It was an ordinary afternoon in the second week of school when students and teachers heard the sharp, distinctive cracks of gunfire and a woman’s urgent voice over the loudspeaker: “Intruder alert. Intruder alert. Lock down.”
In an instant, those at Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy in DeKalb County thought the worst, with visions of last year’s school slaughter in Newtown, Conn., sinking in.
“We heard glass break and two loud booms,” said Areunia Johnson, a 9-year-old fourth-grader at McNair. “I was scared, but our teacher told us not to panic.”
Six-year-old Jordyn Israel said that she, too, heard two loud booms, and that her teacher told students to sit down and be quiet. “She locked the doors and shut off the lights,” Jordyn said. “She told us somebody was trying to murder us.”
A man reportedly carrying an AK-47 assault rifle strolled into the school of 800 students shortly after lunch. His intent remains unclear. But he allegedly told an office employee to call WSB-TV because he wanted film crews on the scene “to start filming as police die.”
The man, identified by authorities as Michael Brandon Hill, 20, allegedly said, “I’m not afraid to die.” He then walked outside the office and allegedly fired several random shots as police arrived.
Finally, however, Hill surrendered and no one was hurt.
But the heart-wrenching scenario set into motion an incredibly tense aftermath where minutes seemed like hours to unknowing parents. Television carried reports that an “active shooter” was at large at a school. Above the facility, a news helicopter hovered, showing live scenes of terrified students streaming from the school’s back door and into a field, where emotional teachers greeted them as SWAT teams set up positions.
The wrenching scene then transferred over to the parking lot of a nearby Wal-Mart, where a growing crowd of anxious and angry parents sought answers from police and school officials. “Where are our children?” they repeatedly demanded.
“When you have a lockdown, nobody goes in,” an exasperated Rachel Zeigler explained in a pleading tone to awaiting parents. “I am the regional superintendent. I can’t even get in.
“There is no child hurt. I understand; I’m a mother too. All you need is patience; I know no more than you.”
The crisis started at about 1 p.m., DeKalb Police Department Chief Cedric Alexander said, when the man carrying an AK-47 and other weapons slipped in the front door behind someone who had properly entered the secured school.
Antoinette Tuff, a bookkeeper for eight years in DeKalb schools, engaged the gunman in conversation. He told Tuff to call WSB-TV news. Tuff relayed the gunman’s intentions to WSB news assignment editor Lacey LeCroy.
“He told her he wanted us to start filming as police die,” LeCroy recalled. A few minutes later, the gunman told Tuff to tell the station to tell police officers surrounding the school that they should back off.
When she first saw the gunman, Tuff thought to herself, “God help us all,” she told ABC World News.
Then she started talking to the agitated young man. “I told him we all have situations in our life,” Tuff said, relating she recently came through some tough times. “I started telling him my life story.”
Tuff told ABC that she felt the longer she kept him talking, the better it would be.
“I asked him to put all his weapons down,” she said. “I talked him through it.”
Soon, the man gave up with no one being hurt.
Two other McNair academy employees came in contact with the gunman — the cafeteria manager and a media specialist who happened to be in the front office when the suspect entered, said DeKalb school spokesman Quinn Hudson. They witnessed Tuff talking to the gunman. The school’s principal was out of the building in a training session, Hudson said.
Hill, who has no known ties to the school, faces charges of aggravated assault on a police officer, terrorist threats and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.
The suspect is expected to have a first appearance in court Wednesday morning.
DeKalb Schools Superintendent Michael Thurmond said visitors must get buzzed into McNair academy and no employee let in the suspect. Thurmond said the gunman slipped in as someone entered or exited the facility. And he said school security officials monitored the suspect on video camera and rushed in to subdue him when he put down his gun.
He called Tuff “the hero of this episode.”
“She put her life on the line. She confronted this heavily armed person and bought time for law enforcement to arrive.”
But even after the surrender, the situation remained fluid. A police dog sniffed what it thought might be explosive materials in a vehicle parked by the suspect in front of the school, Police Chief Alexander said.
Officers started sending the students running out the back door of the school as SWAT teams performed a room-by-room search of the building. Children ran to clusters of other students huddling together by a fence at the back of the property. A police officer was seen on one knee with his arm around a uniformed student, trying to comfort her. Soon, several more children sidled over to the two, listening to whatever the officer was sharing.
Emergency officials, worried about evacuating the children around the front where a bomb might be, cut holes in the fences and brought the children down an embankment where they could be loaded onto awaiting school buses and then taken to their parents.
“This was a very unusual situation,” Alexander later said in possibly the understatement of the day.
Buses were all loaded by 3:30 p.m., but that by no means eased the minds of the growing throng of worried parents at the Wal-Mart parking lot.
Assistant Police Chief Dale Holmes faced that crowd, imploring patience. “No one is hurt,” he said. “I promise you no one is hurt.”
“We have a process,” Zeigler, the school official, told the crowd. “I don’t want anyone bum-rushing” the buses when they arrive.
“How did he get into the school?” an angry woman asked loudly.
“Yeah, that’s the question!” said another.
Kadesta Malcom complained she had waited for her daughter for hours and was conflicted by rumors that circulated through the parking lot, even though officials kept saying all children were safe.
“A parent called me and said they got one (gunman) but there’s another one still in the building,” Malcom said. “The fact that it has taken so long is making me wonder. It’s scary. I’m hoping what they say is true, but the longer we wait, the longer we’re not getting the full story. That’s not helping our nerves.”
Phillis Greene, the grandmother of 6-year-old James Walton, was visibly upset.
“I’m just sick of it, sick of it,” she said. “This kind of stuff can give you a heart attack. Our babies don’t have nowhere safe to go. What can you do?”
Keondria Williams had a tearful reuniting with her 8-year-old daughter, Kierstin, but was still waiting to see her first-grader.
“I’ll never take them for granted again,” she said.
In a robocall to DeKalb parents Tuesday night, school officials said students would be sent Wednesday morning to McNair High School. Those not wishing to attend school Wednesday would be granted an excused absence.
“We had a good ending,” Alexander said. “We’re going to go back and look at what we did very well.
“We’re going to assess ourselves and be prepared in case another unfortunate incident occurs. It’s unfortunate but this is the time that we live in.”
Thurmond added, given what could have been the outcome: “This was a great day, the best day ever.”
Staff writers Nancy Badertscher, Steve Visser, Alexis Stevens, Mike Morris, Ben Gray and Ty Tagami contributed to this article.