“Yolanda, can you get me a coffee while you’re up?”
“Sure thing B.”
Brenda eased back in her chair. It was a quiet, late fall morning. Outside, the trees were bereft of leaves. The snow had not started.
The office regulations stated that while people could move around the office during quiet periods, one person had to stay on the phones at all times. Yolanda walked over to the coffee station on the far wall of the operations centre. Gary was over in his office doing paperwork, but was available to come over and help if needed.
The office was a large rectangular room with a high false ceiling. The tallest cubical walls were only 4 ½ feet tall, which afforded little privacy for anyone on duty. But that too was per documented regulations. Everyone knew what was going on at all times.
Brenda absently picked up a pen from her desk and clicked the spring-loaded ballpoint in and out. There was no radio or other distractions, so even the smallest sounds could be distracting. Gary looked up from his paperwork and glanced at Brenda with a raised eyebrow.
The console in front of Brenda buzzed and a red light blinked on. Brenda swiveled around in her chair to face the console. She pressed the blue button labeled Talk and began her mandated communication. “911, what is the nature of your emergency?”
“It’s AH, it’s Kennedy and…. There’s … AAAHH. They’ve got guns!” It was the panicked voice of a young girl. She was crying.
“Ma’am, where are you calling from?” Brenda pushed the red Emergency Response button on her console. The word gun was enough to trigger that instant response. It would set up a second communications circuit to the police dispatcher.
“It’s… I’m at Kennedy school!” The little girl was terrified.
Brenda pushed the mute button and yelled out towards the coffee area, “I need you here now!” Her voice was loud in the cavernous room, but even toned. It was a command that snapped Yolanda around and caused Gary to look up.
The console to Brenda’s right started to buzz. Yolanda started to run over.
Brenda hit the mute button again. “Ok honey, help is on the way. I want you to stay on the line with me, Ok? Can you do that for me?” She hit the dispatch button again. It muted her to the young caller, and opened the second line to the dispatcher. The caller would not hear the second line. “I need a police unit to respond to Kennedy school. I have a report of someone with a gun.”
The dispatcher acknowledged and repeated back her words.
The caller was crying now. Brenda hit the button again and was back to the first line. “Honey, are you hurt?”
Gary looked at Brenda from across the room, and could see from the look on her face that something, somewhere, was going very badly. The console on Brenda’s left started to buzz.
Unlike firefighters, police units are typically not on hair-trigger alert. The first response is always from a patrol car already on duty. Rarely is there any immediate need for assistance from the desk jockeys. Even a radio, tuned to the police bands, would be distracting to the officers taking statements or doing paperwork.
The SWAT, or Tactical Unit One, team members carried pagers at all times. These would be the first indication that something was up. The number was always the same – an automated dispatch system. Once paged, each team member would call the number and a computerized voice would give a canned response.
Staff Sergeant Derrick LeBlanc was at his desk working on a stack of requisition forms when his left hip began to buzz. He stopped, sighed at being interrupted, dropped the pen to desk and reached back to remove the pager. His expression changed immediately upon reading the number. He pushed the acknowledge button on the pager and set it down next to the pen. He picked up the receiver on his phone and hit the third speed dial button on the phone set.
It picked up on the second ring and a synthesized monotone woman’s voice responded, “Tactical Unit report immediately to assembly area.” No additional information would be given on the phone – it’s possible that someone outside the unit would discover the number.
Derrick slammed the phone down, stood, grabbed the pager off his desk and ran for the door.
The Tactical Unit was driven to the scene in a two large, white 8-person passenger vans. A third van brought addition equipment and the communication gear required to run the operation. Each man was already in their gear, which made wearing seatbelts impossible.
As they neared the school zone, they could see the city units had already blocked off all traffic in the area. They were waved through. They stopped and parked on the side of the street about 200 meters from the rear of the school. As they disembarked, the Unit members unconsciously kept the parked vans between themselves and the school.
They gathered together at the side of the third van. Sergeant Major Walter Langley, the Tactical Unit supervisor, sat in the open side door and addressed the team. “Ok, listen up. This is how it’s gonna go. The school is basically rectangular with two main halls on each floor. The halls are orientated along the north-south axis. We believe the shooters are in the north section of the building. That’s where the shooting has been concentrated. We believe that there are at least two, possibly more, assailants in the building, and we believe they are students from the school.”
He stabbed his finger down onto a rough pencil schematic of the school. “Now, we’re gonna start from the south entrance. Many of the students evacuated themselves when the initial shots were fired. But dispatch is in contact with students and teachers still in the building.”
Sergeant Paul Miller interrupted, “If the suspects are in the north end of the school, why not attempt an entry there?”
Langley looked up from the map. “What we’re trying to do is drain the students out of the school through the south entrance. As the teams progress through the school towards the suspects, we want to funnel anybody trapped in the classrooms out through the south entrance and away from the shooting. It also provides some buffer to the EMS techs and the other units working on the evacuation and scene evaluation there.”
“We have a number of regular units along the front of the north end. They’ve been taking some fire from the school, so we believe the suspects are still in the north-end. Those units are there to draw the fire.”
“Targets,” quipped Staff Sergeant Terry Malloy, standing at the left of the van door. “They got balls.” He shook his head.
“Yes, exactly. We have them maneuvering around up there, drawing fire, in hopes that it will distract the shooters while we evacuate the building behind them. We’ve also evacuated most of the homes on along these two streets,” Langley said as he pointed to each street.
“How do you want to position the teams?” asked Derrick.
“I want two 4-person squads on the main floor. Each squad will have a two-person lead, and the other two will follow behind. The leads will provide the protection from the front, while the other two will clear each classroom. Each team will take a hallway and work their way north, up the hall towards the cafeteria at the other end of the school. A third team will control the rear areas and direct students out towards safety.”
“Yeah. If you see the suspects, you are clear to fire.” He looked each man in the semicircle around him. He looked each one in the eyes. “We have to end this. But for god’s sake, be sure of your targets. If the shooters are students, it’s gonna be hard to sort them out from the friendlies.” He looked over the team members once more. “Ok, load up and move in. May God have mercy on all of us.”
They approached the south entrance. The ambulances were being kept back until the entrance was cleared. The school alarm was still sounding. It was a rising scale warble, endlessly repeating. It made it difficult to hear anything else. Derrick thought it sounded like an alarm in a nuclear submarine. It pierced the skull like a spike.
The entrance was a double set of blue doors. Each held a large window made of thick Plexiglas. Derrick wondered if it might be bullet proof, but thought that it was probably that thick for fire codes. The two teams approached the doors, one from each side, keeping their backs to the red brick wall.
Derrick, being the senior on the team, was the first to reach the doors. He stopped and quickly peeked around the corner and through the heavy door window. It appeared clear. He gestured for the rest of the team to follow. Bending low, keeping his body below the level of the window, he reached for the door handle and pulled it open towards himself. Staff Sergeant Randall Brown was the first to go through. Derrick kept watch through the window until Randall motioned for him to follow. He entered the building. Outside, the sun was high in the crisp clear sky. Inside it was much darker, even though the lights were on. The teams paused for 5 seconds before continuing while they waited for their eyes to adjust. Inside the school, the alarm was even louder.
There was a second set of identical doors inside, and they were breached in the same way, the team members leapfrogging each other as they entered and cleared the path ahead.
A third team came up from behind to jam the doors open.
The first two teams were now in the building with the shooters. The artificial lighting had a green cast from the paint of the walls of the hall. There was a certain smell to the air, a mixture of memories of school linoleum and an acrid burning smell.
Ahead, they could see some of the doors along the hall were open, a band of sunlight stretching across the hallway.
Derrick could hear only the sound of his own labored breathing and the piercing alarm. There was no pop-pop-pop sound of gunfire echoing down the halls. The school should be filled with the sound of laughing, shouting school kids, but there was no indication that anyone was left in the school.
His team split off to take the right hall, while the other team moved towards the left hall. Reaching the corner, Derrick again motioned for his team to stop, while he peaked around the corner. He could see all the way to a set of fire doors, about halfway down the length of the hall. The air was not clear, but he couldn’t tell if it was distant smoke, or fog from his breath on his clear plastic visor.
Derrick turned to his second in command, Randall. “We’ll alternate rooms. You take the first one,” he said pointing at the first door.
The door was already open. Randall stuck his head in, keeping low, and visually swept the room. It was empty. Derrick stood outside in the hall, scanning back and forth. Behind him, Sergeant André Simoneau and Sergeant Michael Dwyer scanned the rear area. Every member knew they were responsible for watching one zone around the team.
The door to the second room was closed. The team approached cautiously. Derrick stood up to see in the window. He could see a number of students hiding under their desks. He stepped back and indicated to the team that the room was not empty. He paused for a moment, then turned the doorknob and pushed open the door. As he stepped into the room, he scanned the four corners, looking for danger. Three little girls screamed as he entered. Wearing his heavy, black tactical gear, he nearly filled the doorframe. Once he was satisfied the room was safe, he concentrated on the children on the floor under their desks. There was no teacher, only the three girls and two boys. He squatted down to them and said, “It’s ok, were here to get you out. We’re with the police. You’ll be ok. But you’ll have to come out from under there.” He reached out towards the children, beckoning with his left hand. Slowly at first, then more quickly, the five children came out. Derrick ushered them to the door. The squad took the children by the hand and took them down the hall towards the south entrance. The third unit was there to take them out of the school.
The next room was the boy’s washroom. Derrick let Randall clear the room. Derrick held the door open. The room was empty.
A few meters down the hall was a locked janitor’s closet.
The room after the closet was the girl’s washroom. Derrick felt uneasy. The washroom would be narrow and irregularly shaped. It’s hard to work through a small room like that when wearing all his equipment.
He gestured Randall to follow him in. Derrick squatted down to provide a smaller target and then pushed the door open with his gloved palm. He could not see around the corner to see the whole room at a glance. ‘I hate this shit,’ he thought to himself.
Derrick waddled in to the room, keeping a low profile. He stopped and glanced around the corner to the left. No one was there. The sinks were along the wall on this right; the stalls were on the left. Two of the stall doors were closed; the other two were ajar.
Derrick went down on one knee and bent low to the ground to look for feet. He could see nothing but the fixtures. Derrick stood up. Randall held the door open, his weapon pointed at the ceiling. Derrick walked forward, his footsteps falling like hammer blows. The blood pounded in his ears. A bead of sweat dripped down the side of his face. The door on the first stall was already open. He pushed the door all the way in just to be sure. The door of the next stall was closed, but not latched. Derrick approached slowly, placed his left hand on the door and pushed it. The door creaked open and slammed against the wall with a bang. The stall was empty. But there was another noise in the room. Derrick became even more alert. The hair on his neck stood up. He looked back at Randall and held up one finger on his left hand. Randall pointed his weapon towards the stalls.
The third door was open. With his left hand, Derrick pushed it in. Again, there was an indistinct sound he could hear over the sound of the school siren. The last door was closed. The sun streamed in through the window next to it, picking out the dust particles swirling in the air. He stayed off to one side, placed his palm on the door and prepared himself. He would have to do this quickly. If someone was there, they already knew he was at the door.
With practiced brutality, he slammed the door open and pointed his weapon into the stall. A high-pitched scream rang out and then another, lower. A little boy was sitting on the tank, his body swiveled as if he was trying to escape through the wall behind him, a look of complete and utter terror on his face. His dark skin was shiny with sweat. Tears rolled down his face and his eyes were red. Derrick could see every tooth in his lower jaw as he screamed. Derrick realized the second, lower voice was his own.
Derrick pointed the weapon away, held out his left hand, open palmed, towards the child and motioned with his head for Randall to come help.
“It’s ok son. We’re here to help you. It’s ok. You’re safe now. My name is Sergeant Malloy. I’m going to help get you out of here.” The little boy was beginning to calm down and relax, but the muscles were still tense, like steel cord, tight under his chocolate skin. Derrick thought he looked about 10 years old.
In Derrick’s mind, an image of his own daughter flashed through his mind. She was wearing a yellow sundress. He thought the memory was from her 10th birthday. He caught himself and shook his head to clear the image. He could not afford to be distracted now.
Derrick couldn’t enter the stall with all his gear on, so he held out his hand to the little boy. The boy had stopped screaming and was beginning to climb down off the tank; his eyes never left Derrick.
Derrick went down on one knee and slung his weapon over his shoulder. “It’s ok son. Come on out.” He held both his hands out. This seemed to comfort the little boy, who climbed down. Once off the toilet, he came towards Derrick. Derrick embraced the little boy, who then grabbed Derrick and held on to this strange man with all his might. Derrick stood up and lifted the little boy like he used to do with his daughter when she was younger.
The room was now clear, so Randall, Derrick and the chocolate skinned boy left the room. In the hallway, Derrick handed him over to André and Michael, who would escort him out of the building. The little boy didn’t want to let go. Derrick looked into his face. The boys eyes were bloodshot, his face wet with sweat and tears. His breath was still jerky. “I’m going to have to hand you over to Sergeant Dwyer now. He’s going to help you get out of the building. I have to keep searching for other little boys like yourself. You’ll have to let go. Can you do that for me?” Derrick tried to sound calm, but his heart was still racing from moments ago.
The boy nodded without saying anything. Derrick let the boy down. Michael took the boys hand, and led him down the hall towards the third unit advancing behind them. They escorted the boy down the hall and around the corner.
The team was now up to the fire doors that separated the south and north sections of the school. Derrick again stayed low and peaked through the Plexiglas window before opening the doors. He could see no one, so he proceeded through the door. Randall, André and Michael followed him through.
There were book bags scattered along the hall, brightly colored in pinks and blues, yellows and reds. Sometimes a single book or loose papers lay where they fell. A pair of sneakers had tumbled out of an open locker onto the floor.
A thin smoke haze curled along the ceiling. Derrick reached up to his earpiece to key the radio microphone. “Control, this is Alpha Team.”
“Go for Control.”
“Yeah, we have entered the north section. There’s smoke here. No fires visible and the sprinklers have not been activated. There may have been explosions.”
“Copy that, Alpha. All units, be advised there may be explosives in the building. Watch yourselves.”
“Beta Team, copy. There are bags everywhere.”
“Delta Team, copy that Control.”
“Control, this is Beta Team.”
“Go for Control.”
“We are about to enter the north section as well.”
“Control, copy that.”
Derrick took the subsequent room on the right. The door was already open. No one was in the room and a number of the windows were open. The students must have gone out through the windows. Derrick could see the alphabet was written on a paper train fixed along the upper part of the classroom wall.
The gym was on the left. The door was closed. Randall and Derrick crossed the hall to the entrance. They were about to enter when Beta team came on the radio.
“Control, this is B eta Team.”
“Go for Control,” was the answer.
“We have entered the gym. There are casualties here. Four bodies.”
“Anybody to evacuate?”
“Ok. Continue the search. Once the building is secure, we’ll send in the EMS team.”
As Alpha team traversed the hall towards the north end, there were more and more signs of the hurried flight by the student body. Many lockers were open, a trashcan was on its side and the floor was strewn with debris and possessions left behind. Above it all, the siren continued its rising-pitch warble.
There were other, more ominous signs. Along the sky blue walls, there were bullet marks and chunks of the concrete were missing. One of the lower lockers had the distinct starburst pattern of a small explosion. The front was badly dented, but most of the force seemed to have dispersed into the open air. There were deep red stains of blood leading towards one of the open classrooms. Derrick followed the trail, and it went out to one of the open windows. Bloody shoe marks spotted the floor.
Each room was searched, but all were empty. Derrick guessed that as the shooting started, the flight instinct did a better job of evacuation than in the southern areas where the students had time to hide.
When they reached the end of the hall, the team stopped again. There was still no other noise but the constant alarm and the sound of their own boots on the ruble in the hallway. There was an exit to the outside on the right. The windows had been blown outward.
Derrick slid up to the left hand wall and did a quick peak around the corner. He could see one body, which was face down near the cafeteria entrance, a dark pool seeping across the floor. The walls were covered with pockmarks and there were other blackened star bursts along the walls and floor.
The team gathered close to Derrick. There were no more classrooms. Only the cafeteria remained. Derrick turned to his team. They all gave a quick nod to indicate they were ready.
Derrick counted to himself. On three, he ran across the hall to the south wall. His gun trained towards the cafeteria entrance. The team moved in a crisscross pattern into the hall. Derrick scanned back and forth, providing cover, his gun following his eyes, back and forth across the hall.
The team edged closer to the doors. One of the door windows had also been blown out. A purse or bag was jammed in the other door, preventing it from closing. A bright red handprint was smeared on the window. Again Derrick turned to his team. He held up three fingers. The team nodded. Derrick counted down, using the barrel of his gun as a conductor would his baton.
On the third down stroke, the team burst into the cafeteria. Each man took a corner of the room, each looking for any threats. Each called out in turn, “Clear!”
The cafeteria was destroyed. Tables were overturned, bullet holes in their surfaces. One of the lights hung awkwardly from the ceiling. Most of the lights had been blown out, long shards of glass covered the floor and tables and chairs. Food trays, plates and cutlery were everywhere. The windows were all destroyed and the fall air chilled the room, mixing with the thicker smoke. A discarded handgun was by the door. Shell casings littered the floor. And everywhere there were small, crumpled bodies, some in groups, others alone, red pools in irregular patterns around the dark forms.
Despite his training, Derrick froze as his mind took in the sight. “Oh my god!” he exclaimed.
Copyright 2006 Richard Muise
This assignment was to write a story to the point where a body is discovered.