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Victim recalls friendly chat, then gunshot

As Hamilton McFerson lay crumpled on a sidewalk in Dudley Square, a bullet wound smoldering in his stomach, he prayed. "I kept calling to Allah, and these were my words: 'Allah, please don't let me die. Allah, please let me live. Allah, take care of me.' Those were my words," McFerson said by telephone from his hospital bed yesterday. "No anxiety or anything. A calmness came over me."

A week ago today, McFerson had just stepped off the No. 66 bus and run into two old friends when gunfire and chaos erupted in crowded Dudley Square. He instinctively bolted.

"Blam -- I never heard a sound like that in my life," said the 58-year-old Brighton man, the first of four people injured in the shooting to give an interview. "I thought it was a piece of construction material falling. Then I felt it. Then I ran. I fell, I ran again," he said. McFerson finally collapsed behind a police car.

"The bullet went in, traveled to the right, and came out. One shot, two holes," said McFerson, who was listed in satisfactory condition yesterday.

Authorities say Lamar C. Tillery, 34, shot five people in the span of a few minutes in the middle of the afternoon near the Dudley Square bus station, but a motive has not been established. According to relatives and friends of the Roxbury man, Tillery had been displaying signs of mental illness. They also said he knew one of the victims: Charles Johnson, a 52-year-old former tap dancer, who died after being shot in the chest.

McFerson knew Johnson, too. The men grew up together in Orchard Park, playing football in grade school and writing their school work papers so neatly at Dearborn Middle School that the teacher displayed their work.

Those days, the good ol' days of the 1950s, were what McFerson and Johnson began talking about last Wednesday after the two men spotted each other in front of Dunkin' Donuts in Dudley Square. Johnson was a fixture there, hanging out on the bench of Platform D, drinking coffee, and reminiscing with many friends.

"We were talking about when we were kids," McFerson said. "Then another fellow came up, he said, `Hamilton, how are you doing?' "

McFerson didn't recognize him right away, but Johnson did: It was Donald Jackson, a man they had befriended in the early 1970s who now works as an HIV outreach worker for Veterans Benefits Clearinghouse.

"We were all hugging and talking . . . a little reunion, right in front of Dunkin' Donuts," McFerson said.

Then it happened, the shooting that McFerson now recalls, each insignificant detail drawn out in slow motion: the skinny panhandler who asked for change. The dollar McFerson handed him. The conversation back and forth. Then a shot ripping through the air so suddenly, so unexpectedly, that it took McFerson a moment to notice that it had also ripped through his stomach.

McFerson, who never saw the gunman, fled for cover to a nearby parked police car.

"I think I was the first to get shot," he said.

A bullet also grazed Jackson, who reached into his back pocket and felt blood -- then dove behind a cement barrier in the bus station, according to Craig Campbell, a friend of Jackson's.

But Johnson, who was recovering from a stroke that for many months had prevented him from walking, could not run anywhere, Campbell said.

Later that day, at Brigham and Women's Hospital, Jackson lay in the same room as McFerson, with only a curtain between them.

"We talked," said McFerson, adding that there is no way to make sense of the shooting. "If you try to, you go crazy."

A member of the Nation of Islam who has strong ties to Mosque No. 11 in Grove Hall, McFerson said the shooting has made him notice the world around him more, but has reminded him how little control people have over their fate.

"There's nothing you can do," said McFerson, who has stopped working in recent years due to poor health. "We just try to prepare ourselves the best we can."

Nearly a week later, McFerson said he still did not know the name of the man who shot him.

Yesterday, when a reporter told him about Tillery, whom police wrestled to the ground minutes after the shooting, McFerson said he had never heard the name.

"Lamar Tillery," McFerson said, adding that he has children around the same age as the suspect. "The name doesn't even ring a bell."

Jackson, who was released from the hospital shortly after the shooting, is "OK. He's up and about," said his sister, Zinny Smith.

Another victim, Retha Figgs, 37, who was shot in the leg, also has been treated and released.

But yesterday, in front of Joe's Famous Steak Subs, where the shooting began, taxi drivers worried about Michel Louis, a Haitian cab driver who was shot in the face and neck as he stood in front of the restaurant.

"Is he dead?" asked Ghislaine Charles, another taxi driver who tried to visit Louis in the hospital, but was turned away. "Nobody is feeling secure."

Louis, who told acquaintances he came from Brooklyn, where his mother lives, was listed in fair condition yesterday at Boston Medical Center.

After Louis was shot in the head, he ran into Nubian Notions and sat down on a ledge near the slushy machine, telling employees there: "Call the police."

"In the 33 years I have been here, you see a lot of things happen, but nothing like this," said Luis Santana, who works at Joe's Famous Steak Subs. He was in the back when he heard the shot that hit Louis, a regular customer who liked his chicken wings extra crispy.

"Since that day, I haven't seen much people in here," Santana said. "Everybody that comes in here says, `Is it safe?' "

A few hundred paces from where Louis was shot, candles and incense still burned yesterday at a shrine near the open-air bus station for Johnson, who was described as a legend, an icon, and "The Godfather." Vendors, who had known Johnson for years, collected photos and ordered flowers for his funeral this Saturday.

And on the bench of Platform D, the usual crowd -- a house painter, a local playwright, and a hospital worker -- gathered as they do every day to shoot the breeze.

The playwright, Haywood Fennell, took a poem about Johnson out of his breastpocket and began reading it. "It's like a Greek tragedy," Fennell said. "Because they knew each other and they weren't enemies."

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