Bodies, blood, bullets: What Parkland survivors saw in ambushed classrooms
Only when she saw the blood did Daniela Menescal grasp what it meant.
Her blood seeped from her hip and thigh through her white pants; the blood of others splattered there, too.
She took in the bullet-riddled laptops, the shattered glass and then, just a few feet away, the image that will always stay with her: the bodies of her two classmates, Nick Dworet and Helena Ramsay, nestled together, his head on her lap.
“I think about it every day. It’s something that I can’t control.”
Nearly two months after the shooting, images haunt the students and teachers who were inside the classrooms ambushed that day.
These survivors live with anxiety and fear, sleepless nights and wandering thoughts — unable to escape the sights, sounds and smells of Feb. 14: The crunch of glass beneath their feet. Gunsmoke so thick it veiled classrooms. Blood-smeared hallways. The moans of the wounded.
“What stays with me is hearing one of my classmates cry for help,” said Stephany De Oliveira, a senior in Room 1213, on the first floor across the hall from Menescal’s class. Four students were shot in Room 1213 and one died.
Memories of Carmen Schentrup lying lifeless on the classroom floor torment De Oliveira. She doesn’t want to remember her that way, but instead as the genuine and intelligent girl she was. They had known each other for years, sharing classes and walking to the bus together.
“That’s been really hard knowing that we were the very few who saw her in her final moments, and we couldn’t do anything,” said De Oliveira, 18. “Everybody’s been telling me it’s survivor’s guilt, but it’s very real, and it’s not going away anytime soon.”
After the shooting, Room 1214 created a text group, in search of comfort from those who heard the same gunfire, saw the same bloodshed and feared for their lives in the very same space.
The 30 Holocaust history students and their teachers lean on each other day and night.
Texts sometimes ping at 1 or 2 a.m. “Is anyone up?”
It’s easier than waking parents in the middle of the night when visions of the shooting flood their heads. They’re not alone.
“We’re outspoken, there’s no filter,” said Sid Fischer, a junior in that class.
They text “I love you’s” to the group and lend support in other parts of their lives, too. A classmate’s grandpa died recently and the group gave condolences.
De Oliveira shares her feelings on Twitter: “We were told to get up and run for our lives. When we got up from behind the desk, two bodies of my classmates laid there, lifeless or unconscious. I was in disbelief but mostly feeling guilt,” she said in a recent post.
“When running out into the hallway, I step on glass, bullet shells, and blood. The sense of guilt came even stronger when I had to run by two more lifeless bodies in the hallway, having no choice but to, once again, leave them behind.”
Crystal Woodman Miller has been on the healing journey that these Parkland survivors now face. She, too, was a target at the end of a shooter’s barrel, this one at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.
Nineteen years after that mass shooting, those survivors have hit the lows and highs of grief and acceptance, and have settled into a new normal from the tragedy. Some say they are no longer defined by the shooting that derailed their lives.
Miller, now 34, was a junior at Columbine on April 20, 1999, when she ducked beneath a table in the school library as two teenagers killed a student hiding nearby. The pair turned to Miller’s table but ran out of ammunition, she said. Before the shooters left, they yelled they would return to kill everyone else. She and a friend made their escape.
“As we ran out, it looked like a war had taken place. We had to step over bodies to get out,” she said.
Miller describes the days and weeks after the shooting as dark and painful. She saw a therapist for years and found solace in co-writing a book, “Marked for Life,” about how she found hope and purpose after Columbine.
“We had no idea how to deal with this,” she said. “There was no book. We all walk through grief so differently. I wanted to be around people, but I wanted to be alone. I wanted to be comforted, but I would recoil at touch. I wanted it quiet, but I needed it loud.”
Miller finds it healing to talk about Columbine and met with Parkland students and teachers to discuss their road ahead.
“There are still [Columbine] survivors struggling deeply,” she said. “Some may be willing to share and others aren’t. There is no timeline for healing. There is no time where you can say, ‘OK, you are healed now.’”
‘We were vulnerable’
Stoneman Douglas psychology teacher Ronit Reoven replays the what-ifs in her head.
Could Carmen Schentrup’s death have been prevented? The injuries of three students? Gunfire had shattered the window in her door, spraying across Room 1213.
“What if we were able to maneuver the desk? What if instead of crouching over on top of each other and everyone huddled like that, what if we all stood up against the wall like sardines?” Reoven said. “So then I’m playing all the what-ifs, and it’s killing me because really there was nothing we could do. We were sitting ducks. We were vulnerable.”
Once the gunfire ceased, she remembers emerging from her hiding spot behind her desk.
Student Ben Wikander, 17, had been shot in the arm. Students tossed her a blanket, which she used as a tourniquet for him.
Samantha Mayor was shot in the knee and appeared stable. Instinctively, Reoven didn’t move Maddy Wilford, whose lips were pale white as she drifted in and out of consciousness. She had been shot three times and barely clung to life.
Reoven said she knew Carmen Schentrup was gone.
At home, Reoven was overwhelmed with emotions. A slammed door two days after the massacre sounded just like gunshots, she said. She found herself crying at the kitchen sink.
At about the third week, she came to understand there was nothing she could have done to prevent the outcome. Still, she’s on edge, anxious, irritable and angry. She didn’t feel ready to return to school but is teaching again.
“We really didn’t have enough time for ourselves to fix our heads. Period,” Reoven said. “We really didn’t have down time for ourselves to sit in quiet for eight hours, to just stare at the clouds, to do whatever we needed to do to help ourselves to cope outside of school.”
She tries to stay close to those students who need her.
Wilford and Mayor are back in school. Wikander, his arm still in a sling, is not.
And she has begun therapy.
“I teach psychology, so I know PTSD is going to be something out of this, anxiety is going to be something, I know,” she said.
Frank DeAngelis, who was principal of Columbine the day of that shooting, suffers from PTSD and is still in therapy 19 years later.
He believes the only reason he’s alive today is because one of the shooters decided to pursue another victim up a stairway instead of coming after him.
To this day, loud noises — balloons popping, fire alarms ringing — take him back.
“People ask when it’s going to get back to normal — and it doesn’t,” said DeAngelis, who retired in 2014. “We had to redefine what normal was.”
Dr. Frank Ochberg, a psychiatrist and expert on PTSD, worked with survivors after the Columbine shooting.
“At least once a month you go back to the horrible memory without wanting to,” he said. “You get triggered. This syndrome is so similar to being shot and carrying a bullet inside you. It’s an invisible wound, but it’s a wound.”
The slam of a heavy wooden church door at a classmate’s funeral sent Stoneman Douglas student Danielle Gilbert to the floor.
“I was shaking. I couldn’t move. My mom and another woman had to come over and pick me up and hold me,” said the 17-year-old who was in Reoven’s class. “I didn’t talk to them. I didn’t respond. I was just shaking. I was just reliving it all.”
Rebecca Bogart, 17, from Room 1214, said it’s been hard to find peace since that day — not even in her usual spot in the Everglades, where she has always gone to catch the sunsets and unwind. There, the sound of a car one day, possibly backfiring, drove her to tears.
“It sounded like three gunshots to me cause the sound it made was really loud,” she said. “I didn’t even see the car and I [was] just sort of freaking out and started crying, called my dad, and I was scared.”
Her dad offered to come pick her up, but she regained her composure: “I said, ‘I’ll be fine.’”
But how long does it take to truly be fine? It’s too soon to tell for Parkland students.
It took about eight years for most of the Columbine students to move past the tragedy, said New York-based author Dave Cullen, who spent 10 years writing a book about the Colorado school shooting.
“The morning after, it was pretty shocking,” Cullen said. “They literally changed overnight. They entered the numb phase of PTSD.
“By year eight, they were telling me they were really ready to be done with it, and it no longer defined them.”
But the parents who lost children, he said, “really never got over it.”
At 17, Sid Fischer had never contemplated his death before.
Today, he wonders what his funeral would have been like.
“I think about my friends, my family and how incomplete my life is so far, and how my future could have just been erased,” said Fischer, who was in the Holocaust history class. “As soon as those bullets stopped ringing in our room, I was like, why us? … Why were we chosen?”
Like Menescal, he keeps coming back to images: the blood and bullets on the floor; the walking wounded getting up for help; fellow student Luke Hoyer’s body in the hallway outside his classroom.
“Those first seven to 10 shots do rattle through my mind, and then as soon as that happens I start adding detail,” Fischer said. “Once one memory of the event occurs, all of them kind of join together.”
Even a happy occasion — a surprise visit from Miami Heat basketball star Dwyane Wade on March 7 — unnerved him. The collective cries of surprised students, albeit joyful ones, had him looking for the exits.
“I got up in a panic ... and I was ready to run,” he said. “Two counselors saw me and they came over and comforted me because they knew I was going through trauma.”
After the six-minute, 20-second rampage, Fischer may have walked out of the school unscathed, he said, but he feels shattered inside.
His head is clouded with thoughts of the shooting — he misses having a clear mind. The torrent of thoughts is so great he sometimes gets headaches, he said. He wonders whether he’ll be the happy kid he was before Feb. 14.
He recalls glancing back at the school that day, as he ran away to safety after the massacre.
That moment, he realized, was his rebirth.
“Through those walls, I noticed that there’s probably my old self just sitting there in that corner still thinking about if I’m going to live or die.”