Op-ed: False alarm

Wednesday, March 20, 2019 - 2:28pm

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By 4 p.m., more than 200 of us arrived at the University of Michigan Diag for a vigil to mourn the lives of those lost in New Zealand, organized by the Islamophobia Working Group.

At about 4:35 p.m., 20 terrified people called 911 from Mason Hall, reporting the sound of gunshots.

At 4:43 p.m., I sent my loved ones a text message that read, “I’m okay I love you."

The truth is I was not ok. I was not safe. And I didn’t know if this would be the last thing they would ever hear from me.

My day started off better than most. I attended the Women’s March with my mom and friends and then arrived at the vigil shortly after to support the Ann Arbor Muslim community. It was supposed to be a day that would uplift and unite us. At the vigil, a student beautifully chanted a verse from the Quran, the names of the victims were spoken aloud and another student began reading a poem. Suddenly I heard a man’s voice shouting in the distance, I turned my head back toward the noise but saw nothing and turned back to face the poet. I could not hear what he said or see the crowd behind me from where I was standing in the front. Seconds later his voice was echoed by screams and cries and people all around me were running for their lives. It was all a blur. It happened so slowly and so quickly at the same time.

Over the past year and a half, in light of the news of mass shootings in this country and abroad, I have woken up with night terrors where I am in a lockdown more times than I can count. But my nightmares did not prepare me for this. I found myself lying on the cement of the Diag. It felt like I was drowning in the sea of people and I didn’t have the strength to get up or the ability to see the surface.

I heard two voices, who I would later find out were my friends, telling me I needed to stand up. It sounded like when you’re sleeping and someone is talking to you and you can’t tell if it is in your dream or real life. I somehow managed to pull myself up; I probably wouldn’t have been able to if it were not for the encouraging voices. I remembered that it was safest to run as far away as possible from the shooter, but I didn’t have the strength to keep running. It felt like I was running in slow motion. In delirium, I reached for the nearest door handle and ran inside. I later found out that it was the Hatcher Graduate Library.

I don’t even remember how I found the staircase that led to “the stacks,” bookshelves of archived materials and locked office doors. There was no room to hide in, no door to lock. In the active shooter situations I had been trained for, there was a dark classroom with entrances that could be barricaded and people huddled in a corner whimpering quietly. This was far from my experience. Here I was in an all-concrete area with nothing to hide behind or block doors with. Fluorescent lights shined above us and daylight streamed through the windows. We were not “in hiding” because there was nowhere to hide. I saw the number four on a door and assumed I was on the fourth floor of the building. I did not feel like I was in lockdown, nothing felt secure or protected. Twenty minutes later, messages came through our phones that read “Active shooter in Mason Hall. Run, hide, fight.” Mason Hall was the building next to us. We had run long ago. We were not able to hide here. And we had nothing with which to fight. Helpless.

I was with about 10 others. Two happened to be my friends, even though we had been separated in the crowd, and the rest were strangers. A couple of them organized and spoke at the vigil. The oldest among us proposed we all sit in a circle, hold hands, and just breathe. My hands were clasped so tightly with the people next to me, my knuckles must have been white.

Over the next hour and a half, we all received text messages and calls from worried friends and family. Between Twitter, text messages and listening to the police scanner on our phones, countless rumors spread rapidly. We heard mixed reports, including “the shooter is in the library right now,” “they have caught two shooters and are looking for a third,” “the suspect is heading towards Brown Jug and others. It was impossible to know what was true, as we received no concrete information from the University’s emergency alerts.

After nearly an hour of pacing, waiting and worrying, some other students found our group. They suggested we try to get to a higher floor, as we were only on the first floor – which was news to me. After finally getting to the top floor, we heard loud footsteps and a man’s voice shouting something, so we bolted back down the spiral staircase in a parade of terror (this was likely a police officer but we, of course, assumed it was a shooter).

We remained at the bottom of the staircase for the last 15 minutes, all 40 of us at that point, while a series of announcements started coming on the intercom. A woman’s voice projected throughout the building that the library was safe and there were police here because the fire alarm had been triggered, though we never heard it go off. The next announcement reported that it was safe outside and we could choose whether to leave or not. The final one said that the police declared everyone must vacate the building so they could clear it. We did not know whether to trust the voice overhead. These announcements spread to social media and I received texts from worried friends saying that what the woman was saying contradicted police orders.

When we finally got the “all clear” message, we cautiously got up to exit the staircase. The emergency alarm went off as we opened the exterior door. Some hesitated, while others said to keep going. Once outside in the brisk, open air, there was a police officer positioned between us and the road. He wore a bulletproof vest and dark sunglasses. The officer sharply motioned for us to stop walking toward him and to go in a different direction. Bright red and blue lights lining the Diag faded behind us. We continued to walk home, unsure if we were safe yet. Local news declared that the active shooter was a false alarm caused by popping balloons, assumed to be gunshots, prompting police to tell the crowd at the vigil to run. I received many texts from relieved friends and family to the effect of “at least it wasn’t real,” completely invalidating my lived experience.

When I got home I peeled off my muddy jeans to reveal two badly bruised and scraped knees. I feel grateful for the condition of my knees. Grateful for these knees that sting with each step I take back into normalcy. I am grateful for them because they prove, to others and myself, that I survived a very real active shooter experience. That for an hour and a half I did not know if I would make it to see today.

Ashley Schnaar is a first-year graduate student at the University of Michigan's School of Social Work. She can be reached at schashle@umich.edu.