‘I survived a mass shooting’

The recent shooting in Las Vegas is the worst in modern American history, with 59 people currently confirmed dead and over 500 injured. In December 2012, teacher Kaitlin Roig was caught up in another mass shooting, when a lone gunman murdered 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary, in one of the worst school massacres in US history. Roig survived, as did her 15 students. This is her account of how they made it out alive...

Words by Kate Graham

That day began just like any other, with a rushed breakfast before dashing out for work. But that morning, for some reason, I had stood back to watch the sun rise. I live by the water with my fiancé Nick, an hour’s drive from Sandy Hook Elementary School. The sun looked so beautiful that it stopped me in my tracks. I reached for my pone and snapped a single picture. It was so peaceful. How could I ever have imagined that, within hours, I would be in the midst of one of the most horrific school shootings in our country’s history.

The noise started during our daily morning meeting. That’s when I play Oh, What a Beautiful Morning and my 15 first-graders (all six-year olds) sit together in a circle. It’s my favourite part of the day – a positive, happy time. It started with a single loud bang, and the second I heard it I knew it was gunfire, it was close, and I had to get myself and my 15 children somewhere we wouldn’t be found.

Mine is the first classroom you come to as you enter the school, so the noise was just feet away. I jumped up, closed the door and turned off the lights. My keys were across the room on my desk but I realised there wasn’t time to get them. I was running on instinct; I knew there was no way I was getting my kids out of that room, so where could we hide? The only option was a tiny bathroom, roughly 3ft by 4ft.

I told the children that we were going in to the bathroom right now. Of course, they didn’t know what was happening so I started picking them up, putting them in the room as best I could. Somehow, by the grace of God, we all got in. I would never have believed it was possible – there must have been angels on our side. I managed to move a large storage unit so it stood in front of the door, closed and finally locked it. Then all we could do was wait.

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We were all scared. There was rapid gunfire that never seemed to stop and I could hear people crying and pleading. I knew that I had to keep my children calm, to stop them from crying. I whispered that everything would be fine, that there were bad guys out there just now, but the good guys were coming to get us. I was calm and positive for them, but I honestly didn’t believe that I would get out of that bathroom alive.

Through the panic I thought about Nick. He’d proposed that August and I’d picked my beautiful dress and beach venue, my cake and flowers. I saw myself walking barefoot on the sand towards him. I just kept thinking, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. I have the love of my life, everything is planned, and my life is going to end today.’

That was when I whispered to the children, ‘I know that we don’t all believe in praying, but if you do believe, you need to pray right now. If you don’t believe, you need to think of the happiest thoughts you can.’ We all closed our eyes and I started praying, which helped me stay calm. Others just thought of gingerbread houses and Christmas trees. I told them I loved them – I thought it would be the last thing they would ever hear.

Suddenly, the gunfire stopped and I heard voices say, ‘Close your eyes, come this way.’ I thought they were kidnapping people. When there was a knock on the bathroom door and a voice saying it was the police, I refused to believe them. It was only when they found the key, the door swung open and I saw 16 SWAT men that I believed it.

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It’s impossible to describe my relief, or their shock at seeing 16 of us in that tiny space. I found out later we’d been in there for 45 minutes, but it felt like a lifetime. Looking at the children and knowing we were safe, I was just so thankful.

We all ran to the nearby firehouse. Everything was chaotic as we lined up our classes and released each child to their parents. Then it was just very eerie; I knew people were missing but I didn’t know where they were or what had happened to them.

I was in shock and there was such an enormous amount of misinformation in the media that in those first frantic hours no one knew what had really happened. When I eventually got back to my parent’s house hours later and saw Nick for the first time, I hugged him like I’d never let him go. But, like my parents, he didn’t know anything had happened.

It wasn’t until the next morning that we all learned the awful truth, that 20 children and six staff had been murdered. There just aren’t words to describe it, and there never will be. I knew these women and children, and many of their parents and siblings.

All of their names hit me at once. The worst thing that could ever happen had happened, and what could I do with that?

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Those first few weeks were a blur. I’ve always liked to be with people, but now I needed that more than ever. If I had been alone, I would’ve been consumed by it all, so having conversations about friends’ lives gave me something to put my thoughts into.

Emotionally, it was hard. I was scared to be alone so I’d even shower with the bathroom door open. I was only able to attend one funeral because I was so afraid to go anywhere. I couldn’t walk into a store because I thought it would happen again. But, throughout it all, Nick was amazing – he didn’t leave my side.

One day does stand out in my mind from those first awful weeks. I’d promised to make gingerbread houses with the children and was determined that we still would. We have two ‘classroom moms’ – parents who help out with activities during the year – and one of them offered her house for the day. It was amazing to see the children’s smiling faces. When I met their parents for the first time and they thanked me, I said ‘I wanted to live, I wanted my children to live and we hid. I did what anyone would have done’.

Counselling was a huge help. For a while it was enough to simply wake up and say, ‘I’m alive, I made it out of that bathroom.’ But I realised I needed to talk, I needed to hear that the way I was feeling was normal and OK.

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I didn’t ever doubt that I’d go back into the classroom in January. It was hard at first, even though classes took place in a different building across town. But my mom volunteered in my classroom for two weeks, and to look up and see her there gave me strength.

There were difficult moments, of course. Sometimes the children would say, ‘Remember that scary day at the old school?’ I always acknowledged what they were saying and told them we didn’t have to be afraid, we were safe. I had my own moments of fear, but together we got through each day.

Going back to school helped me heal in another way. During counselling, I’d talked about needing something positive to throw myself into. I saw huge piles of gifts sent to the school from around the world and it was so uplifting. My parents always taught me that when you have, you have to give, and, when I showed my children the gifts, they were more excited about sending them to other children in need than keeping them. It was a light bulb moment, and Classes4Classes was born.

It’s a simple but powerful idea: we help children find a class they want to help or send a gift to. It’s a chain of giving and receiving, connecting children and teaching them to think of others. The response has been incredible and really throwing myself into a project that’s focused on building connections and fostering compassion has really helped me through the difficult days.

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In the time since 14 December 2012, I’ve made a conscious decision to focus on hope, on things that are positive and will better me. And I’ve chosen not to have time for things that don’t. I do not use the name of the monster who did this. Someone who makes these choices doesn’t deserve to be talked about ever again. I’ve also learned that, with hope, you can get through tragedy. So many people say to me, ‘I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed.’ But in order to live a life worth living I have to get up and put one foot in front of the other; I have to try.

The loss is a huge weight I’ll always carry. The only way I can cope is to tell myself every morning that those 26 angels aren’t here and I am, that I need to make my life one of purpose. I want to do things that I hope would make them proud.

Today, my dreams for the future are the same as they used to be. I can’t wait to get married, to have children of my own and continue working with children. I cherish my friends, family and fiancé. Life is precious and I don’t take it for granted for a second.

As for the children, at the end of the academic year they made me a beautiful platter with their thumbprints on. They wrote, ‘You made an imprint on our lives.’ But they are the ones who’ve made an imprint on my life. Thinking of them and their strength through this terrible year, having them as my inspiration, helps me every single day.

For more information on Kaitlin’s project, visit classes4classes.org

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