Just over a year ago, Broward teacher Annika Dean was waiting for her luggage at the Fort Lauderdale airport when a gunman opened fire in the baggage claim area, killing five people and wounding six others.
Dean dove to the ground next to a luggage cart and prayed fervently that her two sons would not be left without a mother. A stranger dropped down and lay on top of her, whispering that he would protect her. Miraculously, they both survived.
In the months that followed, Dean struggled to return to normalcy. Her heart hurt, she said, an intense pain she believes was brought on by anxiety. Although Dean lived in Parkland, Florida, an affluent city recently listed as one of the safest in America, she would suddenly find herself filled with terror at shopping malls and concert venues for no apparent reason.
Friends and family told Dean there was no way she would be harmed again. “After the airport, people told me, ‘Lightning doesn’t strike twice. You’re going to be fine for the rest of your life,’ ” Dean said.
But she didn’t believe them. She didn’t feel safer. Dean already knew the sickening truth that many of her neighbors learned for the first time on Wednesday when a 19-year-old opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School: In America, whether you’re at a movie theater or an airport or a school, no one is ever truly safe.
“I thought, ‘It isn’t impossible for this to happen twice,’ ” Dean said. She just didn’t think it would happen again so soon — or at her son’s high school.
Dean was at work at nearby Royal Palm Elementary when her 14-year-old son Austin Foote texted her from Douglas High to say that there was an active shooter drill on campus. Dean was immediately confused. As a teacher she had gone through active shooter trainings, which she said feel realistic because the person pretending to be the gunman shoots blanks. But she didn’t think students participated in the drills.
In his messages, Austin told Dean that he’d been outside for a fire drill when he heard what sounded like gunfire. He said people had started running and screaming and that he’d taken shelter in a nearby Junior ROTC classroom. Then, a moment later, Austin sent another text message. It’s not a drill, he told his mother, it’s real.
“My heart just sank,” Dean said. “I had been the one sending those texts last year.”
For what felt like an hour, Dean stayed alone in her office at Royal Palm Elementary, holding on to every text message as if it were a lifeline. Austin alternated between telling his mother he was scared and telling her not to worry. At one point, he texted: “I love you just in case.”
“I was definitely in a state of shock,” Dean said. “I encouraged him to pray and to be safe and I was asking him about his location.”
At last, Austin sent a message saying that he was safe. Dean went to the principal at Royal Palm and told him what had happened. Then she drove home, taking back roads to get around the police roadblocks. She parked and started walking toward Douglas High. Halfway to the school, she saw her son walking down Coral Springs Drive.
Dean hugged Austin tightly. As they walked home, she didn’t let go. “I held his elbow, I had my hand on his back, I had to touch him,” she said. Austin kept telling his mother that he was fine, but Dean wouldn’t release him. “Austin, I can’t not do this,” she told him.
Later that day, Dean’s brother called from Utah after he saw the shooting on the national news. “You’re either the luckiest person or the unluckiest. I’m not sure which,” he told her. Dean responded, “It’s both.”
Over the next two days, the nightmare Dean had experienced at the Fort Lauderdale airport resurfaced. “This was harder than the airport for me,” she said. “Being at the airport with a gunman shooting and not knowing then if I was going to live or die, that was really hard. That was really scary. But having my son in harm’s way was scarier.”
This time, Dean also knew the victims. The people who died in the airport shooting were travelers arriving in Fort Lauderdale for cruise vacations. After the Douglas High shooting, Dean learned that the daughter of a close friend had been killed, along with classmates Austin had known since second grade.
Dean said she doesn’t know exactly what Austin is going through, but she has some idea. She hopes the things that helped her after the airport shooting will also help her son. Dean found comfort in her church and in prayer. She took practical steps, like saving the police non-emergency number in her phone so she could quickly report anything suspicious. And despite her fear, she continued to live.
“After the airport shooting he saw me move forward,” she said. “I still go to concerts. I still go to movies.”
Dean knows that for both her and her son, going back inside a school will be difficult. But she also feels prepared. “I’ve been through trainings and I feel like if we have an active shooter at my school, I’d know what to do,” she said.
“It’s just life now,” she added. “We just do the best we can. We’ve got to continue living.”