The first thing Lhee Santos remembers of the worst afternoon of his life was the tall, thin man kicking open the door on the lecture hall's right side. It was 3:06 p.m. and the intruder walked onto the stage, startling the professor, Joseph Peterson. The unannounced visitor bore several weapons, including a 12-gauge shotgun, a 9-mm Glock pistol and two other pistols. He wore jeans and a t-shirt and carried a guitar case. The 150 or so students in the introductory geology class thought it was all just a joke. That is, until the gunfire started. The first body down was the professor's.
Santos, 20, was sitting on Row 7 of the Cole Hall lecture room at Northern Illinois University, not far from his girlfriend of five months, Monique Caspillan, 19. It was Valentine's Day, and they were to celebrate later that evening. Instead, they became witnesses to a St. Valentine's Day massacre in this campus of 25,000 students in DeKalb, about an hour's drive west of Chicago. Five students were killed. The sixth fatality was the gunman, identified as Steven P. Kazmierczak, 27, who apparently took his own life on the lecture hall stage. Many others were shot or injured, including Peterson, who survived the rampage. It had been a week full of shootings on a number of high school campuses but the deadly six-minute long incident at NIU was by far the most reminiscent of last year's horrendous Virginia Tech massacre where a lone gunman killed 32 people before committing suicide.
When the shooting started, Santos says Kazmierczak fired directly into the center of the class, at the front row of students. Several students screamed. Some threw themselves into the space between chairs. Hoping to escape out the top back doors, some began rushing up the two ascending aisles, which divided the room into three seating areas that swept upwards. Kazmierczak then took aim at those very fleeing students, Santos says. The attacker then hopped down onto the main floor. Santos, in Row 7, reached for his girlfriend, and for a moment pulled her against the far right wall, just steps from the room's front exit. The couple shivered, hoping to evade the gunman's path. "But he was just stepping up the aisles, just shooting people, just like that," Santos says, imitating Kazmierczak's motion with his arms to show how the attacker shot students "at point-blank range."
As Kazmierczak ascended the steps, Santos and Caspillan threw themselves onto the ground, between the seats. Kazmierczak stopped just there, at Row 7, but apparently keeping his gaze, and aim, at the students who were attempting to leave. "If he'd have just turned around," Santos says, "he would've shot me. I wouldn't be here."
Instead of turning towards the couple, Kazmierczak descended the aisle. At some point, the authorities say, Kazmierczak reloaded at least one of the weapons. There were a series of gunshots. No one knows how many. Police would later recover 48 bullet casings and 6 shotgun shells. And then, for 30 seconds, there was silence.
Santos recalls poking up his head. "No one was standing or shouting," he says. So Santos stood up, grabbed his girlfriend, and stood against the wall. The couple, both rail-thin, moved in the roughly 10-inch gap between the wall and row of seats. Some students tried dialing their cell phones, with no luck; cell phone service in the lecture hall was usually spotty, anyways. Blood was everywhere.
Santos and Caspillan headed down and rushed out through the bottom right exit doors, without ever looking at the stage. They believe they were the first students to leave the class. The time was 3:12. Santos remembers that detail because he called his dad exactly three minutes later. Kazmierczak, Santos recalls, "never yelled. He just came in, shot at us like we were cattle."
By then, two bands of police officers had arrived. Five minutes later, the school posted an alert on its website. "There has been a report of a possible gunman on campus. Get to a safe area and take precautions until given the all clear. Avoid the King Commons and all buildings in that vicinity," it said.
Northern Illinois University Police Chief Don Grady said investigators have not determined what prompted Kazmierczak, of Champaign, Illinois, to stage the attack. Until the spring of 2007, he had been enrolled as a graduate sociology student at NIU. School officials recalled him as "respected ... a fairly normal student." In recent weeks, however, Kazmierczak had been behaving "erratically" since he allegedly stopped taking medications for a condition the authorities declined to specify. State police said he had obtained a permit to purchase a weapon in January 2007. He picked up two of the weapons used in the attack the shotgun and the Glock from a Champaign, Ill., store on Feb. 9. The other two weapons 9-mm and .38 caliber pistols were purchased at the same store last year.
Just last December, the NIU campus was shut down after someone wrote on a dormitory bathroom wall that black students would be killed. Just last week, the university received another threat. In an interview yesterday, Grady, the police chief, declined to specify the nature of that threat, and said it was dismissed for a lack of credibility. Despite campus officials' pronouncements that they have taken significant security steps, for now, it seems little can soothe the uneasiness here.
Are there security lessons to be learned? The suddenness of the attack meant there was little time for campus authorities to interdict Kazmierczak. So the lessons may be fuzzy at most. One piece of college folklore, however, may no longer apply. After last spring's Virginia Tech shootings, students in many schools figured it'd be safer to sit in the back of the class because of the belief that most of those killed in that rampage had been at the front of their classes. No more.
Caspillan is trying to forget those six minutes in the lecture room. But they seem to be an eternity. Kazmierczak keeps appearing in her head, she says. "I couldn't sleep. The scene, it just kept going on and on," she says of the first night after. Says Santos, "We're still just so scared."