Before the loud pops of gunfire rang out, before blood spilled onto the floor, before the screams and the yells and the panic and the race for the exit, several dozen students in the UNC Charlotte classroom were sitting around pondering the expansion of the universe.
Well, some of them were.
The liberal studies class, “Science, Technology & Society,” had gotten rolling a few minutes later than the 5:30 scheduled start time on Tuesday afternoon.
Around 5:33 p.m., the first of the six teams scheduled to run through their final presentations for the spring semester queued up a video explaining different theories about time and space and the Big Bang theory.
As that video played, many were tuning it out, because they wanted to use each precious second to review their own notes for their own looming presentations, or simply because they were finding their cellphones more interesting.
Though it can accommodate about 100 students, the room inside Kennedy Hall is not designed the way one might picture a typical college lecture hall. Its layout is a fairly elongated rectangular shape, with exits at the far end of each side. The floor is level, not tiered, with the students seated at large, round workspace tables featuring built-in TVs.
The lecturer, Adam Johnson, sat at a table taking notes. In fact, although there was a presentation going on, everyone was seated, because in this case the video was doing all the work for the team presenting.
But before the video could finish, a young man with a face that might have rung familiar to some in the room suddenly entered from the left, raised a pistol, and pulled the trigger.
A mad dash for safety
Tristan Field, a 19-year-old sophomore, thought someone had decided to pick a really odd time to set off a bunch of fireworks.
Cooper Creech, a 21-year-old junior, and John Hutchinson, a 20-year-old sophomore, both initially thought balloons were being popped.
John Crooks, a 21-year-old senior, and Jared Jackowitz, a 19-year-old sophomore — who were within 10 or 15 feet of the shooter when the first shot was fired — thought the school was using the last day of the spring semester to run a disturbingly realistic-looking and feeling active-shooter drill.
After the initial couple of seconds of bewilderment, everyone in the room seemed to realize what was actually happening at almost the exact same instant.
Dylan Farrar, a 20-year-old sophomore who had been sitting at the opposite end of the room, sprang up and bolted toward the door, using his 6-foot-2, 230-pound frame to shove aside a table that was blocking a direct path.
He jumped over a female student who had fallen in front of him, to avoid trampling her. He landed on his knee, but quickly scrambled to his feet and was among the first out the door; once he made it to the stairwell, he bounded down the steps as someone fleeing beside him tripped and tumbled to the bottom.
“Self preservation took complete control,” he said in a message to the Observer. “I didn’t have much control of myself until I was out of the building.”
Creech, who also was on that far end of the room, recalls a similar form of extreme, almost blind panic.
“The only thought in my head was, ‘Don’t die here,’” says the Lake Norman High School alum, who also jumped over a fallen classmate, banged his knee when he didn’t stick the landing, and lost a shoe in the process. “You know, ‘Don’t get shot in the back running away from a shooter.’ You just, you want to run fast and beat people to the doors. As mean as it is to say, everyone in the class had the same thought.”
Those students closest to the violence, meanwhile, didn’t dash for the door right away.
Just like Farrar’s and Creech’s instincts told them to make a beeline for the exit, Crooks and Jackowitz reflexively ducked under the large, heavy tables and ... froze.
Crooks, whose group was presenting at the time of the attack, says he could make out that the shooter had a lanky build, and was wearing long hair and a black baseball cap.
Only later would he learn that his groupmate Rami Alramadhan (who’d been sitting at the same table) had taken one of the bullets. Jackowitz says that, from his vantage point, he could see the weapon discharging rounds but not the gunman’s face, and saw a friend (who he declined to name) holding his arm and bleeding.
After about half a dozen shots or so had been fired, the two say the gunman stopped long enough that they felt bold enough to make a run for it.
‘Should I run back inside?’
As students spilled out onto campus, they went in every direction.
Some hurriedly followed the lecturer, Adam Johnson, to the east into Barnard Hall, barricading themselves inside his office. Some raced north and into hiding spaces inside Prospector Hall. Others kept running until they reached their residence halls, or their cars.
When Creech got outside onto the lawn, though, he suddenly stopped running. As his adrenaline stabilized, his sense of duty kicked into gear: A medic with the National Guard, he knew he could potentially be of assistance.
“I thought, ‘Should I run back inside?’ But then I was like, ‘That’s a terrible idea; he’s still in there.’ So I just kind of hid behind cover near the doorway and waited to see if anybody came out with injuries — and sure enough, a guy from our class came out with blood running down the front of his shirt.”
It was Rami Alramadhan, who as one of the four people injured had been grazed in the arm by one round and struck in the abdomen by another. Creech applied pressure to the wound, made sure his legs were elevated so he didn’t go into shock, monitored his pulse, tried to check for internal bleeding, and kept Alramadhan talking until emergency responders arrived and took over.
Then, like everyone else who had been in the classroom, he waited for answers.
He stuck around long enough to see the suspect, 22-year-old Trystan Andrew Terrell, led away in handcuffs, eventually recognizing the young man as a former student in that very class.
It wasn’t until the next day that the students would also learn that another classmate, 21-year-old Riley Howell, had very likely saved some of their lives. Though specifics are scant so far, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney says Howell — who died in the attack along with 19-year-old Ellis Parlier — “took the assailant off his feet” before being killed.
Even so, questions continue to swirl in the heads of everyone who was in that classroom on Tuesday afternoon, when the gunfire rang out, and the blood spilled, and everyone raced for the exit. And one that many say will continue to keep them up at night is this:
Ames Alexander and Gavin Off contributed to this report.