In an emotional day of testimony in the penalty phase of Nikolas Cruz’s trial, students and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School recounted in court the events of Valentine’s Day 2018, when 14 teenagers and three staff members were killed by a gunman.
The school’s former students, the oldest still in their early twenties, wrote of the horror of the day when Cruz, who pleaded guilty last year, went on a rampage at the school’s new building in Parkland, Florida.
Like Tuesday’s testimony, most of those who spoke were among the 17 people injured in the hail of gunfire that tore through classrooms and hallways on the afternoon of Feb. 14, 2018.
Some of the most heart-wrenching testimonies came from teachers, who struggled at times, fighting back tears, as they tried to shelter students, help them escape, care for the injured and realize that some had been killed.
Ivy Schamis was leading a history of the Holocaust class and students in a discussion about the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany. He recalled star athlete Nick Douret correctly knowing that Adolf Dassler founded the Adidas shoe company and that his brother founded the rival Puma brand.
This moment of pride ended when the first gunshots echoed through the hallway outside the classroom and the bullets pierced the window panes.
“It was literally seconds later that the barrel of the AR-15 ambushed our classroom,” Ms. Scamis testified, wiping her eyes. “It just came through that glass panel and was shooting everywhere. It was so loud. So scary. I kept thinking about these kids who absolutely should not be going through this.”
The teacher asked the students to get off while assuming the Parkland shooting was a drill
After students scrambled for shelter behind furniture and the killer walked through the building, Ms. Scammis recalled the bravery and maturity of her class as they waited for the police to arrive.
Three of those in the room were injured and two were killed that day. Mrs Shamis was shown their portraits and started crying.
“That’s my daughter, Helena Ramsay,” she said, “Nicolas Dorrett, handsome boy.”
Nick’s brother, Alex, who testified Tuesday Wounded when a bullet grazed his head in a classroom across the hall. Three students were killed and several others were injured in that room.
Teacher Julieta Matlock echoed Ms. Scamis in describing the attack in her classroom where she was conducting a study hall session. Three students were outside in the hall pass when Cruz struck and they were killed in the hallway.
Parkland teacher tells court the moment students took cover in the 2018 shooting
Ms Matlock fought back tears as she showed pictures of 14-year-olds Luke Hoare, Martin Duke and Gina Montalto.
In another classroom, Ronit Rioven was lecturing his advanced psychology class when he heard the first gunshots.
“There were multiple gunshots,” he said. “They were incredibly loud. Boom boom boom boom boom! I froze for a moment and the students jumped out of their seats. Of course, they were shocked and scared.”
When the shooting stopped, Ms. Rioven remembers the wails and cries of the injured students. He made a tourniquet out of a blanket to stop the bleeding from a boy’s arm.
Her classmate used a denim jacket to stop the bleeding from a girl’s chest and arm wounds. While another girl, shot in the knee, appeared to be stable, her classmate Carmen Schentrup, a 16-year-old National Merit Scholarship semifinalist, lay face down in blood.
“I knew he was probably gone,” Ms Rioven said.
As Cruz climbed the third floor of the building, Stacey Lipel was teaching creative writing and Ernest Rospierski was overseeing another study hall when smoke and debris from an earlier shooting set off the fire alarm.
Unaware of the panic below, the classes suddenly began to move into the crowded hallways. The first students encountered Cruz on the stairs and ran back to the floor screaming seconds before the shooting began.
As Cruz opened fire on the third floor, Mr. Rospierski sheltered a dozen students in an alcove as he tried unsuccessfully to open a locked classroom door. After Cruz passed out, he managed to help them escape down a ladder that grazed his head and hip.
As the shots came down the hall, Mrs. Lippel and Scott Beigel, who taught geography in the next room, quickly opened their doors and began ushering students back inside. He described Cruz coming up the stairs, “firing in the back, shot after shot,” he said, adding, “It never stopped.”
Along with 38 other students, Ms. Lippel entered her room and closed the door, hurting her arm. Mr. Beigel, who opened the door the other way, was fatally shot.
Rospierski, a Parkland teacher, explained how he pushed about a dozen students to safety
His student, Veronica Steele, one of many to testify Wednesday, told the court that his body fell on the door and prevented it from closing, leaving students terrified that the shooter would come inside.
He captured the moment on video on his cellphone, which was played in court. Screams, commotions, whispers, cries and panicked breathing were audible to all.
Cruz buried his face in his hands and pressed his thumbs to his ears, blocking out the sounds from that day four years ago.
The testimony came a day after jurors watched surveillance video showing the victims being shot at point-blank range. Cruz shot and killed some of the wounded a second time as they lay on the floor.
When jurors finally get the case, they will vote 17 times, once for each victim, on whether to recommend the death penalty.
For each death sentence, the jury must be unanimous or the victim will be sentenced to life in prison. Jurors are told that in order to vote for death, the prosecution’s aggravating circumstances for the victim must, in their judgment, “exclude” the defense’s mitigating factors.
A judge could also vote for life out of mercy for Cruz. During jury selection, panelists said under oath that they were able to vote on either sentence.
With reporting from The Associated Press