In the 21 years since the tragedy at Thurston High School in Springfield, Oregon, school shootings have become more common. In 2018, The Washington Post reported more than 210 thousand students have experienced gun violence at school since Columbine. As a survivor of the Thurston shooting, I take a look back with several classmates to reflect on how that experience has stayed with us.
Aubrey Bulkeley: The morning of May 21, 1998 Cory Emery was in the cafeteria - the epicenter of the shooting. Next to the cafeteria, in the courtyard Sara Croxen Pimley, Amy Rybarczyk and I were on the outskirts of immediate danger. We were all freshman at the time.
While the shooting lasted less than 10 minutes, it made an indelible impression. Two of our classmates died and 25 others were injured. Cory, Sara, Amy and I share our experiences as part of the more than a thousand Thurston students who were not physically injured, but carry the emotional trauma of that day.
Cory Emery: I did what I always did. I grabbed an herb and cheese bagel and two things of cream cheese. And then, I went over to the cafeteria to get what you always get with breakfast which is a 20 ounce bottle of Pepsi.
Amy Rybarczyk: It was a weird morning for me. Because my mom had an early morning meeting, she dropped me off early.
Sara Croxen Pimley: There was a senior that I had a crush on that happened to walk in front of the truck after we parked. I decided to talk with him and walk with him to the front of the school and my sister took her normal route.
Emery: And I didn’t get all the way to the Pepsi machine before Kip came in – trench coat on and like something out of Wyatt Erp. You know, it was right around the time as student elections, so when he took out the gun and started shooting – oh, is this like some kind of campaign stunt? I was getting scared, but like a typical guy, I was like I don’t want to climb under this table and look like an idiot if this is a joke. I can’t explain to you how strange that experience was, but I remember all those thoughts and feelings so clearly.
Pimley: Probably within two minutes of standing there, we started hearing what we thought were noise maker type things for the election. I remember thinking that’s a stupid idea of doing those sounds.
Bulkeley: Like most days, I stood in the corner of the courtyard with my friends. I remember practicing lines for theater class when I heard what sounded like fireworks.
Rybarczyk: We’re getting ready to go to our classes and then I hear the fireworks. And, I didn’t really think anything of it until I saw one kid run across the courtyard. It wasn’t dripping blood, it wasn’t gushing blood - his hand and his arm were red. And that’s when I was like this isn’t right, somethings wrong.
Emery: Started to see other people getting down underneath the tables and so I figure, well if everybody else is, then, you know, maybe something real is going on here.
Bulkeley: There were people streaming out of the cafeteria. Through the windows, I saw a figure walk across the cafeteria holding a rifle.
Pimley: Whoever I was standing with pretty much like got my attention and said this is real, run.
Emery: I crawled under that table. I felt completely helpless. And I prayed. I was like, God I, I don’t want to die. Please don’t let me die. And I knew there wasn’t anything I could do to keep from dying. And that’s a really weird feeling to have when you’re fifteen years old. I was under there for a while, praying hoping that I wouldn’t get shot.
Bulkeley: The shooting stopped for a moment and then I heard what I thought was an explosion. Hundreds of my classmates and I stampeded down the breezeway. It was hard not to trip on people. Amy was running in front of me when she decided to turn and go back. I shoved her down the hallway -the whole time yelling for her to keep running.
Rybarczyk: I remember you looking at me, going like no, this is legit. Like, we’re running. We’re doing this. Then I had that like pit of my stomach like, oh maybe, maybe I should be scared right now.
Pimley: Met up with my cousin, clung on to each other. And I was thinking, okay, I’m with family. I’m with somebody close. I’m safe. Um, wow, that I thought it was ok.
Bulkeley: Sara and her cousin and Amy and I got separated in the chaos. We all ended up in different classrooms for lock down.
Rybarczyk: Someone came over the intercom, said teachers get your students to the back of the classroom, shut your door, lock it, close the blinds, turn off the lights.
Pimley: Once we kinda started figuring out what was going on, all I could think about was, my sister was where everything started happening. And then all I was thinking was I just want to get out of here. I’m done.
Emery: The shooting stopped. I saw other people kind of getting up, but staying, you know, kinda hunched over, low and running out of the room. And so I followed suit.
Bulkeley: We were still kids - 14 and 15 years old. The experience is so deeply ingrained in who we are now that many of us struggle to explain how it’s affected us.
When another shooting happens, many of us feel the impact. As Cory put it, we have a strange life experience which gives us a common bond.
Emery: Not a bond you would want, but it’s a, there’s a common bond of ‘I walked through that. Now they’re having to walk through it. I wish they didn’t have to walk through that.
Sara said she just wants to tell kids affected by school shootings that others have gone through this too. Amy gets upset when she sees kids joining our morbid club.
Rybarczyk: They’re traumatized just like we were – for the rest of their lives. I know what that fear feels like. I know that sense of dread, that sense of is it going to be okay after. And I know what those kids are going to have to go through the rest of their lives.
Bulkeley: I always feel like I’m experiencing another death in the family.
Over 20 years after my classmates and I went through this tragedy, we now have an entire generation who has grown up with these traumatic events being a common occurrence. Despite this common bond, survivors have varying opinions of how this complicated issue needs to be addressed. Though, I hope we can agree no one else should have to live through this experience.
This piece was produced as a part of my master’s project for the UO School of Journalism and Communication.