I walked out of Woodward Hall, embracing what was left of the setting sun’s glowing warmth, smiling at the fact that I had just finished my last class of the semester. Oh what a happy day, I thought: my genetics professor loved a project that I had put a lot of time, effort and creativity into, Alex and I ate delicious grilled salmon Caesar salads, and I had just spent north of an hour talking to another professor about life and prospective internship opportunities. Everything seemed, while unusually normal, exceptionally good.
At 5:39 I sent an email to one of my former professors asking about a letter of recommendation. While I had enjoyed sitting outside basking in the sun, I knew that my levels of productivity would be fairly low while I was there. I needed something more structured, somewhere that I couldn’t become too distracted by nature’s beauty. I’ll go up to the library, I thought. Maybe the second floor, maybe the seventh. I’ll just see how busy it is. Zipping up my backpack, I slid my feet back into my sandals and made my way across the courtyard between CHHS and COED. Passing under the bridge outside of CHHS, I approached the stairs. It wasn’t until a few seconds later that I realized something was wrong. Listening, I heard the sound of running feet and commotion coming from past the top of the staircase. I guess a club is just playing a game of tag. That’s pretty fun. I watched as two people hurriedly ran down the staircase. Dang, it must be an intense game! They’re flying. They must have a big group, too. How fun! As I made it halfway up the first portion of the staircase, somebody gasped at me, “No! There’s a shooter. There’s a shooter by Kennedy!”
My heart dropped.
I stopped in the middle of the step I was taking, disbelieving what I’d heard. And then I watched as people began pouring through the staircase in a mass, literally running for their lives. I’m wearing sandals. I won’t be able to run as quickly. Why didn’t I wear tennis shoes today? Turning, I quickly got inside CHHS, figuring I’d be at least a little safer in a building. Rapidly walking down the long hall, picking up my pace as I did so, I tried to absorb as much information as I could from the chatter people were sharing. Some, like myself, were in disbelief and slightly doubtful. Others had heard the gunshots and raced as far away as they could.
Amid the bustling conversation and swarming people I laid eyes a girl flailing her arms and reaching for the walls. I watched as people ran by her, ignoring her cries for help: “I can’t see — I left my glasses in the library! I can’t see!” Running towards her, I grabbed her hand and introduced myself:
“My name is Kerrington. I’m going to get you through this. Come with me.”
At this point, I was starting to believe what people were saying. More people were confirming the presence of a shooter, and nobody knew where he was at that point. Where’s the best place to hide? The tunnel — we’ll be safe in the tunnel. There’s a tunnel that runs underneath the courtyard between CHHS and COED, connecting the two buildings. Alex and I visited once for the sole purpose of exploring, and I instinctively thought we’d be safe hiding between the concrete walls.
I pulled my newfound friend into a room with a service elevator that visited the basement. She cried, “Where are we going?” I don’t think I ever did answer her aloud, instead pressing the down button and running through what was going on in my mind and trying to fit the pieces of a terrifying puzzle together. Alex had class right next to Kennedy. He didn’t answer my call earlier…
The elevator bell jolted me back to reality, outside the confines of my concerned, wandering mind. The metal door of the elevator slid open, revealing a large elevator car with dark red walls and a tile floor. Staring at the very empty inside, I couldn’t bring my feet to move.
Wait, what if that’s where the shooter is headed to hide? It’s a great spot. We’d never make it. We’d get shot. Plus, there’s no cell service — what if nobody finds us and we can’t find out what’s going on?
“Change of plans,” I told my friend. Running back out, my next thought was the bathroom. No, what if he anticipates that as a hiding place? Everyone hides in the bathrooms. We'd still be trapped.
“Head to the Union!” That cry of direction was good enough for me. Wanting to remain protected by the building for as long as possible, the girl and I ran down the long corridor of CHHS. I noticed two other girls running frantically, just as confused as the rest of us were. Pointing to them, I instructed them to stay calm and to follow us.
“We’re going to the Union. Stay with me.”
The four of us continued racing down the hall, eventually reaching its end and bursting from the building into the daylight. Ensuring that everyone was still behind me, we cautiously rounded the corner of a brick wall and rushed across Craver Road, where people were meandering and minding their own business. For fear of causing alarm and raising a panic I called, “Get inside! Go to the Union!” Looking up to the sky, I noticed a chopper fly overhead. The beating sound of its propellors accompanied the sounds of various sirens going off of police cars and ambulances, all of which only confirmed what was going on.
Racing through the doors behind others, the first things I could think were that we needed a hiding place and I needed water, especially if this was going to be an extended ordeal. We gathered at a table by Outtakes, and I watched as one of the girls used my phone to call her parents. Advising that the group stay there for the moment, I went to fill my water bottle by myself for only a moment, left with my own thoughts.
Alex didn’t answer my phone call, and he hasn’t answered my text. What if he saw the shooter? What if something happened to him?
Panic began swelling in my stomach, and I felt my body start to uncontrollably shake as it rose to my chest and throat. No, Kerrington. You can’t do this now. You don’t know what has or hasn’t happened — don’t worry about something you don’t know about. I tried my hardest to reassure myself, but I already felt bathed in worry. Sending up rapid prayers for Alex, my friends, and for the students as a whole, I twisted the cap onto my water bottle and stepped inside the restroom to join others who had gathered there. One girl was on the phone. Blood was pounding in my ears as I dropped my bag on a table. Rushing over to the sink, I gripped the counter and looked at myself in the mirror, noticing my red face and my dogs’ necklace.
You cannot worry about Alex right now. You have to take care of yourself and of the other people here with you.
Splashing my face with water, I feebly and unconfidently attempted to give myself a pep-talk. The panic that had ensued was too great, though, and would only be cured by the reassurance provided by a response from Alex. Slowing and deepening my breaths, I grabbed paper towels and pressed them into my face so that they could absorb the faucet water and my premature, worry-filled tears. It felt like an eternity since I had text him, and every successive second served less and less helpful in assuring his safety.
Taking one final deep breath and mustering up the necessary courage and strength, I grabbed my backpack and stepped outside with my group. Some people in the Union still hadn’t heard what was going on. Others gave the spreading word minimal attention, wandering outside the building. You can all hide in the movie theater, or the stairwell, or upstairs, I thought as I scanned the bottom floor. My eyes landed on a family-style restroom. Ushering people in, I locked the door and continued to let people use my phone to call their parents and family members. As I watched a phone number being typed in, I saw a text notification from Alex. The five minutes between texts felt like an eternity as I was waiting for his reply. In an instant, the anxiety and fear I had been gripped by dissipated, as if it had never existed in the first place. Instantly, my clouded my mind was cleared and operating in its fullest capacity.
“We’re just going to stay in here unless we get instructed otherwise,” I told my group, backing them past the door. As we waited, I continued to feel relief wash over me in waves knowing that at least Alex was safe. I called him, explaining the situation and warning him not to return to campus. Hanging up, I returned to the present concern: waiting it out with these three other women. As I was starting to reassure them, we heard an overhead speaker go off, “Evacuate to the third floor. Do not go below the second floor.”
“Alright, you heard them,” I told everyone. Unlocking the bathroom, I urged them in the direction of the stairwell. A worker was hurrying us in that direction. Noticing someone trying to open the doors to come in from the outside, I ran over and quickly opened the locked door for them, inviting them into the safety of the building and ensuring that it locked. From that point, we raced up the three flights of stairs and were ushered into a service corridor, accessible only to those with certain cards. There were probably forty or fifty of us hiding in this corridor. The amazing woman who let us in was incredibly encouraging, “It’s MY JOB to protect you all. Nobody is getting in here who is not allowed in. You are safe here. It is going to be okay. We’re just going to stay here until I am told otherwise.”
Relieved, we sat against the wall, impatiently anticipating the news updates that would slowly trickle in. It was then that I looked at my phone when I saw a NinerAlert that first confirmed the presence of the shooter just a few minutes before: "Run, Hide Fight." Shaking my head in awe of the reality of the situation, I sent up prayers to the Lord, thanking Him for protection and praying for comfort.
We sat on that concrete floor for two hours, talking to relatives and friends on the phone, playing board games, and praying. I called both of my parents, reassuring them of my safety, and answered many texts from people who were just finding out about the shooting and from those on campus, who were trying to ensure that others were safe. Eventually, the woman in charge arranged for us to be moved to a bigger, less-crowded space. We were taken into an event room that was large enough for people to sit and wait comfortably. There we remained for another hour and a half, waiting for more news and for permission to leave from campus police.
Eventually we were released and allowed to return to our dorms or to go to the family pickup location. Alex helped return my friend to her apartment, and he graciously drove myself and two friends to my mom’s house so we could stay there for the night.
The biggest lesson I learned throughout this whole ordeal is the importance of awareness. It could potentially be the difference between life and death. I experienced firsthand how quickly your body goes into self-preservation mode in the midst of terrifying, life-threatening scenarios such as this one. It is up to your mind to alter those instincts, to defy what your body longs so desperately to do. It is up to you to stop, to be aware, and to turn around to help someone while others flee. It is up to you to make conscious decisions that have the potential to save lives. In order to do this, however, you MUST be aware of what is going on around you.
I'm thankful to be a part of Niner Nation. We refuse to be define by this tragedy at UNC Charlotte, but we also refuse to let is fade into the past with time. Forever we will remember Riley Howell, who tackled the gunman, and Reed Parlier, both of whom lost their lives during this tragic event. Together we will mourn, grow, pray, cry and appreciate. Together we are Charlotte Strong.
1 Thess. 2:2
"...but with the help of our God we dared to tell His gospel in the face of strong opposition."