Tragedy on our doorstep



There is something about seeing Swat teams tooled to the hilt running around your streets, seeing parents sinking to their knees on the pavement in grief and terror, unsure whether their children are dead or alive.

There is something about seeing the flag flying at half mast for 17 members of your community, something about knowing that some of them were friends of your friends.

There is something about a teenager walking into a school ten minutes up the road from your own home, a school to whichwe aspire to send our own children, and opening fire with an AR-15 assault weapon. There is something about seeing images of its classrooms pooled with blood and hallways strewn with bodies, and about interviewing trembling students who were forced to step over corpses to reach safety.

A friend texted me at 6.36pm last Wednesday as I was interviewing survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida. Sirens still screamed around as convoys of police and FBI agents and other law enforcers streamed in from neighbouring counties and helicopters hovered overhead.

“My friend’s niece is still missing. Any news helpful. Last name Montalto,” the message read. “First name?” I asked. “Gina,” she replied.

I asked a student I had been interviewing, Lauren Hogg. Gina had been in a first-floor hallway when the gunman approached, Lauren told me, and talk among the students was that she had not made it. “I love Gina she was my seat buddy last year,” Lauren told me. At 2.08am, it had become clear. I texted back to my friend: “Gina Montalto died.”

In the hours and days since, I have lost count of the friends, friends of friends, neighbours and acquaintances who have lost someone they knew and loved in the attack. We are all one, two, three degrees removed from this tragedy. I have learnt that tears, terror and heartbreak in times like this are not confined to the families of the victims but pervade the entire fabric of the community.

My friend Jason cycled as close to the scene as he could on Wednesday to offer help as students emerged on the streets with their tales of horror and sought out their parents and friends. He helped a young man who was handing out bottles of water. The boy’s girlfriend, Meadow Pollack, was missing, but he was hoping to be reunited later. Another child was sobbing, saying that he had seen a classmate dead, blasted in the face. The next day, Meadow was confirmed dead.

My heart heaved as I attended the memorial vigil in a park last Thursday, walking past the playground to get to the field where 17 crosses and Stars of David had been erected in memory of the dead.

My two sons, aged ten and eight, have played here since they were upright, giggling around on the model fire engine and scrambling with friends up climbing frames and down slides. I thought about how 17 other sets of parents had probably done the same, if not here, then at other playgrounds, raising their children only for their lives to be cut dead in a second.

The park is now a place to go and pay tribute, share stories and hugs. There is a constant flow of people, there are therapy dogs, Red Cross volunteers handing out food, chaplains and counsellors to offer solace.

I am sick of my children having to hear about guns, having to do “Code Red” drills at school, as they did last Thursday, the day after the shooting, due to a false alarm. My children went to pay their respects at the park yesterday. For years I used to turn off the television news if they were in the room, because I wanted to spare them from America’s gun culture, but now they need to see it.

People ask how our community will heal. It will be because upcoming generations will do something about this lunacy. And they already are.

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