“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” — Fred Rogers
On Valentine’s Day last week, a teenager took the lives of 17 students and wounded 15 others at his former high school in Parkland, Florida. However, in the middle of that horrifying tragedy and carnage, several people became heroes, because they demonstrated the definition of true love, which is sacrificial and selfless. While a serious discussion about guns, security, mental illness, and policy should — and likely will — follow this tragic event, it’s also important to recognize glimmers of hope in the midst of darkness, acts of good in the middle of evil. There may be additional reports forthcoming of acts of incredible bravery and sacrifice, but these are the ones that have been reported so far.
Teachers and students saved lives in a split second
The New York Posts reports Shanthi “Mrs. V’’ Viswanathan, an Algebra II instructor at Marjory Stoneman Douglas “knew something just didn’t add up when the second fire alarm of the day sounded.” The routine would have been to send students into the hallway, any time an alarm sounded. The teacher ordered her students to the floor in a corner of the room instead, the Sun-Sentinel reported, then put paper over the door’s window so no one could see inside. Her quick thinking and ability to follow her gut may have saved the lives of all the students in her room.
When teacher Melissa Falkowski heard gunshots, her first instinct was to hide all of her students in the only space available to her — a closet. “I managed to put 19 kids in the closet with me. This is the worst nightmare that could ever happen to you,” she told CNN. While her students were clearly stunned and afraid, either standing in silence, bursting into tears, or interacting on their phones, Falkowski remained calm. “You try to do the best you can for the kids you are supposed to keep safe.”
When Colton Haab, a 17-year-old Junior ROTC student heard gunshots, he didn’t hesitate to usher 60 to 70 people in a room, according to CNN. The quick-thinking Haab then grabbed Kevlar sheets he and his peers used for the marksmanship program at ROTC and put them to use.
“We took those sheets, and we put them in front of everybody so they weren’t seen, because they were behind a solid object and the Kevlar would slow the bullet down,” Haab told CNN.
Three school staffers and one student made the ultimate sacrifice
Jesus said that although there are different kinds of love, true, agape love is sacrificial, selfless, and seeks to ease the pain of others, even unto death — “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friend.” Three staff members of the school, a coach, the athletic director, and a teacher, and at least one student did just that last week, when they died so their students and friends could live. These were amazing acts of courage and selflessness.
The athletic director, 49-year-old Chris Hixon, was a father and Army veteran. When he heard the sound of gunfire, he ran toward the shots rather than away, and saved multiple students trying to flee, according to reports. He was named athletic director of the year in 2017 by the Broward County Athletic Association, and his personality showed on and off the field. He was dedicated to his students and family. Another athletic directed dubbed Hixon “probably the nicest guy I have ever met.”
Hixon’s wife, Debbie, told People Magazine, “I am torn. I am pissed off he did that because he left us. But knowing my husband, that’s just who he was. I knew he would be right there in the middle of what was going on as soon as I heard the shooting was happening. That was just who he was.” A GoFundMe for the family has already surpassed its financial goal of $15,000.
Scott Beigel, 35, was a geography teacher. When the shooting started, he tried to usher students back into his classroom to safety. Unfortunately, he didn’t make it back inside the room before he was killed. “When he opened the door, he had to relock it so that we could stay safe,” one of the students he saved, Kelsey Friend, told CNN. “But he didn’t get the chance.” Friend continued. “Mr. Beigel was my hero and he still will forever be my hero. I will never forget the actions that he took for me and for fellow students in the classroom. I am alive today because of him.”
Aaron Feis, 37, was a big, burly assistant football coach. A man dedicated to his football team and his young daughter, Feis shielded several students from gunfire and died of the wounds he sustained while doing so. The Sun-Sentinel reported that Feis, who had often acted as school security guard, though he was not allowed to carry a firearm, said his last words via walkie-talkie, when news broke out that something wasn’t right on campus. Willis May, the football coach, recalled that someone asked if the loud sounds they heard were firecrackers. “I heard Aaron say, ‘No, that is not firecrackers.’ That’s the last I heard of him.” According to a tweet on the school football program’s account, Feis jumped between students and the shooter, “selflessly shielding” them from the gunfire.
Yohance Williams, who plays linebacker, said Feis’ selfless courage was in line with the kind of man he was and that “the sacrifice he made didn’t surprise me the least.”
May said of Feis and his team: “He took pride with working with those guys. Loyalty — I trusted him. He had my back. He worked hard. Just a good man. Loved his family. Loved his brother — just an excellent family man.”
The GoFundMe for Aaron Feis’ family is here.
It is with Great sadness that our Football Family has learned about the death of Aaron Feis. He was our Assistant Football Coach and security guard. He selflessly shielded students from the shooter when he was shot. He died a hero and he will forever be in our hearts and memories pic.twitter.com/O181FvuHl3
— MS Douglas Football (@MSDEagles) February 15, 2018
Peter Wang, 15, was a freshman and member of the school’s JROTC. He joined Haab and “used the last minutes of his life to help save his fellow students,” reports Task and Purpose. The slim boy whom his cousin recalls was wearing his grey JROTC shirt when he left for school that morning, made the ultimate sacrifice for his fellow students. According to witnesses, Wang “was holding a door to let other students out before him,” while gunshots rang out in the hallways. Chen told the Sun-Sentinel, “He is so brave. He is the person who is genuinely kind to everyone. He doesn’t care about popularity. He always liked to cheer people up. He is like the big brother everyone wished they had.”
The courage and selfless acts of bravery these men and women showed don’t make this tragedy easier to understand, or provide the solution to preventing them in the future, but they do provide a glimmer of persistent hope. They demonstrated the strength of the human spirit in the face of horrible evil and even death, and their courage should be celebrated.