800 Heroes Transcript

A note about this transcript: The Moth is true stories told live. We provide transcripts to make all of our stories keyword searchable and accessible to the hearing impaired, but highly recommend listening to the audio to hear the full breadth of the story. This transcript was computer-generated and subsequently corrected through The Moth StoryScribe.

Back to this story.

Click here to download the transcript from 800 Heroes.

It was a pretty typical school day; 800 students at the high school where I worked as a guidance counselor. And I was about to go into a meeting with a college representative who was going to meet with some juniors and seniors and try to recruit them to his college. And the guidance secretary pulled me aside and she whispered into my ear, "Paul, there's a student in the front office. He's got 5 hostages and he has a gun."

"Sally, who are the hostages?"

Turns out it's the two assistant principals and three secretaries. Our principal was out of the building at the time.

"Who's the student?" "It's Andy." My heart sinks ’cause I talk with Andy every day. He's actually a teddy bear.

It's not adding up in my book. I don't understand this. This is four and a half years before Columbine. There's no protocol in place. All we know how to do is get out if there's a fire.

So, I call the police. And the dispatcher immediately gets me to an officer. And he said, "Paul, here's what you need to do, you need to get all the students and staff out of the building. But you can't pull the fire alarm. You can't alert Andy to the fact that they're leaving the building ’cause he might start shooting.”

Here's a good time for me to tell you that I'm on crutches. Recovering from major knee surgery and I can't put weight on my knee. And I'm thinking, “How are we going to get 800 students out of here?” But a buddy of mine, Dave, walks into the guidance office and I let him know what we've got to do.

There's two big wings, and I sent him to one wing, the technology wing, and I go to the classroom wing. I'm hobbling there and on the way I stop in the conference room, and I say to the college representative, "We've got a guy with a gun in the office. You might want to get out of here, but use a side door. Or you can stay if you want, but I would get out of here."

And he leaves.

And I hobbled down to the classroom wing. And I go from classroom to classroom. And I just directly look at the teacher, and I say, “You need to listen to me. You need to listen and do exactly what I say. You can't ask any questions. You need to leave now. You need to leave as quietly as you can, and don't take anything with you.”

And every teacher knew that this was serious, but I remember specifically Patty; these beautiful brown eyes just getting bigger and bigger as they connected with mine, and she knew something was terribly wrong. She looked at her students and she said, "Okay, let's do exactly what Mr. Knowles said.”

Every classroom left. 

Every student left.

I think one of my colleagues did the second floor ’cause I don't remember getting up there. But I think within two to three minutes we had that wing cleared. You could hear a pin drop when everyone was leaving, that's how quiet everyone was. The last teacher’s leaving the classroom wing and I decide I'm just going to stay put because I knew I was the only one that was in touch with the police.

And then all of a sudden, Andy comes around the corner.

He's got two assistant principals with him and he's about 15 feet away. And he points the rifle at me.

I'm not much of a- I've never hunted. But it's a 30 ought six with a scope. And he's got bullets wrapped around his waist and they're 2 to 3 inches long and I got scared. But I stayed calm.

Andy's about 6' 2'', maybe 6'1.” He's bigger than me, and without the gun I wouldn't want to take him on. I'm certainly not going to take him on with the gun. And he said, “Mr. Knowles, I want you to get all the students in front of the building.”

And I'm in a little bit of a quandary here because as a counselor, I, like, want to save Andy, this guy who I talk with every day; some days he calls me Paul. We're kind of friends. But then, we just cleared this building of 800 students. What's my priority here? Do I do what he wants so that everyone stays safe?

I don't know where the answer came from, but I just said to Andy, "I'm sorry, Andy. I can't do that."

And I turn my back to him and I start to leave, honestly thinking he might fire his gun at me, being a little ticked off that I didn't listen to him.

He didn't.

And as I'm leaving the building, I could tell he was behind me and he was going to follow me out the building. And when I get out of the building I realize, “Oh my god. We have just sent all these students into a cage.” Our evacuation area for fire drills is the softball field. So, now all these students are enclosed in this fenced- in area, and then we’ve got a student coming out of the building with a rifle.

I feel if I start yelling, he'll come out quicker, remembering the police officer said, "Do this quietly." So, I take my crutches. And I just start waving frantically at the top of this hill looking down on everyone and I'm hoping they understand, “Get! Leave! Run! He's coming out! Go!” But they're not moving. They don't know what the waving of the crutches is about.

And Andy's a couple steps away from coming outdoors, so I go around the corner to be out of his sight so I could keep waving. But no one's moving. And then I hear the gunshot. And I see people running.

And I just- I thought maybe the shot was coming my way again; but clearly after a couple seconds you know it didn't come your way and for me I felt like I needed to get back in the building. So, I take a few minutes to get around to the front side. I don't know what happened. I don't know where the shot went. I decide to go back to the guidance office and I call the police again, “This is Paul. What do you want me to do? How can I help?”

And they said, “We don't know where Andy is, but he's back in the building. Can you find him? Can you get him to pick up the phone? We need to talk to him. We want to negotiate with him.”

I'm not sure how to do that. So, I decide I'm just going to stay put and I just, from the guidance office, I just keep calling the main office, “Pick up! Pick up! Come on someone, pick up, pick up.”

I just kept trying. I kept trying.

Eventually the assistant principal, John, picked up. Thank god. “John, John you need to get Andy to pick up the phone. The police wanna talk to him. Is Andy there?”

And he said, “Yeah, Andy's here.” So, Andy did pick up the phone. He did get into a discussion with the police. So, in the meantime, I call my link with the police department back and I say,

“Alright, Andy's talking. What do you want me to do?” And they told me to get out of the building. But at that point, I'm thinking I'm

not sure. I think this guidance office is pretty safe, so I'm just going to hang here for a few minutes and I actually go into my little office, and I crouch behind the desk. And that's when it really hit me, because I have this nine-month-old daughter back at my house, and her mom, and I'm wondering, "Am I going to get to be a father still?"

And I just spent three minutes focused on my family, missing them, feeling sad. Not scared, just sad that this day was happening.

But after about three minutes of this, I decided to leave the building and went out the loading dock. And as I go out the loading dock, out from behind the dumpster, a state trooper points his gun at me. Thank god he had good training ’cause he didn't fire. And he ran up to me and he goes, “Where's Andy? And how do I get there?”

So, I gave him directions. I got myself to safety, still not really sure what happened.

Well, Andy did surrender. He walked out the front of building – I didn't see this, this is as told to me – and he lays his gun down, and lights a cigarette.

As it turns out, his shot was a warning shot.

Later that day I went back to that softball field. And it was one of the most surreal and profound images that I will always remember. Because in that softball field are backpacks, shoes, papers, musical instruments. There's parts of the fence where it was literally run over by all the students and staff. And what had happened is that teachers in high heels were helped over the fence. We had a student in a wheelchair and he was carried over that fence.

And while it looked like a U.F.O. had come along and plucked everyone out of that field and taken them away, what it really was is that all those students and staff, somehow by helping each other, found their way to the safety of the community, to the safety of the woods and the nearby homes and the nearby stores.

So, what that image represents to me, as eerie as it is, is the fact that on that day, even though we didn't really know what to do, we actually trusted each other. We took care of each other. And in my mind, it was 800 heroes that somehow worked together on a day where a lot of people could have gotten hurt, but instead, no one got hurt.

And I thank my 800 colleagues on that day that helped make it as positive as we could.

Thank you.