Two UNCC students relive the day the shots rang out, and what they think will come of it
On Tuesday, April 30, 21-year-old senior Mollie Johnson looked out the window of her religious studies class at UNC Charlotte and saw a man lying on the ground. Four students attended to him, pressing his shirt to his wound to stem the flow of blood.
She was in the Denny building, across the quad from Kennedy, where a gunman was shooting inside his former class. He took the lives of Riley Howell and Reed Parlier, and injured four others.
Someone said it looked as if someone outside had been shot, and her professor, Sean McCloud, sprang into action. He locked his classroom door, turned off the lights, and called police.
The University had not yet sent out an alert of a shooter. And so they waited.
“People started getting texts. People were saying there were multiple shooters or someone had [a bomb] strapped to them. All kinds of stuff was going around,” said Johnson. “That’s the reality we were living in at that moment: multiple shooters were targeting multiple buildings.”
The students all stood in a corner while McCloud barricaded the door with a table, which he held against the door the whole time.
“I like to think I’d be brave in a situation like that, but I was in the corner,” Johnson said. “And [McCloud] has a daughter, but he was staying in front of that door, making sure no one could see inside. I think a lot of professors were heroes in their own way. I couldn’t have been more grateful for who I was with that day.”
Johnson was in her classroom for about 40 minutes before police came in and told them to exit with their hands up, get in their cars and go straight home.
“We had friends in buildings where doors wouldn’t lock and chairs were bolted to the ground. So they threw their backpacks at the door,” said Johnson. “They tell us now that we’re not supposed to do anything a shooter says if he enters the room. We’re supposed to fight and throw things at the shooter and I’m like…I don’t wanna do all that. I didn’t really even wanna come to class today.”
Her roommate Karina De Gracia, also 21, had been in a building about two minutes away, listening to classmates give presentations in her Elementary Education class.
“One started looking at her Apple Watch, which was weird because she was presenting,” said De Gracia. That classmate learned from a loved one there was a shooter on campus and informed the class.
“We all just started running. We ran out of my classroom. It’s all glass — no closet, no chance of us surviving,” said De Gracia, “You have all these things in your head, like ‘This is what I’d do if there was a shooting,’ but it all goes out the window.”
De Gracia said as she ran, she passed many people along the way who did not seem to know there was an active shooter.
“There were children in our building, there for some sort of event. We’re running and shouting at them. We’re passing people who are just strolling around campus. And in my head, I’m in shock, thinking ‘This isn’t really happening.”
De Gracia’s first real reckoning with the seriousness of the situation hit when she saw a pregnant friend who had been having contractions running.
“In hindsight, I’m thankful I ran,” she said. “But was that the smartest idea? The shooter hadn’t been arrested yet, he had just shot people, and in my narrative, I thought there were multiple shooters, in multiple buildings, because that had been the rumor. So, I was just running through an open area and there were helicopters flying over my head. … I could’ve easily been shot.”
De Gracia made it to her car and transported five friends, including her pregnant classmate, off campus. She was so intent on getting away she ran a red light.
“I realized I hadn’t contacted my parents, so I called my dad. That’s when things get real, when you contact your loved ones,” she said. “And then I thought about how I’m studying to be a teacher. I had to go to an elementary school the next day. What if they had a lockdown drill? This is the career I’m going into.”
Both Johnson and De Gracia feel steps could be taken to improve communication when a shooter is on campus.
“The university did so many things well, and law enforcement was amazing, but I think they need a more unified way of telling people what’s happening,” said De Gracia. “If you don’t have a smartphone, if it’s dead, if you don’t have your email up, you won’t get the notification something’s happening.”
According to official reports, the shooting occurred at 5:40 p.m. and UNC sent out Niner Alerts (the university’s emergency system) and tweeted warning students of the danger within ten minutes, but De Gracia doesn’t think it’s enough.
“We get Niner Alerts about a lot about things, even things happening off-campus, so there’s a level of desensitization to them,” said De Gracia. “There were people in the quad playing Frisbee, right next to where the shooting was happening. And so some guys from the architecture building risked their lives to go outside and tell them to get inside or run.”
“Why do we have fire alarms and not shooter alarms? When is the last time someone died in a fire on campus?” Johnson asked. “Even the vigil was interesting. There was 7,500 people and I think we saw about 20 police officers. And law enforcement was incredible. But at the vigil, it was scary as students. They didn’t check bags, a bunch of people had backpacks. I was scanning the room the entire time. We were in the 15th row up at the stadium. Towards the end of the vigil, people started screaming ‘FORTY’ then ‘NINERS’ back and forth but at first, all we heard was screaming and we didn’t know why. It really caught us off guard,” said Johnson.
“The hardest thing was no names were released for a long time. You think ‘Were they in my department? Were they a professor?’ …And then you feel a lot of guilt when the names are released and you’re relieved, because that’s really shitty – because those who were shot were someone else’s person they were looking out for,” said Johnson.
“Yeah,” agreed De Gracia, “How do I process those feelings? How do I process Riley Howell jumping on the shooter and dying? It’s crazy as seniors to think we’ve worked so hard for our degree and so did he, and now he doesn’t get a walk or a diploma.”
De Gracia said she hasn’t had second thoughts about being a teacher. However, she’s reconsidered what that profession entails.
“It’s sad to say I feel more equipped now, but I do. I know how I reacted in this scenario, so I know how I may react in another scenario,” she said. “It’s changed my mentality. It’s changed my comfort level and security when I enter the classroom, but I don’t think it changed my desire to be a teacher.”
Johnson was less sure about continuing her planned path, though.
“I’m supposed to go for my master’s in the fall and I really love our faculty, but all of our classes are in this one classroom I was in…and it’s not really desirable to go back in there,” said Johnson.
Both Johnson and De Gracia say they have gotten numerous messages from UNCC and their professors offering support and mental health resources.
Johnson expressed some discomfort with people wearing green to show support for UNCC students. She suggests giving to UNCC’s crowdfunding effort instead, which gives 100% of proceeds to victims and their families.
“It’s not as simple as wearing green,” she said. “If you know individual people who were there, ask them how you can best support them.”
“Also, have an overall sensitivity about the things you say,” said De Gracia. “There’s trauma even from the response to this. Like, we’re in the South…we’ve heard people from religious communities say things like ‘I hope [the victims] were ready to die,’ and gun enthusiasts have said things like ‘Well, at least it wasn’t a bomb,’ and ‘Well, only two people died.’ Don’t ever minimize anyone’s trauma or tell them what they should be thankful for.”
“I mean, I’m glad people know this happened and I’m glad people know [school shootings are] still an issue,” said Johnson, “but at the end of the day, I know next week no one is gonna care. Because next week, someone else’s school is gonna get shot up.”
On Tuesday, May 7, exactly one week later, a student was killed and eight others were injured in a shooting at Highlands Ranch STEM school in Colorado.