was wrestling with the shooter.
"That night, Rich Fierro saved my life. If Rich Fierro had not done what he did, I probably wouldn't be here," James said. “He came in and helped stop them, followed by another patron, a trans Black woman. She prefers her privacy. So I won't, I don't want to go into naming specifics too much. But she was there too and helped all the same. And one day, I hope she gets her flowers when she's ready for them... I just want to make sure people know that it wasn't just me and Rich that night.”
The three patrons were able to restrain the shooter until police arrived.
“We stomped them into the ground. I'm going to use more polite words than what we did, on television and all, but we tore into them," James said softly. “I wouldn't say I'm a particularly angry or violent person, but after what they did to my friends, it felt somewhat justified at the end of the day.”
James had a gunshot wound during the entire fight with the shooter.
“I probably was more hurt, but the truth was, I didn't feel it. So when they said someone coming out was critical, I told them, 'Take mine [ambulance]. I can wait,'" James said about giving someone else at the club his ambulance when first responders arrived. “I was in the hospital for a week, but the recovery on the emotional and mental side took months and it's still ongoing.”
James was shot once, and the bullet ricocheted off of a rib, exiting his chest. He suffered a collapsed lung and broken ribs, but his mental health journey was more difficult than any physical recovery.
“There was a point where I could have, I guess, closed off and taken a darker route after everything that happened. But I chose, I didn't want this person to take the light from me," said James. “I've slipped up plenty of times. I mean, I've let friends down in my life, and I try to carry that lesson with me to do better and be better at the end of the day.”
He took a year, purposefully, before speaking publicly about what happened that night inside of Club Q.
“I wanted to heal, and I wanted to grieve. And I wanted to make sure what I had to say had something to it," said James. “I could have gone out and voiced my anger. And I could have gnashed my teeth and pulled my hair. But I wanted to think through what I had to say. I wanted to make sure that the message I put out was one that I think everyone can get behind. I think a message of focusing on mental health and therapy and such is something that everyone could agree with.”
Following the attack in November 2022, James struggled mentally and emotionally.
“The general anxiety, and (the attack) exacerbated it, and certainly spiraled into a depression, and I was destroying myself to try to just not feel anything at all," James said. “It took my friends and my family and the military — my military leadership — to drag me out of that kind of void and seek proper help... You've got to reach out to these people. You can just send a message, 'Are you OK?' You can have a sit down, phone call. It's going to be messy. And it's going to be uncomfortable for all the parties involved, but it's something that needs to be done.”
During the entire conversation with James, he painted a picture of Club Q while standing outside of the building.
“The painting itself is just simply a wall on a roof with five beams of light going up. And that's what I wanted to share," said James about his painting. “I'm hoping with a little painting here, it gets a certain message across that I'm done talking about the shooter and what they've done. And I never want to give them the time of day any more... What I want to talk about are the five victims here: Daniel, Derek, Raymond, Kelly, and Ashley.”
James uses art as a way to express himself — and his emotions — in a way that transcends words.
“I try and remember that there are still people here, that we are still a family," said James, as he left his painting at the memorial outside of Club Q. "We aren't going anywhere.”