Ten years ago today, a former Northern Illinois University student opened fire in a classroom. Five students were killed; 17 more were shot; and four others were injured while escaping. WNIJ’s Susan Stephens remembers what it was like to be on campus then and in the difficult days that followed.
By Susan Stephens
There are five faces that stay with you. Five students who will always be here, on the NIU campus in DeKalb. Five students who will never get to follow the community motto adopted from the Huskie fight song, “Forward, Together Forward.”
It was ten years ago that Catalina Garcia, Ryanne Mace, Juliana Gehant, Gayle Dubowski, and Daniel Parmenter went to class, as usual, with 115 other students to learn about oceanography.
At 3:06 that Valentine’s Day afternoon, I was wrapping up my workday early: it was my birthday, I was news director at WNIJ, and I had worn, on a dare, a rather unprofessional pair of pink shoes with heart-shaped heels. It’s funny what sticks with you.
Across campus, in Cole Hall, the unimaginable had begun: A man dressed in black burst into the lecture hall, firing the guns he had smuggled onto campus in a guitar case. I was stopped in my heart-shaped tracks by a newsroom police scanner transmission before I could escape for the day: there was a shooting at Cole Hall. Here.
Phones lit up in offices across campus with this message:
“At 3:15, the university received reports of a possible gunman on campus in or around Cole Hall. Get to a safe area immediately. Take precautions until given the all-clear.”
But, by then, it was already over. The gunfire had ended a few minutes after it had started. Then-NIU president John Peters described the attack that evening as “a very brief, rapid-fire assault that ended with the gunman taking his own life.”
Steven Kazmierczak, 27, shot himself to death on the classroom stage while police closed in. But, for a while, it wasn’t clear if he was the only shooter. So many victims were showing up all over campus. Students hid with their professors, unsure of what was happening around them. They had heard gunshots, sirens, even helicopters — and didn’t know what to do.
Just a few days after the shooting, Claire Scarberry returned to campus for the support of her friends. She recalled locking herself in a storeroom in Cole Hall.
“It’s such a different experience being there and not knowing what’s going on and just hearing all the screaming and shooting just outside the doors,” she said. “And not knowing. We had a landline, but we couldn’t call out of the storeroom; nothing was working. It was an intense two hours.”
It wasn’t until late that evening that I saw the text message that made me lose it: “Aunt Sue – are we safe yet?”
My nephew had been huddled in a classroom in NIU’s law school, lights off, quiet, his professor helplessly passing a bowl of candy around while they waited for the all-clear.
Are we safe yet? Ten years later, that question is still all too relevant. About a dozen schools have experienced on-campus shootings so far this year. No one was hurt in most of them, but then there was Marshall County High School in Kentucky, where two were killed and 18 injured by a fellow student.
Are we safe yet? A lot of people who were at NIU on February 14, 2008, still struggle with it. The families of the five students who died, of course. Those who were injured. People — including first responders — who saw things no one should ever have to see.
People are struggling because they saved a victim. Others struggle because they could not. And it keeps going from there: the friends and family of the shooter, and people who just keep getting dragged into the terrible and growing community of victims of classroom violence.
Former President John Peters says NIU learned a lot from the Virginia Tech shooting. Safety plans were put in place at NIU after that 2007 campus shooting, and people from Virginia Tech were on campus at NIU that next year, soon after the 2/14 shooting, offering expertise and comfort.
“You learn from it,” Peters said during his most recent visit to NIU. “And there are people, like myself, who have been through it who can at least give advice about how to handle things like that. We have developed quite a few individuals, caring individuals who have been very helpful.”
So what’s changed at NIU since that terrible day in 2008? Alert systems and communications have improved. There’s an army of support. Security is taken more seriously on campus. Every shooting adds to the knowledge base. Maybe there’s a little comfort in that.
For journalists, there’s more support, too. Newsrooms that have dealt with disasters have gotten good at sharing tips, though they’re usually “I wish we had done it this way…” advice.
So, on Feb. 14, NIU will take a moment to reflect and remember, just as it has done every anniversary since 2009. At 3:06 p.m., bells on campus will ring five times, one for each student who died that day. Scholarships will be given in their names.
Those five faces will always be part of NIU. They beamed for the photographers who took those pictures, not knowing that this was how they would always be remembered — that this was the smile, the look, the frozen point in time by which they would be known to the world, to all of the future NIU Huskies. Gayle Dubowski’s deeply-dimpled grin. Catalina Garcia’s dark hair covering one eye. Juliana Gehant in lipstick and fatigues. Ryanne Mace with her dark red hair parted down the middle. And Daniel Parmenter, picture-day ready in his dark suit and checked tie. Someday, those faces will look of a time, of a place. But now, ten years after, they still look like any student you might see walking across campus.
During his weekend visit to NIU, former president Peters recognized that much had changed at the school he used to lead. The students who had been on campus in 2008 have graduated and moved on. There’s been ten years’ worth of turnover in the faculty and staff. Today’s students are a decade removed from the tragedy.
“That is my big fear,” said Peters. “One of my major reasons I came back was to spend some days and talk to new students. And fortunately, the NIU student hasn’t changed. They are gritty, they are straightforward. And they want a good education.
“They are aware the university went through something, and that makes the university special. And there are certain characteristics that came out of that they are expected to emulate. I think they are. Nothing is like being there and going through it. But I do think they understand they are part of something special.”
More information is available in the official NIU report on the Feb. 14, 2008, shootings.