The instinct to protect others ran deep in Peter Wang.
When his cousin moved to America from China — like Peter, who was born in Brooklyn but spent his early years in China — he didn’t speak any English. Peter, a whole year younger than his cousin, Aaron Chen, made sure no one bullied the older boy.
When he started as a freshman at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, he immediately joined the U.S. Army Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps.
When a gunman walked into his high school building wielding an AR-15, Peter, wearing his JROTC uniform, held the door so his classmates could escape. He became one of the 17 victims of the massacre, the second deadliest school shooting in the U.S.
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He was 15.
Angelyse Perez, an 18-year-old senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, was the commander of Peter’s third period Bravo unit in JROTC. He was an excellent marksman, she said — so good he would probably have been bumped to the ‘A’ team soon.
Peter never got to receive his cadet promotion, which was planned for the week after the shooting.
“That kid was the most hilarious thing on the planet,” Perez said. “He was always happy and bubbly and smiley.”
Most of all, “he was loved. That kid was loved,” she said, her voice wavering.
A fellow JROTC member, Vincent Valdes, posted on Facebook that he used to call Peter a “mini-me,” but after hearing of Peter’s heroism during the attack, he’ll refer to him a “the bigger me.”
“Peter you are a hero and I love you,” Valdes wrote.
Peter’s heroism has inspired thousands. A White House petition to give Peter a full honors military burial has more than 28,000 signatures. More than 150 strangers on Reddit signed up to send military patches and coins to Peter’s family to honor their son.
Peter’s best friend since third grade, Gabriel Ammirata, told the Herald that Peter was “funny, nice and a great friend.” The two met at Westchester Elementary School and continued together at Sawgrass Springs Middle School, where they spent time together watching anime movies like Naruto and Dragon Ball Z.
They ended up at Stoneman Douglas together, too. Gabriel joined the band, and Peter took to JROTC. They memorized each other’s schedules, including their shared seventh period English class.
On Feb. 14, Gabriel knew Peter was in study hall when the ‘Code Red’ came over the intercom. He did everything he could to contact his best friend and documented his desperate search on Snapchat until it reached its terrible conclusion.
Days later, he made a memorial video with a slideshow of photos of his best friend: in his ROTC uniform, laughing and growling as he took a bite from a chicken tender and the time the two participated in field day at their elementary school.
Peter’s cousin, the one he protected as a kid, also took to social media with a memorial video of his own. Aaron Chen, 16, was born a year and two days earlier than Peter. Even though they’re cousins, Aaron said in the video that Peter was “ my brother. He was my rock. He was everything good that I strive to be.”
Aaron was barely holding back tears during the four-minute video, which tells stories of their lives together interspersed with childhood photographs of the two boys — sometimes in matching outfits.
“My whole life I was so certain that Peter was going to be there, everything was going to be OK,” he said. “We were going to grow old together. I was going to die first and he was going to die a little while later, so we’d always be together.”
But Aaron doesn’t want his cousin remembered as a victim. He wants the world to know that Peter was brave and kind and selfless — and he doesn’t want Peter’s death to be in vain.
“I have a message for the families that also lost someone that day — you are not alone,” he said. “We are not going to let this happen to anyone, anywhere. Not again. Not ever again. That’s what Peter stood for.”