Part seven in an ongoing series.
Sixteen-year-old Taylor Yon found comfort in Pine Trails Park, virtually in the center of Parkland, Fla. There, she and her friends wandered its sidewalks, past its familiar playgrounds, ball fields and band shell, and lit candles for the dead.
Afterward, they sat on towels on the ground and talked for hours, struggling to put into words, to understand, the massacre perpetrated by a one-time student of their school, whom the Herald is not identifying.
At 2:21 p.m. on Feb. 14, the 19-year-old alleged killer entered Building 12 of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and started firing an AR-15 indiscriminately. He had pulled a fire alarm to draw students out of their classrooms.
Valentine’s Day is widely celebrated at the school, said 15-year-old Zoe Gordon, who was a sophomore. Students gave one another teddy bears and flowers. Zoe and her friends had a little party at their lunch table with cookies and chips, she said.
One period later, the shooting erupted.
The many teddy bears, bouquets of flowers and white crosses left at Pine Trails after the attack gave Taylor, then a junior, a sense of peace, she said. “For a good two weeks after the shooting, I went there every day,” she said. “It just made us feel in touch with each other.”
Fourteen students and three teachers died in the shooting, igniting a wave of anger and fear across the country, with millions of students and adults taking part in gun-control rallies in the following weeks and months.
Taylor and Zoe, both members of Stoneman Douglas’s student newspaper, The Eagle Eye, came to Long Island recently for the weeklong Robert W. Greene Summer Institute for High School Journalists at Stony Brook University. The Press Club of Long Island sponsored their participation in the program, which was attended this year by roughly two dozen students from across the Island. The Herald interviewed Taylor and Zoe on July 20, as Stony Brook’s program was winding down and the two were hurrying to meet story deadlines.
‘It’s not a drill’
Taylor was in Algebra 2, on Building 12’s second floor, when the shooting started. At first, students thought the band was practicing nearby, she said, because the shots sounded like drumbeats.
“Then we kept hearing them,” she said.
Taylor texted her boyfriend: The fire alarm had gone off. It was probably a drill.
“Taylor, it’s not a drill,” he immediately responded.
“He saw it on the news,” she said. “I didn’t know what to think. Everyone was just so silent.”
The teacher locked the door and lined the students up against a wall. They were motionless.
Stoneman Douglas, which has just over 3,150 students, is a collection of buildings, with classroom doors that open into outdoor courtyards rather than interior halls. The lone exception is Building 12, which has halls. Zoe was in another building at the time of the shooting — also in an Algebra 2 class.
The moment the fire alarm sounded, Zoe’s teacher led her students out of their room into the schoolyard. They didn’t get far. “It sounds like a blur to me,” Zoe said. “There were screams. It sounded like textbooks were dropping. My teacher yelled, ‘Everyone get back in!”
She remembered the school’s only armed guard rushing past her, his gun drawn. She heard the AR-15 firing. “It sounded like fireworks, popping sounds,” she said.
Zoe ran back to her classroom with her fellow students. Their teacher locked the door, and everyone laid low at the back of the room.
Zoe’s father, Jon Gordon, texted her, “Are you OK?” She wondered why he would do that, thinking this was all just a drill. “Everyone just couldn’t believe it,” she said. “No one knew anything.”
The shooting ended at 2:27 p.m., six minutes after it had begun, when the assailant dropped his weapon in a stairwell, blended with the students rushing out of the school and walked away. Police apprehended him without incident at 3:41 p.m.
‘I need to give you a hug’
SWAT officers arrived at Taylor’s classroom soon after the shooting. She is unsure of the exact time. They broke glass to open the door and enter, she said. They lined up the students, with hands on one another’s shoulders, and walked them out of the school.
Zoe and her classmates waited for what felt like two hours for police, she said, although she is also uncertain of the timeline. “We kept hearing SWAT officers knocking on doors” nearby, she said.
When police arrived at the room, one student jumped up and unlocked the door. She wasn’t supposed to do that. She should have allowed them to break down the door, according to protocol. She could wait no longer, however.
Outside, helicopters whirred overhead, Zoe said. The school “was so empty,” she said. “All I could see was the SWAT team holding their big guns.”
Zoe and her classmates were also told to hold one another’s shoulders as they left. Police “just kept ordering us to go faster and faster,” she said. “When we made it out … we just saw swarms of kids. It was just so chaotic. I was just looking for my dad.”
Zoe hurried up and down the street, searching for him. “I couldn’t find him at first,” she said. “I just started crying. I’m not the best with directions, and there were so many cars and people.” When she at last met up with her dad, she kept sobbing. Her 17-year-old brother, Zach, was there, too. He had found refuge at the nearby Walmart with several other students.
Taylor’s mother, Mary Yon, picked her up. Her mom was crying when she opened the car door. “I need to give you a hug,” she told her daughter.
“I wasn’t crying yet,” Taylor said. A simple question from her friend Rose on the phone later — “Taylor, are you OK?” — finally triggered uncontrollable sobbing.
School was back in session two and a half weeks later. Stoneman Douglas’s student journalists scrapped the third-quarter edition of The Eagle Eye, which was largely complete at the time of the shooting, and began anew, producing an issue they called “In Memoriam,” a tribute to the 17 who died.
The newspaper adviser, English teacher Melissa Falkowski, gathered the editors and writers shortly after the shooting. She told them that their school had faced a terrible tragedy, Taylor said, but their job was to cover it.
Taylor was not emotionally ready to interview victims’ family members and friends, she said. Instead, she edited others’ work. Later, she and her fellow student journalists hand-delivered “In Memoriam” to every student during classes.
Zoe dived headlong into the protests that Stoneman Douglas students led after the shooting. She took part in the March for Our Lives in Washington on March 24, which attracted an estimated 800,000 protesters. She gave interviews to major publications and appeared on national television.
The alleged shooter refused to speak when he appeared in court March 14, the same day that hundreds of thousands of students staged 17-minute school walkouts in honor of Marjory Stoneman High’s victims. Assistant public defender Melissa McNeill told the court that the defendant would plead guilty if the death penalty were waived. Circuit Judge Elizabeth Schrer entered a not guilty plea on his behalf.