Forward Together Forward

Four years ago today I was in my second year of college, and second semester at NIU (Northern Illinois University) when a terrible act of violence occurred at my school. Although it was Valentine’s Day there wasn’t anything special planned for my day. The biggest thing I was looking forward to was finishing my classes, and then I would return to my dorm room with plenty of time to relax. It was a Thursday and I had two classes that day (Tues/Thurs split). Tuesdays and Thursdays were my short days since I finished classes by noon if I remember correctly. That Thursday started out no different than any other, and as I mentioned I just wanted to get back to my dorm room to relax which I did. I laid down for a while, then got up and probably went to cafeteria around 2 p.m. or so (Sorry, some of the exact details have now escaped me). Not very long after 3 p.m. I was by the elevators when my friend and floor-mate Daniel along with his girlfriend exited one of the two elevators. I could hear an excited conversation before the doors even opened, and out they spilled in a very animated fashion.

What was the conversation about? There had been gunshots fired on campus.

Instantly my attention was caught. What? Why? Where? Anyone hurt? Neither Daniel or his girlfriend knew all of the particulars at the moment, but told me the shots occurred at Du Sable Hall which is one of the main class room buildings on campus and essentially at the heart of it as well. They didn’t know why or if anyone was hurt. Their demeanor wasn’t one of extreme concern, more of shock with a tinge of awkward humor mixed in. So we chalked it up to some knuckle head who was on campus and fired shots in the air during an argument. We thought this from first and secondhand experiences separate from school I believe. We thought very well it could have been an ongoing dispute from people with previous ties, or something along those lines. The police would apprehend them quickly and their stupidity would be punished. I returned to my room and told one of my three roommates, Dan, what had occurred. We waited to hear more information.

When more information soon came in it became apparent things were much much worse. Yes, there had been shots fired, but the shots were fired inside an auditorium in Cole Hall (Cole is close to Du Sable and still at the heart of campus). Another of my roommates, Dave, had returned and the three of us turned on the news to keep up with what was going on. Phones were going crazy across campus. A friend in the floor below us, Mary, didn’t want to be alone and we welcomed her to come be with us. We remained glued to the TV. Soon her boyfriend, Christian, phoned us that he was on his way to our dorm and needed to be let up. I took the elevator down and waited for him in the lobby. I could see him approaching the building with a sense of urgency I had never before seen in him. His face said it all, people were scared and worried. Another student entered the elevator on the ride back up, and was visibly shaken. We asked him if he was alright, and he proceeded to tell us he was supposed to be in that auditorium but had skipped class. Back on my floor, we all plopped down in my four person suite. By this time our school was plastered all over news stations. Everyone was on edge to hear more news. Was anyone we knew hurt? Our fourth roommate Brian wasn’t present and nobody could get a hold of him. This was the story for many others. So many calls and texts were being sent and received that the area towers couldn’t handle them for the most part. I couldn’t let people know I was alright, or check with others. At one point our room phone rang and on the other end was worried parent. She was trying to reach her son, but had gotten the wrong room. We attempted calling out with it, but none of us had ever taken then time to learn the dialing out pattern.

All of us knew this was something that could happen anywhere I think, but it was still a surreal feeling. Just a year before a deadly shooting took place at Virginia Tech. Now it was happening to us. It was happening in the building I had classes in that semester and the previous semester. I walked past it every day whether I had class in it that day or not. Everyone walked past it everyday. In fact the prior day I had class there along with my roommate Dave. It could have easily been one of us if the gunman, Steve Kazmierczak , had picked a different day or different time of day. If it had taken place earlier in the day I very well could have been passing by as it happened. All of those thoughts and emotions joined the ones we already had going.

We watched as some students were helped from the building, some sat hurt and other stood in shock. One clear memory I have is when Mary and Christian noticed one female student being rolled away on a stretcher while under a sheet. We couldn’t clearly make out who it was, but they were certain that it was their friend Catalina Garcia due to recognizing her shoes. As it turned out it was Catalina. As I later found out Dave and I had a class with her in Cole Hall. We took the some anthropology class that semester, but our paths never really crossed. I may have noticed her a time or two but we never spoke, and never got the chance to. Catalina was one of 6 people who died including Kazmierczak (16 others wounded). One of the victims who survived was Maria. I shared mutual friends with her as well and eventually got to know her through those mutual friends. The next year I met Harold who was also shot during the attack as he joined the school newspaper a little while after I did. My fourth roommate Brian eventually made it back to the room. It turns out he came close to being a victim himself. He was there outside of the classroom waiting for a friend and ended up helping a guy who had been shot as he came out.

As you could imagine the energy was sucked from everyone. We couldn’t do anything to pull away from the TV. We eventually managed to get in contact with our family and friends who wanted to know if we were alright. Cell phone companies had brought in mobile stations to help with the added air-wave traffic luckily. The campus was put on lockdown, and classes obviously cancelled until further notice. People began to retreat back to their homes. A ghost town had quickly formed. Two of my roommates left a while before I did since Dan had a car, and he lived relatively close to Dave. I received a call from my friend Ian to see if I wanted to head back home with him since we lived in the same town. It was a welcome offer no doubt. I packed some things and made my way downstairs.

Back home I filled in my parents who wanted to know what I knew. They wanted to know if I knew any of the people who were killed or injured, where I was, what was going on at the school. The next day I quickly tuned in to watch the news to catch any new developments. I also checked the website of the school paper, Northern Star, which I eventually became a member of. Neither my friends or I knew what to expect while we were at home. How long would we be away from our university? The answer came later that day that classes would be suspended for 10 days. Those 10 days were used for reflection and decompressing. We all needed to cope in different ways. Many had funerals to attend to for fallen friends, while others were in the hospital. We kept in touch to discuss things, and to try to make sense of something completely senseless. Eventually everyone made the trek back to school, and I honestly didn’t know what to expect. I was looking forward to seeing my friends and roommates, but not to restarting things. The mood on campus was somber, but with a feeling of unity. The student body came together to comfort one another in great ways. The DeKalb community flooded the university with letters to let us know they were Huskies as well. Business all over the city showed they were hit hard as well by putting displays in windows and throughout stores. Everyone was a Huskie. Memorials were set up at Cole Hall and the student center. A tent was erected outside of the student center that housed giant easels to hold canvases for people to sign. Some signed names, others messages of encouragement. Teddy bears, candles and flowers littered the area. Churches brought therapy dogs to roam the campus and provide brief moments of joy to students. Other churches and community members set up hot chocolate and cookie stands to provide small bright spots for students traversing through cold weather.

Class locations were rearranged to make room for former Cole Hall classes. The professor of the anthropology class I had in Cole planned for us to have our own memorial at the site of the shooting. We may not have known Catalina but she was our classmate. We all met at the location and formed a human chain around the entire building while holding hands. It occurred while others were walking around the campus, and they were welcome to join in if they felt like it. Many students and faculty members did, which is a highlight I won’t forget. During our first week back to classes we felt like the eyes of the nation were on us. For that entire week news trucks made themselves at home to stake out students as we traveled campus. Many were interviewed at various locations including myself.

The moment that brought everything home was our memorial at the Convocation Center. This is the only time I’ve seen every seat filled in that place. Not during sporting events or concerts with platinum selling artists. This one night everyone who could make it made it a point to attend. Rod Blagojevich, then governor, and President Obama, then U.S. Senator, were both in attendance. Virginia Tech even reached out by starting a ‘Hokies for Huskies’ show of support.

Skip to the first anniversary and emotions ran high. The school administration made sure memorial services were done right. We were all moved by the different segments of the one year remembrance that included speeches, candle light vigils, displays and an official memorial gallery. The community came out in full force as well. There were even tons of quilts/knitted items donated for people to take for free. Everything felt correctly done, and it was time to truly look forward.

Fast forward again and we’re now in the present, 2-14-12. Four years later and I’m no longer a student, but still a Huskie. Most of the students from that day are gone. Life is back to normal at NIU. And today things have finally come full circle due to Cole Hall reopening last month. The building was completely redone on the inside. No longer are there two auditoriums, but instead there is one auditorium, a classroom lab and an anthropology museum. A building that was once behind the times is now up to date. I haven’t been on campus since late last year, but I will return sometime this year and I plan on checking it out.

Valentine’s Day will always represent a unique meaning to NIU, but it won’t be crippled by it. Forward Together Forward.

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