The Worst Part of Surviving a School Shooting Was Waiting to Die
Photo courtesy the author. Image by Lia Kantrowitz
This article is part of the Voices of School Shooting Survivors project, a series by VICE.com intended to shine a light on victims of school shootings across the US, where this article originally appeared.
Umpqua Community College was the scene of a shooting on October 1, 2015, in which a gunman killed eight students and a teacher before taking his own life. Joshua Friedlein was the student body vice president at the time, and is now a senior at Portland State University.
Umpqua Community College is a great place. It’s on the Umpqua River north of Roseburg, Oregon, and I grew up right across the river from the campus, which is beautiful. I was homeschooled, so when I graduated from high school I wasn’t ready to go straight to a four-year university where I’d be on my own. So I decided to go to UCC and try to figure out my life there. I enrolled in September 2014 and finished my first year pretty easily. I got a job at our tutoring center and ran for student government and was elected vice-president.
The fourth day of fall term of my second year—October 1, 2015—was a sunny fall Thursday, a little chilly but beautiful. I was in my health and wellness class when we heard a commotion outside, which I just thought was a class that had let out early. My professor went to close the door and at that moment the athletic director—we were in the physical education building—came running over. I’ll never forget what she said: “You have to lock down your classroom right now. We have an active shooter on campus, this is not a drill.”
I froze. There was this overlying feeling of incredulity, like this can’t possibly be real. Maybe this is a dream, maybe this is a mistake or a false alarm. But at the same time I felt a bone-chilling fear that just rises from the pit of your stomach and consumes everything.
The teacher locked the door. A couple students leaned some tables against the door to cover up the narrow window. Then we got into the corners of the classroom adjacent to the door so if a gunman came and tried to shoot through the door we’d be less likely to be hit. And we waited.
We could hear sirens outside but for the most part it was quiet and we were quiet too. A lot of people were on their phones, either texting family members and friends or trying to get on the internet to figure out what the hell was happening. The first reports started coming in ten or 15 minutes after we went into lockdown. They were wrong, as initial reports usually are—they said there were like 30 people dead and another 50 injured, and there were multiple shooters. We didn’t know it at the time but the shooter was already down by that point. We prayed and we waited.
It’s very difficult to describe the feelings that went through my mind in that moment. I was sitting on the floor of the classroom with my back against the wall, and it felt like I was waiting to die. At any second it could have happened. That feeling of helplessness was one of the worst parts of the lockdown period. That and not being able to get ahold of my girlfriend, who is now my wife, or some of my other friends.
I knew a couple of the victims. Lucas Eibel was a freshman and his dad works with my dad at a local lumber company. He was a quadruplet and he wanted to be a veterinarian. I still see his parents every once in a while; we’re serving together on a committee that’s planning a memorial for the event. The other victim I knew fairly well was Sarena Moore. She was a nontraditional student who had some mobility issues so she was almost always in a wheelchair with an emotional support dog. She would come in and study at the tutoring center I worked at almost every single day and she had been there the morning of the shooting—I had actually signed her out at 10 AM, which still haunts me.
I do not remember much about the shooter, and I try to keep it that way.
Most of the initial response at Umpqua was focused on memorializing who we lost, creating an advisory board to handle the funds that were donated for the victims, and figuring out what to do with the building it happened in. I took a fairly substantial role in that—I went to our state legislature and testified in support of emergency funding being allocated for a new building and security upgrades. I also helped to plan a commencement ceremony.
Two months after the event, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who would hold student voices sessions on a variety of topics, invited me to DC for a session on gun violence. I was honored and it was an incredible experience. At the time I was still reeling from the event and I wasn’t able to participate as much as I wanted to. Still, it was a whirlwind trip—I think I was on the ground less than 48 hours, and in that time I met with Duncan, I had a tour of the White House, and I met with both of my senators and my House representative.
That moment really launched me onto my path. Roseburg is a very conservative area of Oregon and for most of my life I had heard that my elected representatives weren’t necessarily bad people, but didn’t embody the policies that the people around me wanted. I went into this experience with that bias. But seeing the depth of their empathy, their compassion for what I had experienced, and the seriousness of their desire to see concrete, bipartisan, moderate changes that would protect people’s lives—that was enlightening. As someone who felt like he was a nobody from a small, unimportant part of the state, being able to access them like that was incredible.
Most of the conversations back then were more me asking my representatives what can be done than, “Please do this.” But my views have evolved. The catalyst for this evolution was the attack at Las Vegas, which took two years to the day from the events I survived. My wife and I had just managed to survive another anniversary and we looked at the news one more time before going to bed and there was the Las Vegas attack. After I pulled myself out of the depression and PTSD attacks that followed, I finally arrived at some very clear, very sensible, and I think moderate gun control measures.
First off, an assault weapons ban—there’s absolutely no need for an American to own an assault rifle. Second is a ban on high-capacity magazines. These events have shown that when shooters have to stop and reload, that’s when people can escape and law enforcement can make their move. If they had to stop and reload more often, these events might happen less or cause less damage. Third would be the institution of gun violence restraining orders, where if a court is presenting with compelling evidence that an individual with firearms is a danger to themselves or others the court can confiscate their weapons until that individual does not demonstrate that risk anymore. The fourth would be fixing the background check system so that states and agencies are more inclined to submit things to that system.
A week ago I organized our university’s walkout to protest gun violence and I shared my personal story. That was the first time I had told my story out loud to a group that large. I was terrified to begin with but it was so empowering to take my agency back for what felt like the first time since October 1.
I’ve heard some people refer to my generations as “Generation Lockdown” or “Generation Mass Shooting.” I don’t necessarily like being referred to that way but in some ways it’s very accurate. This generation has experienced a disproportionately high level of gun violence, whether that is in school or church or in a shopping mall. They’ve grown up in lockdown drills. I want to see a world where my two-year-old cousin and my future children do not have to know what a lockdown drill is or experience a mass shooting in their school.
I do think about running for office. With the story I have, with what I’ve unfortunately had to experience, I hope that I can use that story to inspire change. I hope that people can look at me and understand how deeply the events of October 1 affected me, and that will motivate them to enact change. I hope I can be an effective voice someday for other survivors and hopefully make some kind of change. We can’t continue to live like this, and we can’t continue to die like this.
Correction: An earlier version of this post misspelled "Umpqua." VICE regrets the error.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.