‘Are We Going to Die Today?’ Inside a Parkland Classroom as Bullets Flew
Posted June 6, 2018 8:12 a.m. EDT
PARKLAND, Fla. — They remember the gunfire coming in thundering bursts. It sliced the air, like the balls whizzing in a pinball machine. The bullets pinged off the tile floor and the ceiling and the laptops whose screens cracked and blinked and turned a hazy white.
In less than a minute, an afternoon ambush transformed Room 1214 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School into a vast crime scene, its students becoming victims, survivors, witnesses.
Beforehand, some of them were only casually acquainted in the 90-minute class called history of the Holocaust. Others, like Samantha Grady and Helena Ramsay, were best friends.
Tragically, their class became one of the hardest hit, with two students killed and four injured, almost a quarter of the class. Now, those who made it are trying to heal through modern technology, old-fashioned socializing — and time. The class created a text messaging group that has evolved into a space where they are rarely alone, and their still racing minds, fears and sleepless nights are intimately understood.
It is where they can talk about the insistence of grief. They can reveal the sounds that still make them flinch, wide-eyed. And it is where, just about three weeks ago, many of them learned about the eight students and two teachers killed in an eerily similar mass shooting at a Texas high school.
Sometimes the pain is countered by the triumph of normal moments like selfies or pet posts. But underneath it all, that day is still very much a part of their lives. It is the subtext of the conversations, the reason they are connected. And the closeness that grew out of the tragedy is the reason some of them hope to stay in touch beyond Wednesday, the last day of school — and beyond high school.
Daniel Zaphrany, 18, a senior, described it this way: “First we were students. Then survivors. Now family.”
One Prophetic Sign Said: ‘We Will Never Forget’
Nearly four months later, the students recall much of that awful afternoon in precise detail. It was fourth period, the last of the day.
Samantha Fuentes, speaking just after another laser procedure last month to remove shrapnel, recalled giving some of her classmates chocolate-covered strawberries for Valentine’s Day. Some students were carrying red carnations purchased from student government.
The students — all juniors and seniors — had been learning about hate groups on college campuses. The room itself was a lesson of sorts. Ivy Schamis, the teacher, had dressed the class walls with images of concentration camps and banners. One particularly prophetic sign read, “We Will Never Forget.” The year before, students had painted a barbed wire with the inscription “Arbeit Macht Frei” on the wall above Schamis’ desk. And every year, she took her classes to meet Holocaust survivors.
That day, the students divided into smaller groups and made presentations in front of the class. Gunfire, the sound that would come to haunt the class, was just moments away.Schamis had turned to the class. “Does anyone know who Adi Dassler is?”
Nicholas Dworet, 17, raised his hand.
“He is the founder of Adidas and his brother made Pumas,” he said.
In the four years Schamis had taught the class, no one had ever known the answer. Dassler, whose shoes were worn by Jesse Owens, was one of the names she would introduce to students before lecturing on the 1936 Olympics, held in Berlin.
“I asked him, how did he know that? I was just so excited because he knew that answer. And that is when the first shots rang out,” she said, tears welling in her eyes. “I later told his mother that he was my star student that day.”
‘We Saw Hate Firsthand’
Of the 31 students, three were absent that day. As the shots rang, the classmates looked at each other, some confused by the sound.
Kelly Plaur knew better. Three years before, her father had taught her how to shoot a handgun for protection. So when the popping sound whizzed right through the space between her ears and the new Beats headphones she was holding away from her head, she knew it was gunfire.
She jumped from her desk as the third pop sounded. By then, everybody knew. They were in the midst of a mass shooting, one that may be taught in future history classes as one of the nation’s worst.
“On that day, the lessons of the Holocaust came alive,” Schamis, 54, said. “We saw hate firsthand.”
Room 1214 is on the first floor of the three-story 1200 building.
The police say the gunman loaded his AR-15 rifle in a stairwell and, in little more than six minutes, killed 17 after spraying three classrooms from the doorways.
When he began firing through the locked door of their class, shattering the glass pane, Kaitlyn Jesionowski and several others scrambled to the closest corner. But it was across from the door, with no cover. “I looked around and was like, we are directly in the line of fire, we have to move,” she recalled on a recent afternoon. They moved farther along the window wall and Kaitlyn, 18, pushed the metal laptop cabinet out so more students could squeeze behind it.
Everyone was crouching, or kneeling or sitting on the tile floor, all under the gunfire’s smoky haze that had settled over the room. Daniel was the only student standing. He had pressed himself next to the supply cabinet, just a few feet away from the door, but out of the gunman’s sight. From his vantage point, he could see the entire room. If he leaned forward, he could see the door.
Some of the shots struck the ceiling. “Dust was falling. I felt my mouth get really dry from the dust,” said Daniel, who had been thinking of becoming a firefighter and paramedic. He made up his mind after the shooting and hopes to attend a local fire academy. “It almost felt crunchy, like I was eating sand.”
Samantha Fuentes had staggered across the room toward the windows at one point, crashing into a tangle of desks and bruising her face. “I could hear the shots behind me and screaming everywhere,” she said. “I threw myself on the floor and started crawling toward the other kids.”
Within seconds, one group had shoved another laptop cabinet, podium and a file cabinet together to make a barricade.
Helena, a junior, calmly instructed students to quickly grab books from the bookshelf for protection. Helena's best friend, Samantha, snatched a thin blue book, using it, for a time, to shield her face. She would end up with a graze wound requiring 14 staples.
‘Is He Coming Back to Finish Us Off?’
Kelly, 18, knelt on the side of Schamis’ wood desk. She noticed her teacher was only partly covered. “I saw her texting someone that she loves them. I thought, ‘Oh my God, what if that were my mom.'” She pulled Schamis close and bent over her. “I could protect her head, at least,” she said.
Kelly reached for her cellphone to call 911. She tried four times before the call connected.
Schamis is still shaken by the question one student asked her in that awful moment: “Mrs. Schamis, are we going to die today?”
“I looked in his eyes and just said, ‘No. Not today.’ At the same time, I am thinking, what am I going to do if the shooter comes in,” she said.
She had an unconventional plan if the gunman entered the room. “I just decided I am going to stand up and say, ‘I love you,'” she said. “I thought to myself, how can he continue shooting while someone is saying, ‘I love you.'”
As suddenly as the gunfire had started in Room 1214, it stopped. The gunman crossed the hallway, returning to Room 1216, an English class, where he opened fire again.
As the students of 1214 braced for the gunman to return, the horror began to sink in. Desks were toppled. Blood and glass and carnations covered the floor. The wounded were crying. Helena and Nicholas were dead next to each other. Samantha and Samantha, and Isabel Chequer and Daniela Menescal were wounded. Kaitlyn was right behind Helena when she was shot. She gently grabbed her right hand. “I kept saying over and over, ‘It’s going to be OK,'” she said. “I didn’t want her to be alone.”
Aalayah Eastmond, 17, a junior who was behind Nicholas, fell with him as he was fatally wounded. She lay under his body on her side, leaning her face close to the floor to watch for the gunman’s feet. If he got close, she would shut her eyes, hold her breath, play dead.
The class was terrified, but that fear had to be stifled. Matthew Satar, 17, focused on counting the minutes before the police would arrive, but the same surreal thought kept intruding: “Wow. I am actually going to die in a school shooting.” Aalayah remembers thinking if she was going to die, please let it be quick, painless, instant. Kelly's mind drifted to the last time her family went white-water rafting in Mountain City, Tennessee.
Still standing, Daniel began to recite aloud the Shema, a Jewish prayer.
The shooting left Samantha Fuentes, 18, with a bullet wound in her left leg and shrapnel on her face. Her leg felt warm and tingly, but not painful. She leaned against the wall, glanced at her two dead classmates and wondered, “Is he coming back to finish us off? Will I bleed to death?”
A Text Message Chain Becomes a Safe Haven
The group chat started as an efficient way to distribute the details of funerals and burials of classmates and teachers, 17 over 11 days. And then it turned into something more.
Partly driven by mourning and immediacy, the group messaging — including Schamis and Darren Levine, who taught a literature and arts of the Holocaust class the previous semester — became a private place students could recount that terrible afternoon and the wreckage left behind. Though not all the students participate, it has also become a place to find support.
“I call it my safe haven. It’s therapeutic. It’s where I know I can go and let out my feelings,” Daniel said. “We all understand each other because we went through this situation together. I believe this bond will last even after we leave school.” A little more than a week after returning to Stoneman Douglas High, Kelly transferred to a nearby school. But she stayed with the chat group.
When Samantha Fuentes went to Washington, D.C., for the March for Our Lives rally two months ago, she recounted, she delivered a passionate speech about gun law reform, and vomited in front of everyone.
“I was stressed and anxious and feeling very vulnerable on stage in front of this huge crowd,” said Samantha, who finished the school year taking online courses at home. “The kids in my class were so supportive. Hearing from them made a huge difference, because they know better than anyone what we went through.”
It is a kind of bonding built upon the long, unsteady arc of grief and healing.
“There is a really powerful connection, an understanding, when people go through the same experience,” said Carol North, a crisis psychiatrist with the O’Donnell Brain Institute at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. “It’s like veterans who were at war together. So much of the support can come from the circle of people who were with them.”
Levine, 33, has watched the class unite in real time. He distinctly remembers one 12:30 a.m. text from a student who could not sleep.
“'I just keep on going back to the scene. I keep on thinking about them, what if it was me,'” he recalled the student wrote. “And then you had seven kids respond saying, ‘We understand, we are all in this together, we are fighters.'”
That closeness extended beyond the cellphones. In the weeks after the shooting, Schamis organized gatherings outside the school. One time, they met for ice cream; another time for pizza.
Six weeks before the end of school, the class gathered at a pizza parlor where they talked and told jokes and took selfies in what felt like a typical teenage outing. Which was the point: the slow but sure march back to some kind of normal.
And next year, Schamis is hoping to organize a trip for the students to visit England and Sweden, the family homelands of Nicholas and Helena.
“For so long, we had been talking about and dealing with death,” Schamis said. “I wanted us to also celebrate life.”