As a 19-year-old gunman walked through the hallways with an AR-15-style rifle and over 600 rounds of ammunition, frightened students and teachers at a St. Louis high school locked classroom doors and huddled in corners.
Some recall hearing gunshots coming from outside and someone trying to open their doors. Some described jumping from windows.
The shooting at Central Visual and Performing Arts High School left two people dead: student Alexandria Bell, 15, and teacher Jean Kuczka, 61. Several other students were also injured in the shooting.
The gunman was identified as Orlando Harris, who graduated from the school last year and returned Monday with an extensive arsenal and a handwritten note, according to St.Louis police. He died at a hospital after a gun battle with officers.
Student Alex Macias said it was just another morning until the assistant principal came over the intercom with a signal they only hear during active shooter drills. Then they heard gunshots, the student told CNN affiliate KSDK.
Her health teacher, Kuczka, locked the classroom door but the gunman was able to “shoot his way in,” Macias said.
“He did shoot Mrs. Kuczka, and I just closed my eyes,” she said. “I didn’t really want to see anything else. But then as I thought he was leaving, I opened my eyes to see him standing there making eye contact with me. And then after he made eye contact, he just left.”
Students began jumping from the window at that point, she said.
Teacher Kristie Faulstich said Kuczka died putting herself between the gunman and the students. She described her former colleague as a popular teacher who was loved by many.
Faulstich was at the school that day and recalled hearing the phrase “Miles Davis is in the building” over the intercom – a code to alert faculty about an active shooter.
Within a minute of locking her second-floor classroom door, Faulstich said someone started “violently jostling the handle, trying to get in.”
Sophomore Brian Collins, 15, was in Kuczka’s class when the gunman came into the classroom and fired several shots, his mother VonDina Washington said.
Collins suffered gunshot wounds to his hands and jaws and escaped by jumping from a classroom window onto a ledge, the mother said.
“He’s really good at drawing,” Washington said. “He went to CVPA for visual arts, and we’re hoping he’ll be able to draw again.”
Dean of Arts at the high school, Manfret McGhee, told KSDK her ran for his life after a bullet missed him in the hallway and hid in a bathroom. He did n’t know at the time that his 16-year-old son had been shot.
He then ran to his son’s health class.
“When I first saw him, I saw a massive hole in his pant leg and all I could think of was, ‘My God, what did he get shot with?’” he said, describing using his belt to stop the bleeding.
After the shooting, FBI investigators found a handwritten note in the car Harris drove to the school.
St. Louis police Commissioner Michael Sack detailed some of the passages: “I don’t have any friends. I don’t have any family. I’ve never had a girlfriend. I’ve never had a social life. I’ve been an isolated loner my entire life,” the note said, according to Sack. “This was the perfect storm for a mass shooter.”
The commissioner said the gunman had his firearm out in the open when he arrived at the school and was wearing a chest rig with seven magazines of ammunition. He also carried more ammunition in a bag and dumped additional magazines on the stairway and in the corridors along the way.
“It doesn’t take long to burn through a magazine as you’re looking at a long corridor or up or down a stairwell or into a classroom,” Sack said. “This could have been a horrible scene. It was not by the grace of God and that the officers were as close as they were, and responded in the manner that they did.”
The police commissioner has credited a quick police response, locked doors and prior trainings for preventing more deaths.
A call about an active shooter at the high school came in around 9:11 am, and officers made entry four minutes later, according to Sack. Some off-duty officers who were nearby attending a funeral for a fellow officer also responded to the scene.
By 9:23 am, officers had found the gunman and were “engaging him in a gunfight.” Two minutes later, officers reported the suspect was down.
Seven security personnel were also at the school when the gunman arrived, but the shooter did not enter a checkpoint where security guards were stationed, said DeAndre Davis, director of safety and security for St. Louis Public Schools.
Davis said the security guards stationed in the district’s schools are not armed, but mobile officers who respond to calls at schools are.
Authorities have said the doors were locked, and it remains unclear how the shooter got in.
The St. Louis police commissioner has declined to provide those details, saying, “I don’t want to make this easy for anybody else.”
When asked if it would have made a difference if the first person to confront the shooter had a gun, Board of Education President Matt Davis said, “The assailant had a high-powered rifle. So much so that he could force himself into a secured building. The building is riddled with bullets.”
“I don’t know how much firepower it would take to stop that person. You saw the police response, it was massive. It was overwhelming,” he added. “… I know what would have been different is if this high-powered rifle was not available to this individual. That would have made the difference.”
Across the country, at least 67 shootings have happened on school grounds so far this year.
Davis said such shootings must not be normalized.
“The fact that it takes this level of response to stop a shooting like this because people have access to these weapons of war and can bring them into our schools can never be normal,” Davis said
“This is our worst nightmare. … And it can’t happen again.”
The Saint Louis Public Schools district is planning to add gun safety to its curriculum, Superintendent Dr. Kelvin Adams said.
“Not just reading, writing, and arithmetic, but reading, writing, arithmetic and gun safety. That’s a weird kind of curriculum alignment if you will,” he said.
Helping students understand how dangerous guns are will help protect them in school, in their neighborhoods, “quite frankly, everywhere now,” Adams added.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism