For school gun massacre survivors, fear and grief takes hold

Parents meet at a hotel in Coral Springs to pick up their children, following a shooting at nearby Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida. (Jim Rassol, South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP)
Parents meet at a hotel in Coral Springs to pick up their children, following a shooting at nearby Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida. (Jim Rassol, South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP)

Parkland – Physically, Nicole Suarez is fine – but she can't sleep, and from now on, she'll be afraid to go to school.

Suarez and fellow students heard a "bap, bap, bap" before fleeing back into their classroom and squeezing against the wall to hide as a 19-year-old gunman began unleashing terror at her Florida high school.

As shooter Nikolas Cruz carried out a bloody Valentine's Day rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas in Parkland, a city some 80km north of Miami, Suarez's father begged her to text even a single letter, just so he would know she was okay.

"There were about 40 kids in there with a teacher on top of a desk; everybody freaking out, calling their parents, calling police," she said. "We could hear the guy outside our door."

"One teacher who died, he was in the classroom two doors from us when he got shot."

In the morning the school had conducted a fire drill, and the school's approximately 3 000 students had been told at the beginning of the year that a simulation shooting might be held.

So maybe, they thought, it was a test.

But shots and fearful cries from students told another story.

From her locked-down classroom Suarez texted a chilling message to her parents: "Call the police there is a shooting at the school."

"I love you," she added, after warning her parents not to call.

'Please answer me'

Her father replied with a string of texts that went unanswered: "Nicole are you okay?"

"Please answer me."

"Nicole where are you?"

"Please just write me with something to know you're okay."

"Even if it's just a letter."

Her daughter is now safe at home in Coral Springs, a wealthy town near Parkland, but Suarez's mother Mavy Rubiano recalled the "distressing" wait on Wednesday to hear from her daughter.

"You send your child to school sure that she will be protected!" said Rubiano, a 47-year-old of Colombian origin.

As her parents waited in anguish, Suarez felt her legs fall asleep, her circulation cut off from squatting as she hid from the heavily armed Cruz.

"Obviously you're going to feel fear," she said. "I'm 15 years old! You would never expect this."

When a SWAT team found the group, she was one of the first evacuated.

"Do not look. Just keep running – do not stop running no matter what," an officer told her.

But when she got into the hallway, Suarez saw the bodies: "I don't know if they were alive or dead," she said. "But they looked pretty, like, stone cold to me."

Finally, she met her father at a hotel near the school, where authorities had set up a meeting zone for parents and kids.

"I didn't cry the whole time," Suarez said. "Until you see your parents – it's a feeling, like, 'ahh.'"

"It's relief but sad," she said. "I didn't even know whether to cry or to be happy – because I was out."

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