He was nineteen years old, and he lived with his parents in a house two blocks from our grocery store. He attended the high school down the street, the one my son is due to enter next year. The principal says he was an excellent student, “brilliant, meticulous, and respectful.” He graduated seventh in his class.
My supervisor stepped into my office just prior to our usual 9:00 a.m. Tuesday meeting and said, “There’s a report of a gunman on campus, near the main library.” We work in the basement of the old library, the one next to the tower where Charles Whitman founded the tradition of campus shootings. Our building still bears visible bullet holes from 1966, the year before I was born.
A report of a gunman can mean a lot of things—a practical joke, a jittery security guard, a deer hunter who forgot to take his rifle out of the truck on Monday morning. But this report had come via an official text message from the university’s emergency response system. More people began drifting into the front office, saying they’d received it too. “Shelter in place,” was the command given along with the report.
At my desk, I checked the university’s web page. “The university is OPEN,” it reassured me. Then a student came in; he’d been on his way to the library, heard shots, and saw people running.
Shelter in place, then, was the order of the day.
Because I am who I am, I have watched, from start to finish, the instructional video on active shooter incidents produced by our campus police department. I’ve also trained in environmental self-defense, in small doses. And I’ve subjected my colleagues to what I’m sure they felt were ridiculously speculative discussions about the options our office affords in the event of violence (I’m the only person I know who checks for a drop ceiling every time she enters a room).
But all my droning on and on about workplace safety finally paid off when the order came to shelter in place: We had already settled the question of which office was the best place to shelter in. It was a fairly easy choice, actually; almost all of our office space is fronted by floor-to-ceiling glass, so we chose the office with metal doors, two exits, and no windows. Following remembered advice from the video, we turned off the front lights, lowered the blinds and, rather pathetically, locked the glass front door.
The first twenty minutes or so “in lockdown” were spent trying to find reliable sources of information. This proved to be impossible, given the confusion on the ground. Ten minutes after the first warning, the campus radio station relayed a statement from the police: “The situation with the shooter on campus has ended.” As that report went out over the air, the university’s emergency alarm siren went off, an eerie sound familiar to us from the monthly tests the police conduct.
In our basement, we quickly shifted tactics and began triangulating sources of information, trying to build an accurate picture out of many inaccurate ones. We used phones and computers to search the Web, radio, texts, and Twitter feeds. I crosschecked what I learned with my co-workers in the next room, and fed everything into my Facebook page, where I started to hear back from other people around campus. Our dean’s office, upstairs, emailed us information as they received it from the president’s office, and filled us in on the helicopters they could hear overhead.
Gradually, pieces came together: a gunman, masked; an automatic weapon; shots fired. Fled to the upper floors of the library. Then: Suspect confirmed dead, self-inflicted. No other casualties.
Colton Tooley had the opportunity to kill a lot of people that morning. Littlefield Fountain, where he reportedly fired four rounds into either the ground or the air, is a campus crossroads. My children love the fountain, a bizarre, baroque memorial to students and alumni killed in World War I, with its winged goddess rising from the water in a chariot pulled by giant horses with dolphin tails.
Many of the university’s fifty thousand students, and the faculty and staff who support them, stream onto campus every day at the two crosswalks that bracket the memorial. Some head up the South Mall toward the tower, and my office. Some head to the classrooms in the buildings lining the mall—the “six-pack,” they are collectively called. Others turn east, toward the lecture halls in the university teaching center. Some, with papers to write or tests to study for, head toward the Perry-Castañeda Library, or PCL.
Colton Tooley headed for the library.
Scores of people saw him and, one presumes, he saw them. He had a gun. He didn’t shoot them.
There’s no way to know what his plan was, what he hoped to achieve, or be relieved of, by donning a mask, bringing a gun to campus, and squeezing the trigger. But as he ran perhaps a hundred yards down a busy campus street, armed and in what must have been great mental distress, he held an incredible number of innocent lives in his hands. And he let them all go. An active shooter who didn’t shoot anyone.
He went into the library, also full of people, carrying his gun. He climbed the central stairwell to the building’s top floor, passing who knows how many staff, students, visitors on the way. He harmed none of them. Forty-four years ago, Charles Whitman killed two sightseers and a receptionist on his way up to the observation deck of the tower.
Several of my colleagues work in the PCL; we sometimes meet in their office. I have books from the library sitting on my desk right now, waiting to be returned: Maja Wilson’s Rethinking Rubrics on Writing Assessment. Shirley Jackson’s Raising Demons. A fantasy story I read to my daughter, Tatsinda, by Elizabeth Enright. That one came from the library’s Youth Collection, on the sixth floor, where Colton Tooley shot himself.
In our office, I sat on the floor of the hallway, across from the student who heard the gunshots. He was about the same age as Colton Tooley, though we didn’t know that at the time. At the time, the gunman could have been anyone (though, as I observed rather inanely when the reports came in, you rarely hear the term “gunwoman”). Locked down in our office, sheltering in place, I didn’t think about similarities, any more than deer in the forest think about kinship with the hunter.
Once we knew the gunman was dead, though, those thoughts began to bubble up. As we waited for the all-clear to release us from crisis mode, the questions started asking themselves. Who was he? Why did he do this? We work among, with, and for students. Was this one of ours? One of us? Did we know him?
Then came the reports of a second gunman.
“Second shooter holed up in Calhoun,” someone Tweeted. “SWAT teams bringing in tanks.” The university’s chief of police gave a brief radio interview in which he said they were seeking a possible second suspect, carrying a long rifle, dressed in jeans, a black shirt, and a beanie.
“A beanie?” several people asked incredulously on Facebook. It did make for a striking mental image. “Conflicting eyewitness reports,” was the key phrase. “Stay locked down,” was the advice.
We didn’t know if the second suspect even existed, but we knew that Calhoun, in the six-pack, was between us and the PCL—the action was getting closer. And we also knew people in Calhoun, lots of them. My office used to be in the adjoining building, Parlin.
By now we could see actual photos of what was going on outside our bunker. News crews, who weren’t locked down but free to wander like idiots all over campus, were stalking the SWAT teams with their cameras. We watched the tanks roll along the sidewalks. We saw pictures of responders in camouflage, carrying automatic weapons, massed outside offices two buildings away. They were going door to door with bomb-detecting dogs, a fact I confirmed via Facebook when a colleague reported knocking, and sniffing, at her door.
It’s an odd feeling, of a net that might or might not be closing around you. We were pinned, immobile, a perfect target, while our predator existed only as a possibility, his location, appearance, motives—his very existence—all uncertain, like Schrödinger’s cat with a gun.
We could see nothing, hear nothing. We could only stay online, watch the Twitter feeds, read the news updates. If deer could use the Internet, would they be heartened to know that strangers were praying for them during hunting season?
The instinct to freeze in place during danger is intense but it doesn’t last. Limbs stiffen and the mind also aches to move; you grow bored with fear. When both flight and fight are forbidden, you start looking for something else to do. After an hour or two in lockdown, students in the lecture hall near our office began drifting out into the lobby. We watched them through our glass door, at first anxiously, then enviously. As I told people later, the main thing I now know about being in an active shooter situation is that you should try to go to the bathroom before it starts.
Then word began to come in that they were closing buildings, sending people home. The School of Social Work got the all-clear. Then Welch Hall. Then it was our turn. No SWAT teams, no dogs. Just an email from upstairs, that probably bounced around the world electronically several times before landing on our desktops and setting us free.
The police and the SWAT teams and the dogs had finally concluded the second shooter didn’t exist. For a time, though, he had been just as real to us as the first one. A trail of hasty email and text messages, a series of second-hand reports, were all we had to shape our awareness of either of them. One had existed, then ceased to. The other one was never there at all. They both seemed equally unreal that morning. But that afternoon the police would converge on a house not far from mine, searching for evidence, a note, an explanation.
We turned the office lights on while people gathered their belongings, shut down computers, found keys. Then we switched the lights off again, and locked the door from the outside. Looking in through the glass, you’d never know anyone had been in there at all.