In that final moment of panic, Helena Ramsay’s thoughts did not turn to her own safety — but to the safety of her friend.
As a gunman opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland Wednesday, Helena, a 17-year-old junior, crouched by a bookshelf with her friend, Samantha Grady. The two best friends were in a Holocaust class on the first floor of the 1200 building at the high school, where the shooting occurred.
As the gunman shot through the glass in the door and entered the room, Helena turned to Samantha and started instructing her to pick up books to shield herself.
Helena said, “ ‘Grab a book. Grab a book.’ It was a tiny book, but I took it and held it up,” Samantha told NBC. It was enough to save Samantha, who hid behind the books and was injured in the shooting. Helena was killed.
That moment of bravery in the face of horror is what friends keep pointing to as they remember a girl who was joyful and kept them laughing, with an infectious smile, big curly brown hair and an endearing birthmark on her chin.
Helena and her family moved to the United States in 2003 from England, when she was 2 years old, said Katherine Dadd, who moved into the same Coral Springs neighborhood as Helena that year and had been friends with her since preschool.
“She was a really good person through and through. She was just great,” said Katherine, a 17-year-old junior at Douglas High. “One of the kindest people I’ve ever met.”
She took in two stray cats, who she named Yoshi and Kiyoko, Katherine said. They would go on to have many kittens, with the Ramsays caring for up to 13 cats at one point, she said. On Katherine’s phone, Helena’s name had three cat emojis next to it.
Helena was also a music lover, attending a Lana Del Rey concert on Feb. 1 with Katherine. There had been other concerts, too: a Halsey concert in Orlando a few years ago, and a Twenty One Pilots concert. But most of all, Helena loved K-Pop, South Korean pop music.
“She loved all the K-Pop groups,” recalled Kyrah Simon, a 17-year-old junior at Douglas High, who had known Helena since they were both in kindergarten.
Kyrah said it was Helena’s sense of humor that really made her stand out.
“She was so funny, her sense of humor was really crazy. We would go back and forth and I’d banter with her,” she said.
Her teacher, George LePorte, tweeted that he had Helena in his chemistry class last year and study hall this year and was used to seeing her make everyone around her laugh.
“I'd make terrible dad jokes in class she would just give me this look and then laugh at me, ” he wrote.
For many who knew her, Helena’s selflessness was already apparent in small acts of kindness. Kyrah, for example, said the two would always joke about the fact that their birthdays, both in January, were just a week apart.
Just last month, Kyrah remembered giving Helena “a big hug and she said, ‘Your birthday is in a week!’ and I was like, ‘Why are you worrying about mine!’ ”
Alondra Gittelson, who also attends Douglas High and is in the 11th grade, said Helena was the voice of calm for her friends.
“When I was stressed out for my chemistry lab that I thought I was going to fail she calmed me down and told me it was going to be OK,” Gittelson said.
Her selflessness in the final moments of her life was completely in character, her friends said.
“I wasn’t surprised because she was always looking out for other people,” said Carli Albert, an 18-year-old senior at Douglas High who shared a sociology class with Helena. “If I were to complain that I was tired, she said ‘We are going to make today a good day.’”
Helena dreamed of going back to England someday, her friends said, and she had taken Advanced Placement psychology and sociology, but hadn’t yet cemented her college plans.
After the shooting, several friends texted her to see if she was OK. Katherine, her longtime friend and neighbor, texted, “i love you so much helena, i hope you’re safe” with a pink heart emoji. The message is still saved on her phone.
Albert dreads the day she has to go back to school — without her friend.
“It’s going to be hard going back to that class, with an empty seat next to me,” she said.
At a vigil at Helena’s home Saturday, Albert said about 200 people paid their respects to the teen and her family. A funeral is expected to take place later this week.
For the vigil, Albert made burgundy and white ribbons in the school colors with the words Helena and MSD, for Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, for the mourners. Photos of the vigil show collages of Helena as a baby and a little girl and a mass of people gathered outside her house.
On social media, friends and family are sharing the story of Helena’s selfless final act, with many calling her a hero.
They’ve also started a hashtag #HTMBGITW — for Helena, the most beautiful girl in the world.