It was one of those moments, like 9/11, or the 1994 earthquake, or, for previous generations, the assassination of JFK. You will always remember where you were and what you were doing when you got the news.
It was a year ago this morning. I was still in bed, just starting to stir to get ready for the day. My phone started blowing up — rapid-fire text messages coming first from newsroom staff, then from family.
Shots fired at Saugus High School. Who can roll?
In an instant, I was intensely attuned to two very pressing concerns. Those who don’t know me personally would correctly assume one of them was making sure we had reporters and photographers headed in the right direction, and our people would be at once safe and effective in covering the story.
But there was another, more personal concern, too, one that had me more than a little freaked out: My younger sister is a teacher at Saugus High. It’s our alma mater. We graduated four years apart, and she’s taught there for most of her professional life.
So, when I heard “shots fired at Saugus High School,” my heart jumped into my throat, just like everyone else who had a loved one on that campus, whether it was a student or a staffer.
I texted my sister, while thinking to myself, This isn’t happening HERE, is it?
Our exchange went like this, starting a few minutes after the shooting and taking place over the course of the morning, while she was looking out for the students in her classroom, and as the incident response progressed and more information began to surface, including some information in the heat of the moment that later turned out to be incorrect:
“You OK? Is this a real incident?”
“OK for now.”
“Is shooter active?”
“Did you hear shots?”
“Good. … At least two people wounded. You still inside? Cops are looking for a male Asian suspect in all black. … At least four people wounded.”
“Still locked in classroom.”
“Cops are going around clearing rooms. So they should hopefully get to you soon. Please let me know when they clear your room.”
“Looks like suspect is at large but not on campus anymore. At least 5 victims. 2 critical. Still in class?”
“In gym getting ready to head to Central Park.”
“Thx. Holy s—. One female victim dead. At Central yet?”
“Glad you’re OK. F—.”
When the dust settled a little, I asked my sister if she wanted to talk to a reporter. She declined, which was of course totally fine, but in that moment, I felt like I had to ask, because once I knew she was OK, I had to turn the corner and be the news guy, and this was one of the biggest, worst stories we’ve covered here.
Later, I felt like a jerk for asking. This business can put you in some uncomfortable positions when you’re covering the community where you live, where you grew up, where your family lives.
In that coverage would emerge the tragic impact of a decision by a 16-year-old student to bring a gun to school and start shooting — and the ensuing heart-wrenching accounts of his young victims, including two he killed before killing himself, leaving many questions never to be answered.
There were tales of heroism, of a community coming together to support each other in a time of intense sorrow and fear. Some of those tales are recounted in our pages today, on the one-year anniversary of that fateful day.
In the year hence, we’ve seen this shooting, like so many others, stir up contentious conversations about guns, and balancing the Second Amendment against public safety. We even learned a phrase that wasn’t heard much before, at least not locally: “ghost gun,” meaning the kind of unlicensed weapon that can be assembled from parts purchased on the internet.
I wish I could make sense of it all, or offer profound words of wisdom to heal wounds and offer a solution to make sure such wounds never happen again. But, like so many others, I wrestle with such things. And, selfishly, as I reflect on Nov. 14, 2019, I can’t stop thinking this:
I’m glad my sister was OK.
Tim Whyte is editor of The Signal.