by Liv Reilly
Do you remember a time when you were really excited to go to campus for some reason?
Maybe you had a great outfit, knew you were going to see the person you had a crush on in your first class or were going to do well on a test.
For me, it was my bangs.
Impulsively, I had my roommate Emmy cut my hair into bangs — a first for me — on Friday night. I spent the weekend fussing over different ways I could style them, texting a picture to my mom about my annual First Week of Class haircut and being excited to show my friends.
And then I missed the bus on Monday morning. And then spilled some of my purple energy drink on my white shirt. And then griped with Emmy on our walk to class about how awful the humidity was and how Mondays are the worst.
And then, I sat in lockdown for three hours and 10 minutes and realized that not only Mondays are the worst, but that this was in fact my worst Monday.
I had just walked through the Pit and Polk Place — the heart of campus where organizations sit in front of Wilson Library and students eat their meals outside. I sat down in the Park Library between my classes to finish up some assignments. It’s my favorite library on campus with its large windows, small niches and quiet conversations.
As I went to put in one of my earbuds, I happened to overhear a student tell the librarian that there was someone on campus with a gun. I decided to check the websites of the UNC Crime Log and the University’s emergency message board called Alert Carolina, but was interrupted by the wailing of the campus sirens. It was a sound we were told signals an emergency, and a sound I thought I would never hear.
I wish I wouldn’t have had to hear it. I wish I wouldn’t have had to create a mental list of people I needed to text “There’s someone armed on campus. I love you.”
I wish I wouldn’t have opened my email inbox 27 minutes after the first Alert Carolina was sent to a message from my geography professor that only said: “Please stay where you are and keep your doors locked or fortified. Someone is already shot.”
I wish I wouldn’t have felt my heart rate jump in fear when one of my classmates’ chairs accidentally tumbled to the ground in the middle of the lockdown.
I wish I could have kept my dinner down last night.
After the siren went silent, I received an Alert Carolina text that said: “Armed, dangerous person on or near campus. Go inside now; avoid windows.” A minute later, I received an email alert and watched the University Macbook screens in the library flash a warning.
I locked eyes across the room with my roommate Emmy, who happened to be in the library with me, and I stumbled to her table, which was slightly hidden behind a bookcase. It felt like it was the safest place I could be in a library that’s almost all windows.
Emmy’s the editor-in-chief at The Daily Tar Heel. Her immediate reaction was to check in with editors to assign people to cover what was going on and to call the UNC Police Department. I watched her become a human blur as she balanced a laptop and a phone. I took a seat next to her and watched my hands start shaking.
We turned the police scanners on about 30 minutes into the lockdown so that Emmy could share news quickly and reliably — and that we could judge how safe we were. I helped proofread as she updated the breaking news article that had been published. We scoured X, formerly Twitter, for any other details.
We heard on the scanner that the victim may be in Caudill Laboratories. My spatial awareness started to kick in. Caudill is right next to Carroll — 1,056 feet away to be exact. But when campus is on lockdown, and you can’t get hold of your roommates, I felt like it really didn’t matter where I was.
I received texts from people I hadn’t spoken to since high school and recent graduates who saw random headlines on X and wanted to make sure I was safe. The text group chat with all of my roommates continued messaging every few minutes to make sure each of us was with someone, safe at our house or keeping up with the news.
I received a call from one of my best friends who attends N.C. State University and rarely calls me. I hadn’t told him what was going on yet. In a whisper, I let him know where I was and that I was safe, and he just kept repeating the word “OK” in shock. I began to realize that if people outside of Chapel Hill were checking on me, what was happening was national news, and it was likely I was going to be here for hours.
I was interrupted by the wailing of the campus sirens. It was a sound we were told signals an emergency, and a sound I thought I would never hear. I wish I wouldn’t have had to hear it. I wish I wouldn’t have had to create a mental list of people I needed to text, “There’s someone armed on campus. I love you.”
I stopped responding to texts for a few minutes because I had no updates and my phone battery was running low. Messages kept coming in saying “Everyone still ok?” and “Did they get the shooter yet?”
I kept thinking about the cliche “You never think it will be you, until it is.” No matter how many lockdown drills in high school I had, there was no preparation for this type of anxiety. There was no preparation for my sigh of relief when I heard that the police had caught a suspect.
And there was no preparation for the anxiety that came back when I heard they arrested the wrong individual.
At some point sitting there, I grabbed Emmy’s hand. I remember just holding on. I just wanted to hold on. In the hours and nights since the shooting, I’ve continued holding onto my people a little bit longer.
I looked around the library at the 30 other students getting messages filled with rumors they had heard from group chats, family members and friends on other parts of campus. At one point, I heard two people were killed, 10 others were injured, a classroom of people was being held hostage, there were multiple shooters and one was dressed as a police officer.
While I didn’t pay much attention to the rumors because I was focused on the police scanner and controlling my breathing, it was difficult not to let your mind consider the possibilities.
Time continued to pass and we had yet to receive clearance to leave our building, but we glanced out the window, despite the warning to stay away from them, and saw some students escorted by officers.
At 4:16 p.m., the librarian told us we could leave Carroll. I mustered up the courage to stand by the window to look at South Road, where I had previously watched on live news broadcasts dozens of police cars randomly parked, lights flashing. Now I looked at the Venable Parking Lot where police still stood around a car that was later said to be possibly related to the crime. By the time I turned away from the window, the people who I had just spent the past three hours with were gone. That was it. That was the end of the scariest hours I’ve experienced in my 20 years.
As I walked out of Carroll and back home, I saw hundreds of students walking by the Old Well, like they were just continuing on with their day. If you hadn’t known what just happened, you would have thought it was a regular changing of classes. It should have been.
When I arrived at my house, I sat down to put my thoughts to paper. When I opened my journal, I saw I had already written an entry that morning: “Monday morning: Feeling rested and recharged from the weekend.”
The next page in my journal now begins: “I think I survived a school shooting today.”
At 8:30 a.m. I prioritized a rested mind for the week ahead and at 1:04 p.m., I prioritized survival.
I think there are a lot of students and faculty— including myself — who don’t quite know how to respond or grieve in the “right” way. While we aren’t unfamiliar with the tragedy of campus shootings, a lot of us are unfamiliar with the process of grieving the end to a reality we once had. We will never look at the places we hid the same. We are trying to feel thankful for our safety while also grieving the tragic loss of Zijie Yan and the pain his family and friends are going through. While there is no right or wrong way to process this, I hope we all find ways to lean on each other and learn to keep saying, “I love you.”
As college students, we should be allowed to fuss over our haircuts, new outfits and test scores. Unfortunately, on Aug. 28, 2023, that was taken away from us because we were too busy turning off lights, sheltering in place, separating facts from rumors, watching helicopters circle the building and thinking that today could possibly be our last.