National Public Radio's Mark Memmott reported yesterday that on Tuesday afternoon, a gunman with an assault weapon entered the Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy in Decatur, Georgia; but through the faith and grace of a young woman who was able to remain extremely calm, empathetic and rational, no one was hurt. Antoinette Tuff, a member of the clerical staff at the school, was able to persuade the gunman to lay down his weapon, and to empty the rounds of ammunition he had brought with him into the school and surrender.
As the incident took place, unbeknownst to the gunman, the 870 or so children – from pre-kindergarten to the fifth-grade – were safely evacuated. While there was some exchange of gunfire with police at one point, no one was struck
NPR provided an interview on their website, with an unidentified reporter from WSBTV Channel 2, the ABC affiliate in Atlanta, and Antoinette Tuff explains that normally visitors must buzz the office to be let in, but Mr. Hill evidently had entered quickly behind one of the parents, before the door had closed completely.
Ms. Tuff said that Mr. Hill arrived there at about 12:45 p.m. and she confirmed that by the time he reached her, he already had the gun drawn.
In a separate interview with WSBTV, his brother Timothy acknowledged that Mr. Hill has had a history of having some mental health issues.
Ms. Tuff said that she had been relieving one of the secretaries, and that she had just arrived at the her desk when she saw the man with the gun drawn, facing her. Anotherone of the teachers was also in the office at the time.
The man said “I’m not playing. This is for real," and then addressed the teacher, directing her to go ahead and let everybody else know that this was not a joke.
When asked whether Ms. Tuff could tell from the man’s body language or whether there was any particular look on his face that had let her know that he meant to do harm, she said,
“He had a look on him that he was ready to kill. He said that he didn’t have any reason to live, and that he knew he was going to die today."
The reporter then asked whether he had walked around anywhere in the school building, and Ms. Tuff said “No,” adding that he had actually had tried to go out the door to where the kids were, but she had "called him back and kept talking to him to keep him calm," and keep him inside with her.
“Why did you do that?” asked the reporter.
“Because I knew that if he got outside, he was going to start shooting the kids. He had already shot around up in the office with me, and outside shooting with the police, and I knew that if he got outside he was unstable enough to start shooting at everybody.”
The reporter asked, “What did you say to him?”
Ms. Tuff replied:
"I just started telling him my story and some things that I had been going through and how my life began to turn about for me last year -- and how rough it was for me and how I felt low and didn’t think that anybody loved me -- and that I had a multiple disabled child, and a daughter that was in college and wanted to go to law school; and that I had just lost my husband after 33 years, and that he was the only man that I knew since I was 13 years old, and I told him ‘look at me, I’m still living.’
I explained to him that I had just opened up a brand new business, a motor coach company and a travel agency, and that I’m getting back out there, and it’s alright, you know, that life is … we don’t bring about turns, but we can live from it in spite of what it looks like. "
When the reporter asked whether he had said anything about why he thought that this was the day he would die, Ms. Tuff replied:
"Then he started opening up to me and he told me that he didn’t take his medicine, that he was sick, and that he knew that it was going to end for him because he had already started shooting at the police officers. I told him no, that was not so, he had an opportunity and he didn’t kill anybody, and he didn’t shoot me, and I would allow them to know that he didn’t mean anybody any harm."
At this point, Mr. Hill asked Ms. Tuff to get on the intercom and let everybody know that he wasn’t playing. She did so, and told everybody to "lock down the kids."
Mr. Hill also asked her to "call somebody," indicating that he wanted there to be some news coverage of anything that would be transpiring that afternoon. Ms. Tuff found several news channels listed on the internet for Atlanta and mentioned a few of them, and he selected WSBTV.
At one point, Mr. Hill made a call to someone, and Ms. Tuff could hear the other person crying and asked Mr. Hill if he wanted her to speak to the person and reassure them that she was okay and that everything was going to be alright, but Mr. Hill ended the call.
When he saw people moving around, Mr. Hill then started to ge agitated once again.
"He told me to get on the intercom and tell everybody no one leave the building, no one leave the classroom, and to tell the police to back off; and so I started asking him what he wanted me to do and then communicating to him -- and to the police, and to Channel 2 -- and I just tried to talk him down, to calm him down and to let him know that I knew how he was feeling."
The reporter asked what Ms. Tuff, herself, was feeling during all this.
“To be honest with you, my Pastor, you know, he just started teaching us on ‘anchoring’ -- how you anchor yourself in the Lord -- and I just sat there and started praying. I just started remembering the teaching, how he taught us as members of the Church, how to consult people when they’re bereaving and all that, and that at that time this was bigger than me; and he was really a hurting young man. I just started praying for him, and just talking to him, letting him know some of my life’s stories and that it was going to be okay, and to let him know that he could just give himself up."
The reporter asked whether Ms. Tuff was concerned about how this was going to end.
“When he came in he was so agitated … at one time he and the police officers started exchanging bullets, and I was just sitting there, and I knew that bullets don’t have a name and so I had to explain to him. I told him to come back in, because I knew that if he was shooting at them, they was going to be shooting back at him, and one of those bullets would come back in and hit me, so I just told him to come back in, so he wouldn’t get hit and nor would I."
“You told him to put the guns down?” said the reporter.
“I did. I told him to put the guns down on the table, empty his pockets, to put everything he brought into the school -– because he brought a gun bag, a book bag -- he brought a bag full of ammunition in there, a bunch of magazine clips in there; a whole lot of stuff; he brought a phone in with him and even a bottle of water. He put it all down on the counter, and then I told him to lay on the floor and he said okay; and he lay on the floor, and put his hands behind his back, and he said to tell them he was on the floor. It took a while for the police to come, because I was telling them what I was telling him to do, so that they could hear."
Ms. Tuff continuted to communicate with the DeKalb County Police Department and with the representatives from WSBTV Channel 2, coordinating the exit strategy, which she had initiated.
By this time, the police officer was at the door and he heard them. I told him ‘don’t be alarmed, you don’t have to get the guns or anything like that, but just go ahead and lay down so that I can sit right here so that they can see that I’m right here and that you didn’t harm me,' and he lay back down; and the police officers came and got him.”
“Why do you think he listened to you?” asked the reporter.
“I have no idea. That wasn’t nobody but God. I was praying hard.
I can’t even put that on myself. I don’t know what made him decide to listen to
“You’re the hero today,” said the reporter.
“Oh God ... I’m not the hero. I was terrified."
“You kept it together,” said the reporter.
“I don’t know how but I did; through His Grace and Mercy. I just give it all to Him.”
“Are you going to work tomorrow?” asked the reporter.
“Yes, I probably will. I’ll be there, sitting in that same seat, and blessing
the next person.”