Op-ed: Recognizing the realities of the false shooter alert

Thursday, March 28, 2019 - 1:55pm

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When asked about my experience with the active shooter scare last Saturday, I compress it into a few sentences: My roommate and I were in the Diag for the vigil. We got separated and had no way of contacting one another. We both spent two hours wondering if the other had been shot. But it was more than that truncation. It was realer than those few clauses suggest. So here, I retell our story:                                           

For 40 minutes, we mourn. My roommate and I meet each other in the Diag to attend the vigil in honor of the men, women and children who were killed at the Al Noor Mosque and Linwood Islamic Center in Christchurch, New Zealand. Some of us hold hands, many hold back tears and speakers much braver than I am choke over the names of people killed in the past decade by white supremacist terrorism. We bow our heads. We witness cries of terrible grief and cries of rallying, unbelievable power. We are together.

In a split second, we are driven apart. It appears as though panic travels in a wave, bodies farthest from me remaining upright, fleeing, and bodies closer to me ducking, hitting the ground, both willfully and unwillfully. I process this wave, this relative motion, because at first I do not move. Later, I will question my reflexes in this moment. While actual seconds lapsed before I responded to the imperative run, it took no time at all for me to accept that it was happening, that we were under attack. To think, yes, of course it would happen right now. We have been waiting our turn. To rationalize, yes, of course it would be here. They would target us for mourning. They would kill us for demanding memory, demanding action, demanding a world without massacre.

When I do finally manage to run, I fall, too. As I stand back up after collapsing, I realize I do not know where my roommate who I came with, mourned with, is. I look around. How could so many people vanish? Why did they tell us to run toward Mason Hall and then away? Why didn’t I grab her hand, why didn’t I grab her hand, why didn’t I grab her hand …  

I return to the Diag. People seize the microphone — used minutes earlier to eulogize, to give speeches, to deliver poems — and initiate searches for people who got lost in the chaos. One of the brave students who voiced one of the mournful, rallying cries asks me if I’ve seen a little boy with a camouflage jacket. Later that week, I will see this same student walking to a classroom in Mason. I will stop and try not to stare at him, at this person who had no concern for himself, concerned himself solely with the recovery of a stranger’s child. All I can croak out to him in the moment is a sorrowful “No.”

I try to reach her. Two phone calls, no answer. They are telling us to seek shelter in the Harlan Hatcher Library. I redial. I redial. “Hello?” on the fourth. I inhale; I am buying time, and in that bought time, I pretend I don’t know it’s not her voice. I exhale, “Hey.” I gulp, “Where are you?” The person with the voice that is not my roommate’s tells me she is sitting on a bench inside Hatcher. She has collected phones that were dropped when people started running. I think I am still exhaling when I see the person who is not my roommate and pick up my roommate’s phone. I cannot reach her, I cannot reach her, I cannot reach her…

For two hours, I am without her. For 16 phone calls, I am in a desperate, pleading, relentless search of her. For a quarter of them I am crying. People on the other end of the line remind me to breathe. A stranger in the library rubs my back when I start crying and, whenever they move us between floors of Hatcher and escort us past police officers holding the largest weapons I have ever seen in person, they ensure I keep moving. Later, I will process these sacrifices people made for my sanity. I will marvel at the endless capacity to give that some people have, even in these scenarios that try to take all that you have.

During the last of these 16 phone calls, I am back where I started. We have been told that they have cleared the libraries and the Diag. People are going home. I contemplate aloud whether I should follow suit; I feel a need to stay in the place I last saw her and wait for her to come back, but the friend speaking on the phone with me tells me I should go home. I hesitate and look back to the last place I saw my roommate when I see another piece of her: her backpack. I rush over, pick it up, and decide, yes, I will go home. I will carry her phone and mine, her backpack and mine, bringing these small pieces of her to her. I will tell myself she is already home, wondering where I am. Later, I still will avoid the thoughts I was avoiding then. I will swallow hard at the thought of seeing the text messages on her phone, friends and relatives asking if she was okay, that I could not answer. At the thought of carrying pieces of her and wondering if I would see the whole her again.

I get back to our room and I feel the first flood of relief at the sight of her name. I see an email from someone I do not know, but see my roommate’s name in the subject line, in the greeting. She tells me she is safe and that hopes that I am, too. It’s her, it’s her, it’s her. I feel the second flood of relief at the sound of her voice over someone else’s phone. It’s her voice, it’s her voice, it’s her voice. This sound carries me down four flights of stairs to the entrance to our dorm. Later, I will wonder how I did not fall. When I see her, there comes the third. The third is tidal, maybe it should have knocked me over, too, but we hold on tight to one another when we reunite in the doorway to our building. We are left standing. We are together, we are together, we are together.

We do not leave each other’s side the rest of the night. We exchange stories. I learn she ran for her life, entered Mason Hall, barricaded herself and a few strangers in a classroom, then fled through an open classroom window. Sprinted down State Street to South Quad. Spared her lung capacity to warn unsuspecting strangers, approaching the place she fled. Cut her hand during one of numerous falls. Made it in to South Quad and stayed in the room of the person whose email and phone she borrowed. Got first aid from the person’s mother. Walked back with those kind, caring people, here.

We memorize each other’s phone numbers. “Imagine we’re at our weddings,” she says to me, “And we say, ‘Remember that time we made it through an active shooter scare together?’”

I feel too many emotions when she says that: vestiges of that relief from earlier when I realize we can think about the distant future again, joy at the romanticism of the thought, and I think the other emotion must be gratitude, that she was the person with whom I shared this horrible experience, that it has brought us even closer together. Sitting across from each other amid all these emotions, we wholeheartedly laugh.

In one of the phone calls before I reunited with my roommate, a relative had phoned me to make sure I was ok. Once that was established, he said to me, “You know this happened because Ann Arbor doesn’t allow guns.” Something rose within me, not the terror of earlier, but a fury, because when I tried to tell him how afraid I was for my roommate, he dismissed me and made it about guns. Our experience was refashioned into his political capital. Because while my bottom line was my roommate’s life, his was guns. I inhale. Do I live in a world where guns come before our lives? I exhale. I live in a world where guns come before our lives. But I tell you: Our lives come before guns. Our lives come before guns. Our lives come before guns.

I did not say any of this to the caller. Six hours later, I could no longer hold my tongue. I wrote our story. I asked my roommate the next morning if she would be comfortable with me trying to get our story published, not wanting to tell it without her permission. To my relief, she assented. The reports we were reading, emphasizing its falsehood, could not be reconciled with what we experienced.

“How do we explain it to people, you know?” she asked. We will tell people this. We will tell people, our lives come before guns. We will show people, we are together.

Julianna Morano is a sophomore at the University of Michigan and a writer for the Arts section of The Michigan Daily