Originally created 09/22/99

Family keeps vigil over tourist shot during holdup



SAVANNAH -- It started out like so many other vacations in Savannah. Gail Vasilkioti and Russell Hergesheimer enjoyed a tour of the city and went to the Pink House for dinner.

As they strolled through the Historic District on their way back to the Presidents' Quarters, enjoying the warm evening breeze, they stopped to admire the building's facade.

At that moment, their lives changed forever.

"There was no one on the street in front of us and no one behind us," Mr. Hergesheimer said. "Then there was a man up on the curb, holding something. In a very calm, collected, educated voice, he said, `Let's make things easy on you. Give me your wallets.'

"I thought, `My God, he's using a cattle prod,' and all the time, I'm reaching in my pocket to get the money. I just about have my money out of my pocket when I trip backward and see and hear the blast," Mr. Hergesheimer said. "... He shot at her."

Nine days later, Ms. Vasilkioti, 55, of Larchmont, N.Y., is still in intensive care at Memorial Health University Medical Center, in critical condition with a shotgun wound to her back.

Ms. Vasilkioti was airlifted to Macon last week for the mandatory evacuation because of Hurricane Floyd and returned two days later.

Family members have been in Savannah since the day after the shooting, hoping and praying for the woman they described as a great cook, magnificent seamstress and wonderful person.

After graduating from Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa., Ms. Vasilkioti went on to teach high school English. But then, to feed her love of travel, she became a stewardess with PanAm for five years. About 12 years ago, Ms. Vasilkioti met Mr. Hergesheimer on a trip, and the two have been traveling together ever since.

When Ms. Vasilkioti and Mr. Hergesheimer arrived in Savannah about 10 a.m. Sept. 12, they went on a tour of the city. As the tour guide rambled off the list of sights and monuments, they circled each item on a map with hopes of visiting them in their few days in Savannah.

Then they went to dinner at the Pink House, where they both had fish and wine. Mr. Hergesheimer capped off his meal with espresso. They took a 15-minute stroll and returned to the hotel. There was a group of Girl Scouts standing outside the first entrance of the Presidents' Quarters, so Ms. Vasilkioti and Mr. Hergesheimer walked to the next.

What happened next was so quick -- Mr. Hergesheimer estimates a total of 6 seconds -- he can't remember it all.

He tripped, landing on the ground, skinning his elbow, and then Ms. Vasilkioti was on the ground, screaming that she had been shot.

The suspect fled the scene without taking anything. Police believe he ran to a waiting car, although several different descriptions of vehicles have been given. So far, there are no suspects in the case.

For now, the family will stay and continue their vigil, hoping for a miracle.