On December 1, 1997, a freshman opened fire on a prayer group at my Kentucky high school, killing three. I knew his sister. I saw the bodies. This is what happened, and how it changed -- and didn't change -- my life.
I was 16-years-old, a junior at Heath High School in Paducah, Kentucky. Born and raised in the small Western Kentucky town, I was the fourth generation of my family to attend Heath. My great-grandparents had skipped out on a basketball game to ride the ferry across the river and get married in Illinois. My great-aunt had been the home economics teacher for years. My mother had been the prom queen.
It was a cold, gray December day, the first after Thanksgiving break in 1997. Not owning a license yet, I rode to school with my friend Beth and her dad. I remember I was wearing my brand new blue fleece from the Gap that my stepdad had given me as a reward for getting all A's that semester.
We were running late, but as we circled the parking lot, I noticed a large group of students standing outside the gym -- mostly upperclassmen, including a boy I had a crush on. One of our classmates ran up to Beth's car and pounded on the window.
"Some guy just started shooting people!" he yelled.
Beth's dad told her to drive across the street to the elementary school and park. I told both of them I was getting out to see what was going on. I suspected some boy had gotten mad at his girlfriend and used a hunting rifle to seek his revenge. Just a few months before, a student in Pearl, Mississippi, had gone to school and shot his former girlfriend. As I walked past the group of upperclassmen, I noticed my crush looked pale and shaken. I asked him what was going on.
"I don't know, but there's no fucking way I'm going back in there," he replied.
Inexplicably, I kept walking -- past the group of students gathered in front of the gymnasium next to our high school and up the steps to the south entrance. My high school is small and contained in a single building --- one hallway on top of another, with a stairway on each side. The hallways have wooden doors that close before you reach the stairwell. I realize now I must have entered the building moments after the shooting took place, because the wooden doors had not yet been closed. I simply opened the doors and looked down the hallway to see several bodies lying in the lobby of my high school.
I turned around and walked out. I wasn't afraid. I didn't panic. I just knew that that building was not a place I needed or wanted to be. I don't remember any physical reaction -- only mind-numbing shock.
The majority of the student body was being directed into the school gymnasium, where pandemonium reigned. I remember being told a friend of mine had died, then minutes later watching her walk through the doors of the gym. Very few of us had cell phones in 1997, so I used my friend's to call my mother. As I stood in the parking lot telling my mother I was safe, another friend ran up and told us the shooter was still on the loose and we should get back in the gym. I remember the panic and dread as we waited for the classes on the second floor to be released from lockdown. Most of my close friends had been upstairs and I remember the relief I felt when I saw them for the first time.
So many had witnessed the shooting that the identity of the shooter himself was never a mystery. His name was Michael Carneal. He was a shy, unassuming freshman. Few knew him personally, but everyone knew his older sister, an outgoing and very involved senior. She and I were in choir together and both worked on the school newspaper staff.
"I didn't even know she had a brother!" were the first words out of my mouth when I found out. Months later, his sister told me he had always been known as her little brother. "Now, I'll always be Michael Carneal's sister," she said.
As parents and other adults began arriving, the scene at the school became even more emotional. It was as if we hadn't known to feel sad or scared until we saw the fearful faces of those who were supposed to protect us. When it had been only us filling the gym and trying to figure out what to do, we could keep up a front, but as our mothers and fathers arrived, everything changed. I still remember the sight of cars with doors ajar abandoned for miles up the road as the parents got as close as they could and then got out and ran.
I don't remember when I left or with whom. I spent the evening with friends who didn't attend my high school, telling my story over and over again as the details of the shooting and the names of those injured and killed became known.
Michael Carneal had opened fire on the prayer group that met every morning in the lobby of the school. Three of my classmates were dead and five were injured. Senior Jessica James, sophomore Kayce Steger, and freshman Nicole Hadley were gone. The injuries among the other victims ranged from minor wounds to a classmate who was paralyzed from the chest down.
We learned later that evening that we would attend school the next day. At the time, the decision seemed outrageous. How could they expect us to walk back through those doors so soon? Some of my classmates' parents refused to let them go. However, my mother, a public school librarian, told me that if school was in session, I would be in attendance.
She dropped me off at the front doors of Heath High School the next morning. Directly across the street, the media had set up camp. Satellite trucks and a thick dark line of cameras captured me exiting the car and carrying flowers into the school. I would watch my entrance play out again and again on the nightly news for the next week.
The lobby looked the same as before, except for two small bullet holes in the cement wall that the custodians had already attempted to patch up and paint over. The paint hid nothing as we all went over to peer at the only visual indication that everything had changed. As everyone filtered in, we gathered in a circle. I read a Bible verse, which I don't remember, and added the flowers I brought to the ever-growing pile.