Intrusion Alert: Inside an Active Shooter Disaster Drill

12 Aug

Columbine High School. Chardon High School. Sandy Hook Elementary School. Virginia Tech.

What comes to mind when you see this list? Shooting, gunman, students, death, fear, loss. Today we live in a world where not even our school systems are safe. Innocent children and teachers lost their lives because, for whatever reason, a gunman decided they no longer deserved to live. Like others around the country, I watched the news as the events of each tragedy unfolded. I saw the horror, tears and the uncertainty of the communities as they wondered how they would piece together the shattered remains of safety and security. My sympathy went out to these people I’ve never met, my heart breaking for their loss, but I could not fully understand their feelings and difficulties…at least, not until today.

I work in the public relations office of the local hospital, and throughout the year, disaster drills are held so staff can train and prepare should such a real situation ever unfortunately arise. It was my job to photograph the event for our records. To be honest, I like seeing the drills unfold, I’ve photographed two others during my time at the hospital. Each story line behind the drill is different, you never know what to expect. For today’s drill, I knew we were going to be starting off campus at the middle school where my mom is a teacher and I thought it was going to be fun to see her while I was working. My opinion of this quickly changed, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The scenario: An active shooter is inside the middle school. There would also be a chemical explosion that happened in the science lab (the room my mom happens to be stationed in for the drill with five students).

As I was not actively participating in the drill, I was given a bright yellow vest to wear, allowing me the freedom I needed to roam the halls while the shooter was still at large. Basically, if you were in a vest, you were considered invisible during this drill and the events unfolded around you. For this particular drill, I was told to stick with a film crew, who was also documenting the events for records.

A 1:00 PM EST the drill began with the shooter entering the middle school office. In my head I knew this was a drill, I had on my vest, I was standing behind an expensive camera and I had my own camera in hand ready to document, but my heart was in my stomach. My pulse raced as I watched through the office windows as the shooter took down the office staff and entered the main hallway where I was standing. Moments later the school wide announcement was made: “Intruder Alert. Intruder Alert.” The building is on lock-down and now it feels much too real for comfort.

I’ve told you I had on the vest which made me “invisible,” but when the shooter looked at me as he walked by I have never felt the urge to flee stronger. The menacing look on his face was enough to chill my blood, he played his part in the drill well.

He stalked the hallways, and we stalked him. As he made his way through the school my mind raced to my mom. SHE’S IN THE BUILDING! Wait, this is just a drill. BUT WHAT IF SOMETHING ELSE IS HAPPENING? IS SHE OKAY? WHAT’S GOING ON WHERE SHE IS?! You know the action is only happening right here where you are, you are watching the events unfold. My internal struggle as I fought to remind myself this was only a drill, this isn’t real.

The gym is on his right. It appears the students were in the middle of a basketball game and didn’t hear the overhead announcement. They’ve fallen to the ground right where they were when he entered. I watched in horror and he calmly walked towards the students. The ones closest to the bleachers he paid no mind to, heading straight towards one girl, gun pointed and at the ready. I heard him shout at her “you think you can turn me down and get away with it. We’ll see about that.” BANG.

I stop breathing. This is only a drill, this is only a drill, this is only a drill….I repeat it over and over.

He entered the library. BANG. BANG. BANG. A classroom – more shots fired. And then we are in the cafeteria during what appears to be a lunch period. He hunts the students as if they were animals. “Keep shoving your face while you still can.” BANG. One girl built a barricade out of chairs and was hiding beneath. Staring down at her smiling, “those chairs will never protect you.” BANG.

It takes 10 minutes from the time the school wide announcement is made that there in an active shooter in the building to the time the police are there. As they make their way into the building, they must heard the most recent shots fired in the cafeteria. They enter silently and take the shooter out. (Someone said he was shot, I don’t know if that’s true or not.) I watched intently as the police put this man in handcuffs and patted him down for more weapons. Another police unit enters, dressed in army green with helmets.

The information is relayed the shooter has been apprehended and there are serious injuries in the room. Three police officers leave to check the remainder of the school. I become their shadow. As the cops on either side of the hallway check the rooms, the one in the middle watches for what is coming at them up the hallway. At this time, we don’t know if anyone else is in the building. They make their way around the building, finding the victims in the gym and library. When they come to an intersection in the hallway, one officer stands guard while the others check for an all clear. As I listen to them communicate with each other in codes that all is secure in a certain area, I remind myself once again this today is, thankfully, just a drill. I am thankful for these men whose job it is to keep us safe, even if it means putting their lives on the line.

We get down to the wing where my mom and her students were stationed. They try the door. Locked. The lights are off. The classroom is empty.

WHERE IS MY MOM? WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO HER?! WHERE DID SHE GO, SHE SHOULD BE RIGHT HERE!! MOM!!!!!

We make our way back to the gym where the firefighters and EMS are preparing to attend to the victims. We are informed of the chemical explosion in the science lab and so now, with two firefighters in tow, we make our way back to my mom’s classroom. Same results. Room locked. Lights off. Appears to be empty. The police and firefighters find someone with a key to open the door.

The first thing I saw upon entering the room — the police officers with his gun point at my mom, who was on the ground with her students, hiding under the science tables along the wall by the door. “Does anyone have a weapon?” he demands and I hear my mom answer no, but five are injured. PHEW, SHE’S HERE. SHE’S OKAY. I can breathe again.

As my mom and her students were part of the chemical explosion, they were evacuated outside so as not to contaminate the rest of the building. She later told me the firefighters explained to them that if this were real, they would be sprayed off with water before being able to be loaded into the ambulance. Two students volunteered to be sprayed off so the firefighters had practice for the drill.

I returned to the main hall where I found the bomb dog waiting. Apparently he did his thing checking the building after the police secured it, while we were all down in the lab.

From here the victims were relocated to the hospital where the drill, and my photo responsibilities continued, but I won’t go into any detail.

Sitting here reflecting on the events of the drill, I have come to the conclusion that I will never get the sight of a gunman stalking the halls of my mom’s school out of my head. It was like living in a nightmare for 45 minutes waiting to be reassured that my mom was safe. AND TODAY WAS ONLY A DRILL.

I pray that as the new school year begins, our schools will be safe and that no one should experience even a fraction of the terror I felt today. This drill has opened my eyes and I hope that by sharing my first-hand account of this drill, you will hug your children and tell them you love them, appreciate the police, firefighters and EMTs who rush towards an emergency and not away, and most of all, I want you to remember that while this was a drill for us today, somewhere out there, this has been someone’s reality, and that is the most tragic thing of all.

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One Response to “Intrusion Alert: Inside an Active Shooter Disaster Drill”

  1. Lisa Writtenberry August 13, 2013 at 10:08 pm #

    You truly have a gift for writing. I experienced your experience through your detailed description of the entire drill. I felt your anxiousness and inner turmoil. Thanks for sharing and may no one ever have to go through the REAL thing ever again!

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