‘A lasting scar.’ UNC Charlotte reporters tell deeply personal story during lockdown

When UNC Charlotte student Nikolai Mather first saw frantic messages about a shooting on campus Tuesday, he turned off his dorm room lights, checked the locks and closed the blinds.

Then he sent the dreaded text to his mom: “There’s a shooter on campus.”

Stay safe, she told him.

But then another feeling came over Mather: one of responsibility. He’s an editor at the campus paper, the Niner Times. And in his Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Studies classes, he had studied the power that documenting an atrocity can have.

He ignored his mom’s pleas to stay in his dorm, grabbed his phone and headed toward where the shooting happened.

He felt like he had no choice, the sophomore from Pittsboro said.

“As long as you are gathering information, and spreading knowledge and making sure people are informed, you’re doing something about the situation,” Mather said. “You feel like you have control over what happens to you.

Two students were killed and four others were shot that afternoon. A former student was arrested and charged in the case.

According to a Washington Post analysis, more than 226,000 students have experienced gun violence at school since 13 people were killed at Columbine High School in 1999 — the year many of today’s college students were born.

And often, student journalists are the first to witness the horrors. Mather’s coworkers were spread across campus.

But after initial moments of fear, they were connected by one goal: to tell their story of their classmates, friends and coworkers. That story became even more personal when they learned that a fellow writer, Drew Pescaro, had been injured in the shooting.

‘A voice for the university’

A few hours earlier, Niner Times community editor Alexandria Sands sent out a tweet, in her cap and gown, holding the last edition of the paper: “The last @niner_times of the year comes out today, and I’m officially a retired college newspaper editor. Thank you for letting me tell your stories, #UNCC.”

But when she was in her grammar for writing class, she got a message in the editors’ group chat about the shooting and quickly told the rest of the room.

Sands thought about what she would say to her parents. “You always see the texts that say, ‘If I die, I love you,’ ” she said. “I really didn’t want to have to send a text like that.”

But she heard the sirens and thought she might survive. She was a few buildings over from where it happened.

Immediately after the words “Run, hide, fight,” flashed across the screens of everyone’s phones with an alert from the university, Sands tweeted from the Niner Times account. Then she pulled out her laptop and started writing, sitting alone in a corner of the dark room.

Within five minutes of the NinerAlert, Sands had the first story up on the Niner Times website. Her coworkers sent her updates through a messaging app and she updated social media.

Assistant opinion editor Nikolai Mather looks at a preliminary design for the special edition of the Niner Times, set to run Tuesday, with Natasha Morehouse, the layout editor.

She kept reporting, even after the lockdown was lifted, interviewing a witness. She only slept two hours that night.

“I’ve always felt like I was kind of a voice for the university,” she said. “That’s something that actually really motivated me to keep reporting.”

One of their own

Sports editor Sam Palian said her “heart dropped” when she received a text asking if Pescaro, her friend and writer, was injured in the shooting, she later recalled in an article in the Niner Times.

“I couldn’t control whether I walked or ran or hit the ground or cried or anything at this point,” she wrote.

She clocked out of work at BB&T Ballpark, jumped in her car and raced to a nearby hospital.

She joined her fellow editor, members of Pescaro’s fraternity, and others in the waiting room for nearly four hours. Pescaro was still hospitalized as of Thursday.

“I know him,” she said in an interview with the Observer. “I’d spent nights walking back from basketball games with him, and sitting in the football stadium press box with him.”

But the next day, she was out reporting, taking pictures of the campus vigil and later, of a shooting that left one dead at the nearby University Village apartments.

“I realized that I was helping to document a tragic part of Charlotte’s history,” she wrote. “It’s horrific to now understand what it feels like when it happens to you.”

The news about Pescaro made the tragedy hit closer to home, said Jeffrey Kopp, the paper’s outgoing editor-in-chief.

“We have someone who we know that was injured,” he said. “So that just adds a whole other layer of just sadness, of stress. ...

“He’s one of us.”

Prepared for the moment

The editors had been coordinating coverage nonstop since the shooting, but the first time everyone got together in the same room was just before the vigil on the night after the shooting. They planned coverage for that evening.

Madison Dobrzenski, the incoming editor-in-chief, hadn’t even spent a day in her new job before the shooting occurred.

Amid the chaos of the past 24 hours, they were comforted. They’ve received pizza, sandwiches, cookies and letters of support from college newspapers across the country.

“(Tuesday) was probably the worst day of my life,” Kopp said. “But (Wednesday), as sad as it was as we were getting information and whatnot, I felt so comforted just by being with everyone. And for the first time, I was able to actually laugh. And see other people laughing. See people smiling just because we were together again.”

Earlier that year, the editors had discussed what would happen if a shooter came into the newsroom, or the student union, where their office is. They discussed how they would barricade the doors.

“As student journalists, shootings should never be something we have to cover,” Dobrzenski said. “We should be covering campus concerts. We should be covering any of the small crimes that happen on campus, professors, feature stories, sports.”

Leaning over an office computer Thursday, Kopp, Dobrzenski and Mather looked at the cover of a special edition of the paper that comes out Tuesday. In big, white letters, on top of a green background, it read: “Riley Howell. Reed Parlier.” The names of the two students who were killed.

In a few weeks, when the national media is gone, the Niner Times reporters will still be there.

“We are here, we are still boots on the ground, we are still going to be reporting on this,” Mather said. “Because this is going to leave a lasting scar on our community.”

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Danielle Chemtob covers economic growth and development for the Observer. She’s a 2018 graduate of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill and a California transplant.