Sandy Hook survivor on the moment she realised 'Columbine is happening'

by Kaitlin Roig-Debellis - 11/10/15, 12:15 AM
Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis with some of the children she saved.

Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis with some of the children she saved.Photo: Media

December 14, 2012. First comes the initial blast of gunfire, then the sound of shattering glass. The hair on my arms stands up. I know right away what I am hearing. Columbine is happening in the place we called Pleasantville. How can it be? Someone with a weapon is shooting their way into our perfect school.

My classroom is the first one in the building. We are in grave danger, I think, sitting targets. I jump up, run to the door, pull it closed and switch off the lights. Thank God for the piece of dark blue construction paper I taped to the door window months ago, in preparation for a lockdown drill, and forgot to take down. 

I can't lock the door. My keys are clear across the room and there's no time to fetch them. For what? A locked door is no match for bullets. If we're going to live, we have to find a hiding place. Fast.


I look around the classroom. My students don't seem to understand what is happening. One, the little girl I call our fashionista, because she wears things like leopard prints and leggings, stands there smiling. I can't tell if she is somehow oblivious to the sounds or scared frozen. The windows don't open wide enough for a first-grader to climb through, and who knows what or who is waiting outside? Evil is coming for us and there's nowhere to go. Where can we hide? Where can we hide? 

There's only one place. The bathroom - a tiny, tiny first grade-sized lavatory with only a toilet and a toilet paper dispenser inside. Its dimensions are about the size of two first-grade desks pushed together. Maybe three feet by four feet. There is so little space that the sink is on the outside, in the classroom. 

I have never even been inside the bathroom before. An adult wouldn't fit comfortably. How in god's name will I get 16 of us in there? It is our only chance. The impossible will have to become possible.

Everything is happening so quickly. 

I turn to my students, who look up at me with pleading eyes. "Into the bathroom! Now!" I say. At first they protest. "In there?" "How?" "Why?" "What do you mean, Miss Roig?"

"Bathroom! Now!" I repeat. They understand that the teacher means business. I rush them toward the back of the classroom. Shots are being fired outside our classroom door. There's no time. "Hurry!" I say, pushing them into the tiny space with the toilet in the centre. "Hurry!" But I know that no matter how quickly my students respond, it will still take two or three minutes to get everyone inside, minutes I feel sure we don't have.

We all push into the bathroom, and when there isn't a millimetre of space left, I begin lifting my students and piling them inside. I place one student, then two, then three on top of the toilet and hoist up my littlest girl and sit her on the toilet paper dispenser. We are all crushed together with not even enough room left to take a deep breath. 

I reach out to pull the door closed, but the door isn't there. Oh my god. In my rush to try to save us, I didn't even notice. The door opens into the bathroom. We are blocking it with our bodies. I feel myself beginning to panic. Here we are, stuffed into a room, with a madman bearing down on us, and the door that is supposed to hide us is obstructed by us and can't close.

My heart pounds, but I cannot afford to lose my composure, not if we are to have any chance of getting out of this alive. First-graders model their teacher's behaviour. If I panic, they'll all panic, and we'll be dead. 

One by one, I pick up the students who are blocking the door and move each one behind it until I am finally able to push it closed. But just before I do, I reach outside for a large storage cabinet on wheels that is nearby and pull it as close as I can to the front of the bathroom door, hoping that maybe it will conceal the door. "Now," I say, "we have to be absolutely quiet. We can't say a word."

I can't help but wonder if, by trapping us in the bathroom, I have just sentenced us to certain death. 

What if the shooter realises that the storage cabinet is a ruse and shoots right through it?

Someone shouts, "Shooter! Stay put!" Is that our principal? The school nurse? Another teacher? The sounds are too muffled to tell. Then, ear-splitting, rapid-fire shots, like a machine gun - di-di-di-di-di-di-di-di-di-di-di-di - over and over and over. 

We hear pleading. My students stay perfectly quiet. First-graders are black-and-white. They understand that someone very bad is searching for us and in order for us not to be discovered they stay perfectly quiet. In our silence, we hear voices, although whose is unclear. They are muffled voices. People are pleading for their lives: "No! Please, no! Please! No!" 

If my students are to keep even relatively calm, they must not know that my insides are shaking and I'm sure we are all about to die. It's a very difficult thing, putting on a cool front in the midst of what I know is life and death.

With the inescapable sounds of carnage happening all around us, my little ones are feeling desperate. "What is happening?" one of them whispers. My fashionista begins to cry. I cup her face in my hands and look into her teary eyes.

"We're going to be okay," I promise. I never make promises I can't keep, especially not to children, but this is a matter of life and death. 

The boy who straddles the top of the toilet is shaking so hard that he accidentally flushes. Once, then again. We all hold our breath. Shhhhhhhhh! Did the shooter hear? I look at the boy and his face says it all. I'm scared and I'm sorry and I don't know what to do. 

"Miss Roig, I don't want to die today," one of my students whispers. "I just want my mom," another says, fighting tears. "I don't want to die before Christmas," says my student who has been talking about the holiday for months. We are squeezed together like fingers in a tight fist. My kids want out of this sweltering, sealed-up box we're in. "I'll lead the way!" one of the boys whispers. "I know karate," says another boy. Hadn't it been moments ago that he told us the story of finding a dollar under his pillow for his two front teeth? 

"No," I say gently. "There are bad guys out there and we need to wait for the good guys to come." I can't bear to think that their last moments will be spent this way: in fear. I must reassure them, even though I don't believe my own words. "It's going to be okay. We're going to be okay," I say. 

Then, because I believe that death is imminent and I want to do whatever I can to make them feel safe, I tell them how much they have meant to me. "I need you to know that I love you all very much," I say. In comforting them, I have also brought comfort to myself. 

"Anyone who believes in the power of prayer needs to pray right now," I add, "and anyone who does not needs to think really happy thoughts." I put my hands together and start to pray. 

The kids are too crammed together to move their arms, but most of them close their eyes and I assume they are following my instruction. The shooting continues. Now I am prepared to die.

An eternity passes. The bathroom is stifling and I am soaked in sweat. The kids are impatient. "I'm hot, Miss Roig," one whispers. "Can we please get out?" Several say they need to go to the bathroom. For the most part, though, they are content to be quiet if it means the bad guy can't find us. 

I wonder what is happening outside. Does the silence mean the shooter is gone? Or is he preparing for his next move? Then, from the other side of the wall, come the voices of people who are barking orders. I hear them clearly. "Don't look up." "Don't open your eyes." "Walk quickly." Oh my god. Is there more than one shooter? Are they kidnapping people? What is going to happen to us? My heart races in my chest. My kids look up at me. "Shhhhhhhh," I say. 

We have been in the bathroom for a very long time. At least 45 minutes. The heat is becoming unbearable. We can barely take a deep breath. A knock comes at the door and we all stiffen with fear. I put my index finger to my lips. I fear that if we make any noise, the shooter will realise that the teacher has hidden her whole class in here. 

"Ask who's there," I whisper to one of my students. I don't want the shooter to know that there are 16 terrified people huddled together behind the bathroom door. "Who is it?" my little guy asks. I can hear the quiver in his voice. "Hey, little fella," someone replies. The man sounds kind, but I am unconvinced. 

"We're here to help you," he says. "Unlock the door." No way, I think. Why would I trust the words of a faceless stranger? No way am I going to risk opening the door for a killer.

Now, I speak. "If you really are the police, I need your badge," I say. Seconds pass. A badge is slipped under the door. I pick it up and examine it. It looks fake, like a play badge that one of my students might wear. I desperately want for it to be real, but I'm not convinced. "This doesn't look real," I say. "I don't believe you." 

I look around at my kids and I know they are thinking what I am. Please let this be the good guys. One little girl is choking back tears. I take her face in my hands and smile. If she starts to cry, the others will cry. I can't let that happen, not until I find out who is on the other side of the door.

"If you are the police and you're here to help, then you should have the key to this door. Or you should be able to get it," I say. 

A few more minutes pass before I hear the rattle of keys. I hear the scraping sound of a key going into the lock. It doesn't work. Another key, another failed attempt. Then five and six and seven tries. My stomach churns with each twist of the lock. My students' eyes are wide. The tenth key works. The knob turns and the door pushes in. I see an army of uniforms - people dressed in black and wearing helmets and carrying big guns, peering in at us. 

A SWAT team is in our classroom. 

The good guys are here.

POSTSCRIPT: There were 20 children and six staff members killed in the Sandy Hook massacre. All of Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis's students left the school safely. After ending her career as a teacher, Roig-DeBellis founded Classes 4 Classes, a network for teachers and students created in the belief that when kids are taught empathy and tolerance, there is no room for hate.

Edited extract from Choosing Hope by Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis with Robin Gaby Fisher, published by Allen & Unwin. Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis will undertake an Australian speaking tour from November 7-13.

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