It was a heart-stopping moment that will weigh on Debby Stout for a lifetime. “Mom, there’s a shooter,” she heard her daughter Liz, 17, whisper down the phone as shots rang out along the hallway at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida.
Mrs Stout, who was at home, screamed her daughter’s name in panic, then tried to compose herself. “I can’t scream, I’ll get her killed,” she thought, knowing that she had been trained to get down and be quiet.
As Liz fell silent and bullets flew through the smashed window of her classroom door and four friends lay wounded, moaning for help, Mrs Stout could not help herself. “Liz!” she screamed. “Then the line goes dead,” she said. “It was absolutely the worst moment of my life. I thought when that phone went dead I had lost her.”
Liz sheltered under a desk and when a student dialled 911 but could not speak she nudged closer and gave the address.
She survived, as did three of the four friends who were shot. The fourth, Carmen Schentrup, 16, did not. Liz attended her funeral yesterday, the fourth she has been to in four days.
“I didn’t watch a classmate die two feet away from me for people in charge to do nothing,” said Liz, who along with the rest of the community is demanding change.
As 100 students boarded buses to Tallahassee, the state capital, straight from friends’ funerals to demand a ban on the weapons that killed them, Liz joined the voices driving a nationwide movement forcing politicians to listen. “Prayers and condolences and sending love and flowers is all nice but it doesn’t solve the issue,” she said. “The issue is these weapons and what we’re going to do about them.
“This is personal. Carmen was two feet away from me and she was murdered and that’s just the final straw. I saw my friend’s blood and that needs to matter, right on up to the president.”
Her father, Richard, is an FBI agent familiar with the AR-15, a semi-automatic assault rifle that fires bullets that rip into the body and ricochet off the bones. It was the gun used by Nikolas Cruz, 19, and which Mr Stout said was sold to the public “with the same vigour as Big Macs”.
After hearing from her daughter, Debby drove to the school. “I couldn’t even turn onto the main road because of the line of police cars all shooting by, one after the other after the other,” she said. When she got there, she saw her husband arrive and join his FBI colleagues, armed and clad in body armour.
Liz had taken shelter under a teacher’s desk, then moved out to make way for others and crouched by a wall. She helped to throw a jacket over one of the injured. “Help me, seriously, help me,” he was moaning. Another student had placed a 911 call, but could barely speak into the phone for shock. Liz nudged closer and spoke the address clearly into the phone.
Jenny, Liz’s older sister, echoes her family’s exasperation. “Without description of the tiniest of details, this can easily be made as just another shooting, in which someone in another state watches the coverage on the news for five minutes, chalks it up to being ‘sad’, and then goes on about their life. This isn’t sad, this is disgusting, it should anger every American,” she said.
Liz, noting that the president spent the weekend tweeting about Robert Mueller’s investigation but was largely silent on the massacre, said: “When the one person you look to for leadership and who you put your hope in is failing you and sending tweets about Russia when 17 of your school have just been murdered, you have to call it out. That’s not leadership. Now it’s the students who are providing the leadership.”
President Trump reacted to mounting pressure yesterday, ordering his attorney-general “to propose regulations that ban all devices that turn legal weapons into machineguns”.
He promised action on “bump-stocks”, devices that can be fitted to semi-automatic weapons and allow a continuous hail of bullets to be fired with one pull of the trigger. Bump-stocks, which are legal, were used by a gunman who killed 58 people in Las Vegas in October.
The White House also said that setting an age limit for buying AR-15-type assault rifles was under consideration. “I think that’s certainly something that’s on the table for us to discuss and that we expect to come up over the next couple of weeks,” a spokeswoman for Mr Trump said.