Antoinette Tuff gives CNN’s Anderson Cooper an exclusive interview on AC360 on Friday, Aug. 23. Ms. Tuff walked Anderson’s viewers through her ordeal with 20-year-old Michael Brandon Hill on Tuesday, Aug. 20, when the mentally unsound gunman walked into the front office of the Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy in Georgia, armed with an assault rifle. The elementary school clerk and bookkeeper met the 911 dispatcher, Kendra McCray, “the voice on the other end of the 911 call” who helped her get through the crisis and took a personal call of congratulations and thanks from President Barack Obama.
Like the officer and detective with the Atlanta Police Department, FBI hostage negotiator, Chris Voss, called her performance amazing. Antoinette said, “I was praying on the inside ... I was terrified on the inside.” She gave all the credit to her faith and “being anchored.” Although she once considered running, even asking Kendra — the 911 dispatcher — if she could, she almost immediately changed her mind and mode of operation, becoming the mediator/negotiator between Hill and the dispatcher. She remembered the gunman would have gone into the open hallway where there were classrooms and kids if she had run.
Ms. Tuff is convinced that she, merely, “served a purpose in God’s plan.” She told Anderson that she would like to go back and visit with Brandon Hill. She said, “I would like to go back and contact him and just see how he’s doing ... not end the relationship, there. Because I know that it’s beyond what he sees. He’s a hurting soul. And, so if [there’s] any kind of way that I can help him, and allow him to get on the right path ... we all go through something. And, I believe that God gives us all a purpose in life, and I believe he has a purpose and destiny for that young man, also.”
Anderson responded, “I want to have you on my speed-dial. Like, whenever I'm down, I want to talk to you. My gosh — I mean, you're great. I want you to call me ‘sweetie’ and tell me ‘everything’s going to be okay.’” Antoinette assured him “it’s going to be okay.” She added, “I've learned that through everything I’ve been through. I was actually telling God that, even though it seems like I've been through hell and back, I promised Him Dec. 31 [when she had attempted suicide], that if He allowed me to live, that 2013 would be heaven for me.
“And, so I know today that all that I went through was actually for that one perfect day. And, that was to save that young man’s life and to make sure that 800 and some children and also all of our staff will be able to know that God is real.”
She told Anderson that she got through the incident by reminding herself to “push past the pain,” something she had learned in missionary training taught by the wife of the minister of her church. When she encountered the most frightening moment of that morning which had been when Hill was reloading magazines, she had reminded herself to “push past the pain.” Tuff told Anderson that the gunman had had an abundance of bullets and magazines hidden away inside the book bag he carried, as well as in another bag inside the book bag. She had found that Hill also had bullets and magazines in pockets of his jacket and his pants. She said she did not know exactly how many rounds of ammunition he had had, but she said, “I know it was a whole lot, because he sat there and loaded up like three magazines, changed the magazines ... he had bullets everywhere ... I knew, when he made that last call, that he was going to go — because, he had loaded up to go.”
The school clerk and founder of a new youth non-profit organization met Kendra McCray, for the first time, during her interview with Anderson. Although they had acted to defuse a potentially fatal incident together three days before by phone, the two women had never met face-to-face until this AC360 interview. They had not spoken since the successful apprehension of Hill on Tuesday of this week, yet they warmly greeted each other with a hug.
Throughout the remainder of the interview, the women comfortably interacted, relating details of the crisis in tandem. Kendra told Anderson that Antoinette “is a true hero. I feel like she missed her calling; she should have been a counselor or something.” She told Antoinette, “You did so great. I've never had a call where the caller was so calm and so confident in what you were saying — and so personable. It was great. You did a great job. You made my job alot easier.” The 911 operator said that Tuff’s descriptions of the situation made her feel “like I was there, like I could visualize what she was seeing and what she was going through. It’s like I could see the gunman, right there at the door, she said ‘he’s right here at the door’ and it’s like I could see him through — just her words.”
Prior to sitting down for the televised segment with Anderson, Antoinette received a call from President Obama. Once again, we saw a woman who seemed to be unshakable, Tuff responding to the president as if she spoke to him daily. Mr. Obama also called her a hero and told her how proud he and the First Lady were of her and how she had handled a potentially fatal situation without losing a life. Ms. Tuff responded that she had an excellent role model in the president and the manner in which he lead the country. Antoinette said to the president, “I appreciate you, too, but I learned from the best — the best president in the world ... you can’t get any better when you've got a great leader in front of you.”
She told Anderson that the call from President Obama was “awesome.” She said that everyone wanted to thank her and that the president had said “they were happy and glad for what I did ... that hopefully that one day he would be able to get to meet me.” Ms. Tuff added, “That would be — just to see his face was awesome — to hear his voice, but to see his face would be more awesome.”
As her interview with Anderson Cooper drew to an end, Antoinette granted a request from the host. Several times during the hour-long interview Anderson had mentioned how impressed he had been with her consoling and sympathizing with the disturbed gunman, telling him that everything was going to be all right. He asked her to say it once more for him. The unflappable Ms. Tuff said, “Baby, everything’s going to be okay.”