At 2:39 pm on the afternoon of Wednesday, March 14th, 2018, the students, faculty and staff of Northwestern University, near Chicago, received electronic alerts of a gunman on its campus. I was there when it all happened.
Hours earlier, Northwestern students (and 90% [approximately 3,300] of students from nearby Evanston Township High School) participated in the first National School Walkout, protesting gun violence following the (most recent) school shooting at Florida’s Marjory Stone Douglas High School.
When Northwestern issued its warning to seek immediate shelter until further notice, I’d been working in one of the school’s libraries, and found myself hiding with three undergrads in a dark, interior room. Nearly two hours later, Northwestern officials issued an “all clear” — but the experience left many of us feeling anything BUT clear.
By 4:20pm, Evanston Police issued a formal statement that there’d been, in fact, no “active shooter”. The “emergency” turned out to be a hoax — otherwise known as a “swatting”. Someone apparently phoned in a false statement to police, about a man having shot his girlfriend at 1915 Maple Avenue. But for nearly two hours, as police searched the area for the “gunman”, those of us on the Northwestern campus sought safety from the suspected danger.
It was a scary, confusing, life-changing experience.
I’ve written this post, describing the details of my experience, not only as a way to process my own feelings, but to offer parents and caregivers a sense of what an active shooter emergency feels like. Included in my personal account are statements from the Northwestern undergrads with whom I hid.
It’s been only 24 hours since the incident occurred, and I’m still on edge. My body aches, I’m having trouble sleeping, and I’m reliving the events repeatedly in my mind. Do I have PTSD? Of course I do.
In writing all this stuff down, I hope to create awareness and empathy for young people today who frequently participate in scheduled and unannounced “active shooter drills” — and to enhance understanding about what incidents like this can do — both physically and emotionally — to a person.
This post is often a jumbled, rambling mess, yet that’s exactly why I think you should read it, because you’ll get to see, up close and personal, what an experience like this feels like.
It shakes you to your core.
Wednesday, March 14, 2018
There are four of us in this computer lab inside Deering Hall at Northwestern University — three undergrads, studying for exams, and me, a mom of three, finishing a day of research for the biography I’m writing.
I am seated near a printer, waiting for the last of my pages to emerge, when the three undergrads suddenly stand up and begin pacing.
I try hard not to stare.
“Jesus,” one student says, his hand on his forehead.
“What the f— should we do?!” asks another.
I assume they’re working on a group project, maybe realizing they’re late for a presentation? I have yet to learn they’ve never met one another.
“Sh-t!” one student says. His eyes, like the others’, are locked on his phone.
And then, they look across the room at me.
“What?” I say, half-smiling. I’m imagining my own kids — now 20, 18 and 14 — and figure these chuckleheads simply lost track of time — or maybe they forgot about the recent time change?
Then one of them reads aloud from his phone:
NU Emergency: Person with gun on Evanston campus. If on campus, seek shelter in safe place and stay until further notice. Others keep away.
What I hear makes no sense whatsoever.
“Wait. WHAT?” I ask, standing up. “Did you say…a GUN?”
I’m already scanning the room, looking out the windows. I turn to face the door, which leads into another library building — and the vast, wide open space with nowhere to hide. My heart rate has gone from resting to overreactive.
Here in Deering Library, we’re already in an interior room. Better to stay here, I think. We can at least close that door. But does it lock?
“We need to go in there,” someone says, pointing to a different door. It is wooden, with a small, high window, and it opens to yet another interior room in the libary — a windowless, book-storage room, known as the stacks.
As I grab my coat and my bag, one of the students opens the door. We rush into the stacks, letting our eyes adjust to the relative darkness and…wait just a second…hold on a minute…
Oh my God.
The shelves in here are all … completely bare.
We can see all the way from one end of the cavernous room to the other. It’s just rows and rows of floor-to-ceiling, empty, metal frames.
There is absolutely nowhere to hide
I stop for a moment to assess how I’ve gotten here.
I’m standing, terrified, inside one room tucked into another, all within this large library. So why is it, then, that I feel completely exposed?
I look back at the door we’ve just walked through, briefly unsure what to do next. Without thinking, I head, quickly, along with the others, away from this door, toward the darkest, farthest corner of the room.
I’m a 49-year-old woman, but right now, I feel like a hunted animal.
As my eyes adjust to the light in the stacks, I think, Is it dark enough in here? Can we be seen? Where else can we even go?
We all crouch down, huddled on the floor.
“Wait, did anyone close the door?” I ask softly.
“What?” someone asks.
“Is that door closed?” I say.
“Ummm…I don’t remember,” I hear.
“Think we can we lock it?” someone asks. Maybe it’s me.
Honestly? This feels futile. Without any books on these shelves, I can see that anyone who bursts through the door will see us immediately. Plus, there’s another side of the room that we can’t even see from here. Is someone hiding there? If I’m not mistaken, there’s another door…and another door…and another. Someone could burst through any one of them at any moment.
My heart is pounding.
My head feels light.
My vision narrows to what is directly in front of me.
There is a sound in my ears that is not really a sound…it’s more like white noise…loud, yet eerily silent.
This can’t be happening.
I am aware of the others beside me, and though I am deeply concerned for them, I cannot stop thinking about the ones I love.
I feel like I might throw up.
My mind is racing.
I picture someone walking in with a gun, shooting all of us.
I wonder to myself what it will feel like. What will a bullet piercing my skin feel like?
I’m sitting on a cold floor right now. If I’m shot, I wonder if a bullet might pierce my leg and hit the floor? Or will it go through my back, hitting the wall behind me? Will there be multiple shots? Will it hurt? Or will I later claim that, when I was shot, I didn’t even feel a thing? I wonder this because I’ve heard others say such things.
Will it all be over quickly? Will I look at the shooter as he shoots me? Should I get up now, so that I can run? Can I swing my bag and try to protect myself? Can I shield any of these kids? When’s the last time I updated my will?
Though I don’t see my life flash before my eyes, I imagine someone entering the room, arm extended, weapon in hand, aiming the barrel of a gun directly at us.
And I cannot stop thinking about my loved ones.
As a journalist, I know word spreads quickly about emergencies like this, so I begin texting the people I love.
As I do, the undergrads also type silent messages into their phones.
“Let’s turn down the lights on our screens,” I whisper. I don’t want their glow to be noticed if someone walks in.
Then, I notice the overhead lights shining over some sections of the room.
I turn to one student, pointing to the lights. “We should turn those off,” I whisper. I hope he can’t hear the panic stuck in my throat.
He quickly gets up in search of light switches. I head to the other side of the room — closer to the door we just came through — and manage to flip off a couple of lights. Still, I’m unable to find all the right switches.
I cannot take my eyes off that door. It’s closed, but not locked.
Forget it, I think, quickly heading back to the group. Just get me away from this door. I don’t want a gunman to see me. I’ll lie flat on the ground if I have to.
And so I do. I spread my coat on the floor and lay there for all of 10 seconds.
This is stupid, I think. This is complete insanity.
So, I get up and sit with my back against the wall…but I find that I cannot sit still.
The four of us huddle in shifty silence, eyes glued to our phones, eager for information, trying to make as little movement as possible, which is hard to accomplish when your body is trembling.
At 2:49, my friend, Abi, who works at Northwestern, texts me a copy of the emergency alert. She knows I’ve been working in the library today.
“I’m hiding in the stacks,” I reply. “Thank you for sending.”
“We have 30 students hiding in our offices,” she writes back.
“I’m Christine,” I say to one of the undergrads next to me on the floor. I raise my shoulders as I say, “It’s nice to meet you.”
“I’m Anna,” she says, raising her shoulders in return. “Good to meet you, too.”
Though I hear Anna’s voice, my ears are keenly tuned to any sounds coming from outside the door.
I then say hello to Ramon, and then to Kevin. Our voices are hushed. Our eyes barely lift up from our phones.
I go back to texting my friends and loved ones.
I really don’t know what else to do.
I am absolutely scared to death.
As I type, I can’t help but think of every school shooting I’ve ever heard of. I’m picturing people hiding under desks, and shot at close range.
I picture someone holding a weapon and spraying us with bullets.
I picture us crawling toward the walls, unable to get away.
I try so hard to block these thoughts from my mind as I send quick messages to my kids, my parents, my friends.
Then Anna reads aloud from her phone: “They’re saying the shooter is at Maple and Emerson. Not on campus. That’s good news…”
This is just before 3:17, when I receive a text alert from my son’s high school, less than two miles away:
A “soft” lockdown means that, while students can go about their classes “as usual”, walking through the hallways as if everything’s fine, no one may enter or leave the building. It’s an illusion, really, suggesting “everything’s alright”, when really, nothing about this is remotely close to okay.
“My son’s high school is on lockdown, now,” I tell the undergrads. “If the shooter’s at Maple and Emerson, he’s halfway between here and there.”
The undergrads just look at me…and not one of us really knows what to say.
Honestly, the next chunk of time is a blur. I am texting with my high schooler in his “soft lockdown”, while I’m here hiding in the stacks. I try to convey that everything will be fine. I’m hearing bits — here and there — that the incident was a hoax. and though it gives me peace knowing everything may be okay, I still shake as I type my messages to my son.
At 3:25 pm — ten minutes before the high school’s dismissal — the administration issues an “all-clear” announcement:
At this point, I’m feeling better. Here in the stacks, we’re no longer talking in hushed tones. I ask the undergrads if they’d been through anything like this before, and I’m shocked to learn they have all — since their grade school days — participated in regular, active shooter drills.
“I’m so sorry,” is all I can say. How utterly, utterly senseless and disturbing.
I let them know that I’m a journalist, that I’d likely write about this experience. I also ask for their email addresses so we might all stay in touch.
Then I text my son to say we still haven’t received an all clear, and that I’ve arranged for a friend to pick him up from school. He asks me if his tutor will still be coming to the house later. I wonder how to answer this, since she, herself, is a Northwestern student. All I want to do is keep things “normal” for him, so I write, “Yup, she’ll be there.”
When the “all clear” is finally announced at Northwestern, the four of us finally emerge from the stacks. Back in the computer lab, the afternoon sun shines bright, and the room is exactly the way we’d left it.
I think we, however, are completely changed.
There’s a part of me feels foolish for having felt so terrified. Upon learning that the “gunman” had been a hoax, I feel angry that someone’s actions have deeply scared so many of us — including my child and members of my community. How, I keep wondering, have we let things come to this?
I arrive home just about 4:30 pm, and the tutor gets there right on schedule at 5. She, my son and I speak openly and honestly about the events of the day, and about the sad irony of it happening on National School Walk Out Day. We are all still somewhat numb, still trying to process things. The tutor tells us she’d spent the lockdown in a room on the 4th floor of University Hall, helping to keep 10 undergraduates calm.
And as she and my son turn to their work, I wonder about those undergraduates with whom I’d spent the afternoon hiding. I send them a group email, with 5 simple questions, asking them to reflect on their experiences. To my surprise and relief, each one of them responds — almost immediately. I’m so glad they’re processing, and talking about their feelings.
Here are my questions, followed by each of their answers:
1. What is your name, hometown, major, and graduating year?
•My name is Kevin Guo, I’m from Chicago, dual major in Economics and Radio-Television-Film, graduating 2019.
•Anna Kornreich – Mequon, WI – Civil Engineering – 2020
•My name is Ramon Pelayo. I’m from Perris, California. I’m a junior studying psychology and biology.
2. What did you think when you first saw the announcement?
Kevin: When I first got the announcement on my phone, I thought it was a scammer (as I regularly get fake calls about “free vacations if I give my credit card”). So then I checked my email and saw there was one from Bruce Lewis – chief of security – with the same information, and that was how I knew it was real, and serious. I looked around and asked the two students and the random woman I did not know, “What the f*** should we do?!” Then we went to a secluded room in the library.
Anna: When I first got the text alert on my phone I couldn’t believe it. My heart started banging in my chest and I started looking around half checking to see if anyone else has been alerted, half looking for places to hide. It was definitely the most afraid I’ve ever been. (Honestly I’m surprised I didn’t cry)
Ramon: At first I didn’t register the dire nature of the situation. For some reason my brain registered “this is not a drill” as a good thing. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do at first and was looking around to see how others were reacting.
3. How did it feel when we went into the stacks?
Kevin: In the secluded room, I know I claimed to be completely fine, but I did have fear the gunman might arrive in the room and I would for once in my life have to run from an active shooter.
Anna: When we were in the stacks all I could think about was my family and friends. I hesitated texting my family for a while because I didn’t want to scare them. But after a bit I realized I should at least tell them I love them and that I was safe. I also texted my friends telling them how grateful I was to have them in my life. Every group chat I had with other students was going insane – all of us checking to make sure everyone was safe and trying to get more information about the situation. Overall I was scared, but felt grateful that my family was safe at home. My younger siblings all actually participated in their school’s walkout this morning. I definitely became less afraid after I heard that the reported shooting was on Maple & Emerson and not directly on campus.
Ramon: At first, once I registered the seriousness of the situation, I was pretty shaken. As updates kept coming, I started to clam down.
4. How many times have you been through something like this before?
Kevin: In Elementary school there were two armed bank robbers hiding in our playground. In middle school there was a “suspicious individual” reported in the woods, who turned out to be just a hiker. So I guess this is my third time doing something like this.
Anna: I’ve never been in an actual active shooter lockdown before, but about four or five times per year in elementary, middle, and high school we had “code red” drills for this type of situation. In the lockdown today however it was odd in the sense that I actually didn’t really know what to do – I felt somewhat alone. In elementary – high school, we had these drills so often that we knew exactly where to go in each of our classrooms (what closet to hide in, what corner to sit in) – so it was weird to have to make that decision of where to go somewhat on my own. I remember in my high school biology class we were always told to hide in the chemical supply closet, and our teacher would always half-jokingly say that worst case-scenario he would throw one of the buckets of acid that were stored in the closet on the intruder. It’s crazy to think that these drills are unique to my generation – and that they weren’t a normal part of being a student for my parents, teachers, etc.
Ramon: I have never ever experienced anything like this. Although it was a hoax, I hope to never have to experience a similar situation again.
5. How are you feeling now?
Kevin: Right now I am just dying to know the motives for why the fake report was even filed.
Anna: I’m feeling better now – still a little in shock that this was part of my day. Happy that everyone is safe. I’m also happy that the university did a pretty good job of alerting us asap and providing us students with constant updates. My sisters and I had planned on attending the March for Our Lives in Chicago on March 24, and I’m more excited about it now more than ever. This country needs stricter gun laws – in my opinion there’s no need for citizens to have access to such destructive weapons.
Ramon: Right now, I’m fine. Besides a major headache, there were no repercussions on my part.
According to Jon Yates of Northwestern’s Media Relations Department: “On the night of the incident, Todd Adams (Associate Vice President and Dean of Students) sent all students an email urging them to reach out to Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), the Dean of Students Office or the Chaplain’s staff for counseling or support. They were also told they could reach out to the Residential Life staff in their buildings, or find additional services and resources on the NU website (NUhelp) or the NUhelp app.
Personally, I’m grateful that no one was hurt. I suppose the silver lining in this experience is that my loved ones know exactly how I feel about them…and that my son and I will have a unique and lasting memory to reflect upon forever.
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