I remember I woke up just like any other day. I was running late to my Advanced Newswriting class and I was stressed out because I had to print out a bunch of papers that were due to be handed in. I walked briskly to my workplace and was tapping my foot impatiently as inkspot took its time to load the print jobs. I remember showing up eight minutes late to class in Denny and rolling my eyes at my professor for making the point to count me down as a tardy. We had a lecture on environmental journalism and I was happy because my professor let the class out 20 minutes early, a rarity in the whole semester. I then headed back to work at the UCAE where I tutor and breezed through three appointments. I remember chirping, “Good luck on your finals! I hope you do well!” to my returner tutees I had been teaching all semester and thinking, “Wow, it’s really the end of the semester. Spring 2019. We’re really done. Four years of college, just like that. Soon I’ll take my finals and the class I came here with four years ago will be gone. Soon the very thing that’s shaped my identity for the past four years will fade and I will move onto something else.” Little did I know how true that statement would be and how rapidly our campus was about to change in the next few hours.
Once work was done, I headed down to the silver route stop by the Union with a camera strapped around my hip. The LDOC concert was about to take place in an hour and I had gotten approved to photograph it for the paper. I was so excited. I had photographed many concerts before at the venues around Charlotte, but this was going to be my first one at the university, and the first LDOC concert in general in my time here. Every other university in North Carolina had incredible artists come out for their last days, so I was eager to finally have one come out to ours and to experience something I hadn’t before.
I remember waiting forever in the heat for the bus to come and wondering what was taking so long. There were throngs of students around me dressed up for the concert also waiting. The bus came, we got on, and off we went. We got to the stadium, I met with the CAB coordinator to get my backstage photo pass, and she gave me the run-down of where I’d be able to stand and told me how it was going to be about two hours before the first opener came on. I sat down on the bleachers in the empty stadium (the doors hadn’t opened yet for the public to come in) and looked down on the barren field. There was nothing but a few yellow-shirted event staff dotting the grass and a black stage with an opener band doing soundcheck. Heat beat down on me. It was a sunny day. Ten minutes had passed before I started debating whether I should leave and head to the Union or the library and see my friends to pass the hour.
I was scrolling on my phone when I got the notification. “Guys there’s a shooter in Kennedy. People are running out of the library.”
I remember being so confused. “What?” I thought. “A shooter? Oh, they must mean like a fight, like what happens at the off-campus apartments all the time. It’s probably harmless. Huh, weird. Kennedy. I wonder why there.”
I brushed it off. Then the notifications kept flooding. “Guys there’s people running. We’re running right now. Please get inside.”
I was still confused. And in denial. “Huh?” I thought. “Is this like…an active thing? Is this not just a one-and-done fight? Surely the police must have stopped it by now…this is UNC Charlotte. That stuff can’t exacerbate here, there’s no way.”
More notifications. “Guys I’m literally running back to my apartment right now. Where are all of you? Go home right now.”
At this point, I was like, “Wait, what is going on? Is this a mass shooting?” and I shook my head. Cynicism then filled me. “It was only a matter of time before it happened here. I’m not even surprised.” I think it made me feel better to pretend like it wasn’t going to phase me.
I looked down at the field again. Things were continuing on like normal. No one seemed to bat an eye or even know anything was happening. I remember realizing the sirens I had been hearing in the distance for the past few minutes weren’t just the typical cops always pulling someone over for something in University City. They were here for a shooting. I looked up and saw multiple helicopters buzzing around. “Should we be doing something?” I thought. A few of the staff looked at each other but no one did anything. “I guess we’re safe here. Kennedy is so far. What shooter is going to run all the way to engineering side? Kind of a shame, I would have liked to experience the chaos. Maybe it would feel like a superhero movie.” Oh naïve, blithely stupid, Pooja. Somebody should have punched me in the face.
Another notification. “Guys I don’t know what to do, I’m trying to get in the tennis courts but they’re locked. I’m just running home.”
“Is this man dumb?” I thought. “Jeffrey, just walk into a building don’t be out in the open. Why are you running all the way to your apartment?” I texted back.
That was when the crowd broke in. Screams flew everywhere from atop me. “RUN! RUN!!!!!”
It all happened so fast. My eyes widened and panic filled my chest. “I need to get out of here.” I thought. I grabbed my camera and sprinted up the bleachers. I was still confused. “What’s happening?” I asked someone running by.
“There’s a shooter! He’s coming, he’s here!”
My stomach dropped. “He’s at the stadium.” My mind flashed. “This is happening right now.”
I did the only thing I knew to do. I sprinted towards the engineering buildings faster than anytime I had run before in my life. I got to the end of the stadium and then I stopped dead in my tracks. My heart sank as I looked up at Grigg Hall. “The engineering buildings are going to be locked,” I realized. “I can’t hide in them.”
I looked around for what to do. People were still running everywhere. Mass panic had erupted. “Oh my god,” I thought. My entire body was shaking. “He could come out at any moment. I could get shot while running. I might die right now. This might be it. I have to be okay with this. I don’t have much time left. I need to accept that this is where I die.”
I saw the Judy Rose Center. “That has to be unlocked.” I thought. I just needed to get inside. I ran down the bleachers again. I wasn’t thinking words at this point. All I could feel was mass hysteria churning in my stomach.
I got down to the field. Everyone was congregating and hiding below the bleachers.
I remember being frozen standing there. No shooter to be heard. I looked down at the students sitting around me. I was frozen, but everyone around me was in hysterics. Tears streamed down everyone’s faces. People were calling their parents. People were breaking down, freaking out.
“Wow, people are really calling their parents?” I thought. I didn’t even think to do that. All I could focus on was survival. “Should I be calling someone?” I thought. “My mom? My dad? My ex? My other ex? Who do I want to call in my final minutes? Who have I loved?”
All I could think was that it was useless. Calling someone wasn’t going to protect me from being killed. I needed to focus on getting all of us out.
At this point, I was beginning to realize that everyone else had completely broken down and no one was thinking to get in a safer place. We were just sitting ducks out there, waiting to be shot at. I looked at the doors and wondered why no one was going in there.
“Why aren’t we going inside?” I demanded an event staffer. No one else was asking. I remember thinking, “Am I the only one thinking logically right now? I’m the only one not breaking down. It’s going to have to be up to me to step up and get us out of here.”
“The doors are locked,” said the staffer. “We’re not allowed in.”
I just stared at everyone around me. Shock and denial wrapped my thoughts as my body shook and absorbed the effects of the real danger we were in.
Notifications came again. Friends were telling me there’s a shooter at the stadium too and I need to get out. I stood there shuddering.
“NINER ALERT” popped up on my screen in glaring letters. “Run, hide, fight.”
“Is this some kind of sick joke?” I thought. I scoffed at the university. What the hell was that supposed to do for us?
It had only been ten minutes since the initial shooting, but it felt like it had been hours.
Time slowly swept by as the clock ticked and there was still no shooter in sight. The chaos calmed down but none of the emotions did. We sat there in fear for what felt like eons. Just waiting to hear gunshots or for someone to run in. Rumors flew around that there were multiple shooters and that it was a mass attack. That someone was coming for the concert. Notifications from the university saying we’re still under lockdown but no confirmation that any shooter had been apprehended.
Eventually, as the time that seemed never-ending continued to pass, CAB announced there was no threat to the stadium and let people out. I was still shaking. At this point, things were calmer but every moment seemed like it could turn and we would be back to running again.
The CAB staff offered me a ride back and walked me through the Judy Rose Center. Everyone asked if I was okay. I was just staring aimlessly, not even registering anything around me. I was in shock. No one really knew where to go, what car to take. Was it safe outside? We were on an aimless path of not knowing what to do. Eventually, I got into a van. We tried to drive in but the police wouldn’t let us through campus. Everything was still on lockdown. There was still a threat of danger.
Eventually, the same CAB coordinator took me out of the van and we both walked to the Starbucks across the street. I waited there in a coffee shop that seemed so untouched by what had just happened. The juxtaposition stood so stark to me. People were whispering, but still working on their laptops. It was clearly not a normal day, but they seemed so unphased. And safe. And ignorant. They were just going about their lives like normal, which I suppose was a good thing, but in the moment I just wanted to scream, “Are you all not worried? Do you not realize what just happened? You should be running for safety right now. You should be talking about this right now.”
Soon enough my friend had picked me up and we took care of a freshman from a residence hall who couldn’t get back into their dorm until he was allowed back in. We then sat around his apartment leasing office for hours, listening as the helicopters flew over everywhere and the lockdown notifications from the university still kept pouring in. No one still really knew any details about what shooters were there and what weren’t. We couldn’t stop talking about how unreal everything felt. It was at this point that I had heard the death and injury count and started texting my friends asking if they were okay. I remember wondering if I was a shitty person for not breaking down or contacting people as quick as everyone else had. Eventually, I got dropped off at my apartment and I just laid in bed trying to process all of it. None of it made any sense. I didn’t know how to explain it to myself, let alone someone else. I just stared at the wall. The threat had ended, but the trauma had permanently sunk into my head.