Students recount mass shooting at Broward County school
Ten people lay dead or dying on the first floor of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School’s freshman building when assistant football coach Aaron Feis rushed across campus and burst through the structure’s west door to confront Nikolas Cruz.
The burly Feis nearly grabbed Cruz, who was heading up a stairwell to the second floor, when Cruz shot him.
Not far from the building, Broward Sheriff’s Office deputy Scot Peterson heard the gunfire crack out the open door.
“I think we have shots fired, possible shots fired — 1200 building,” Peterson, the school resource officer, said over a BSO radio at 2:23 p.m.
It was Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day, two minutes after the shooting started.
Gripped by an unholy bloodlust, Cruz kept firing for another four minutes, until 2:27 p.m., going up two flights of stairs to kill six more people, sometimes pumping more bullets into the wounded lying helpless before him.
Much went wrong between the time Cruz started shooting at Stoneman Douglas and the moment 11 minutes later when law enforcement officers first entered the building through the same door Feis used: Broward County’s long-troubled emergency communication system broke down. Some deputies appear not to have followed active shooter training — which they hadn’t received since 2016. And agencies didn’t share crucial information that could have led to a faster response.
“It was a cluster you-know-what of errors and mistakes,” said Fred Guttenberg, the father of student Jaime Guttenberg, who died in the rampage.
Even though at least three BSO deputies arrived in time to hear Cruz’s gunfire, neither they nor Peterson went into the building immediately to stop him — unlike the unarmed Feis. The first BSO deputies on scene said they could not pinpoint the shooting to Building 12, although Cruz was firing bullets through exterior windows — leaving visible holes — and students were running from the building screaming. Some deputies were said to have taken cover behind their cars as lives leaked onto Stoneman Douglas’ floors.
Coral Springs police officers saw the deputies — and two officers were so angry they put the damning information into their official reports. One Coral Springs cop even said a BSO deputy taking cover behind a tree told him the shooter was on the third floor. (Feis, who died, had been alerted to the danger by a student who received a chilling warning from Cruz just before he opened fire. He also worked as a security guard at the school.)
Cruz’s semi-automatic rifle, a Smith & Wesson M&P 15 .223, left devastating wounds. Seconds mattered.
Gunshot victims “can bleed to death in only a few minutes,” said Pete Blair, executive director of the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center at Texas State University. “It’s important to stop [attackers] as quickly as possible.”
Two of the 17 victims were pronounced dead shortly after arriving at a local hospital, meaning they were still clinging to life by the time police got into the building and started driving the wounded in golf carts to paramedics staging nearby. The others died at Stoneman Douglas, according to a Broward Health spokeswoman.
Now, both Coral Springs and BSO are pointing fingers at each other as various state investigations try to piece together the mistakes and offer solutions. But those fixes may be months away — even though another mass shooter could strike tomorrow.
How law enforcement responded is still under investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, as well as a special state commission set up by the Florida Legislature.
But it’s clear that BSO — a law enforcement behemoth led by Sheriff Scott Israel, who touted his own “amazing leadership” days after the shooting — wasn’t prepared to handle a mass shooting in one of its safest districts.
“Coral Springs reacted the way police are expected to,” said attorney Alex Arreaza, who is representing wounded student Anthony Borges in a planned lawsuit against BSO. “If only BSO reacted like they did, maybe things would be different.”
Israel told the Miami Herald on Thursday he will not comment on the shooting until the FDLE and special committee reviews are wrapped up — and that BSO won’t do a comprehensive internal investigation until then.
“We are at a standstill right now,” he said.
This account of the response to the Parkland school shooting is based on hundreds of pages of law enforcement documents and hours of 911 calls and police and fire-rescue radio chatter, as well as interviews with more than a dozen students, teachers and first responders who were at the school.
In addition to the dead, 17 people were wounded, some of them seriously, and police and paramedics certainly saved lives. But the Herald found that mistakes made by individual officers and systemic problems in Broward County law enforcement severely hampered efforts to rescue victims and stop the shooter. Among the most significant:
- Because of a patchwork 911 system in Coral Springs and Parkland, emergency calls made from cellphones inside the Parkland school were routed to a Coral Springs call center, not to BSO, which polices Parkland. That meant BSO deputies trying to figure out where the shooting was happening weren’t hearing first-hand information from those being attacked.
- Coral Springs police weren’t immediately notified of the mass shooting at nearby Stoneman Douglas by Coral Springs’ joint police-fire dispatch center. One of the first Coral Springs officers into Building 12 said he learned of the shooting from a Coral Springs Fire Department commander four minutes after the first 911 call came in.
- BSO’s radio system overloaded as deputies talked over each other, causing such communication problems they resorted to using hand signals. The radio difficulties hindered the ability of BSO’s Parkland district captain to receive information and direct her deputies, limiting her effectiveness as an on-scene commander. The system, contracted by Broward County, not BSO, is undergoing a $59.5 million upgrade expected to finish in 2019.
- BSO and Coral Springs police use different radio frequencies. An on-the-fly attempt to fuse the channels so Coral Springs officers and BSO deputies could communicate failed. That meant BSO and Coral Springs were responding to the same situation but acting as separate teams and not sharing information.
- Because of the heavy demands for various types of law enforcement training — including how to use body cameras and how to safely confront those suffering from mental illness — BSO says it has not held an active shooter training cycle for its deputies since 2016.
In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, Israel blamed Peterson for what went wrong, holding a national press conference to say the school resource officer’s conduct left him “sick to my stomach.”
“He never went in,” said Israel, an elected official.
Singling out Peterson, who resigned, may have been a political mistake for Israel, according to Robert Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University who co-authored a book chronicling the history of BSO.
“His strategy initially was to blame one officer,” Jarvis said. “There’s never one officer who is responsible all by him or herself.”
So far, only surveillance video showing Peterson has been released. The Herald and other news organizations are suing Broward County public schools, BSO and the Broward state attorney for the release of more exterior surveillance footage that may show the actions of other deputies during the shooting. A judge ruled in the Herald’s favor, but the state attorney’s office indicated Thursday that it will appeal.
A woman who answered the door at Peterson’s home last week declined to comment. An attorney who has represented Peterson did not respond to repeated interview requests.
Jeff Heinrich had a hose in his hand, not a gun.
An off-duty Coral Spring cop, he was watering Stoneman Douglas’ baseball field before the attack began. His son is a pitcher and Heinrich liked to help out the team.
Then he heard the school’s fire alarm — set off not by Cruz’s hands or his gun smoke, as previously reported, but by bullets kicking loose acoustic tiles lining Building 12 and releasing a cascade of dust, according to BSO — and a series of loud pops. Students were walking out of the building.
Maybe it was firecrackers.
Then more pops — and Heinrich knew.
At about 2:21 p.m., Cruz had entered Building 12 and gunned down three students in the hallway. Then he shot through a doorway window in a first-floor English honors class and jammed the barrel of his rifle through the hole.
As bullets poured into room 1216, Eden Hebron, 15, curled up under a table, hid her face behind a tablecloth and clutched a plastic storage container to her chest.
It was the only salvation she had.
With each pop-pop-pop — Cruz fired more than 150 shots that day — a dread surged through the students huddled in closets and hiding behind desks and chairs, the fear boiling into a surreal panic as Cruz edged closer. They needed the police to get into the building. The police would protect them.
“Please, please, please, please, ” a terrified student calling from inside 1216 begged a 911 operator just one minute after the shooting began. “Please hurry, please hurry.”
“There are people here, they’re all bleeding,” she whispered through tears. “They’re going to die.”
Outside Building 12, also referred to as 1200, Heinrich could see students now sprinting to get out — tripping over each other and screaming.
He ran toward the building.
The first BSO deputies to arrive did not.
Peterson was already on campus. He took charge of the scene — while taking cover behind a concrete column near the southeast corner of Building 12, school surveillance video shows. It was two minutes into the shooting.
“We’re talking about the 1200 building,” he told deputies arriving at Stoneman Douglas via radio.
One of them, Michael Kratz, thought he heard shots at the football field on the northwest corner of the sprawling campus.
“I took cover behind my marked unit and scanned for a gunman but was unable to locate one,” Kratz wrote in a report summarizing his actions.
Two others, Detective Brian Goolsby and Sgt. Brian Miller, also wrote that they heard shots — but didn’t immediately approach the building identified by Peterson in his transmissions. (Heinrich was able to find and help save student Kyle Laman, who had been shot in the right foot on Building 12’s third floor before escaping outside, the wound gushing blood.)
Andrew Pollack told the Miami Herald that minute-by-minute surveillance footage taken inside the school clearly shows Peterson arrived at Building 12 well before Cruz made it to the third floor and shot his daughter, Meadow, nine times, killing her.
“He could have easily saved her on the third floor,” said Pollack, who said he was told details of the footage by BSO’s homicide unit. “He didn’t go into the building.”
From that point, Peterson’s commands focused on setting up a perimeter.
“Get the school locked down, gentleman,” Peterson said as the gunfire continued.
“Broward, do not approach the 12 or 1300 building,” he added seconds after Cruz had abandoned his rifle in the stairwell, left Building 12 and blended in with a crowd of other students. “Stay at least 500 feet away at this point.”
“Stay away from 12 and 1300 building,” a dispatcher repeated.
That is not how police have been trained to respond to active shooters since the 1999 massacre at Colorado’s Columbine High School. (Cruz researched that attack online, according to law enforcement searches of his internet history.)
“We train officers to focus on things that are most critical,” said Blair, the Texas State active shooter expert. “And the first one is: If there is active killing going on, you need to stop that. And the second one is after that’s been addressed, you have people that have been injured, and you need to start providing medical care to them to prevent them from dying.”
But no commander gave an order contravening Peterson.
Part of the reason, BSO says: Its radio system was overloaded by the number of deputies trying to use it.
The problem, known as “throttling,” also hindered BSO’s response to the 2017 Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport Shooting.
The Parkland district commander, Capt. Jan Jordan, was seen on body camera footage repeatedly trying to use her radio, her deputies’ radios and a car radio, all to no avail, said BSO Col. Jack Dale in a recent interview.
“Unless we were standing right next to each other, we couldn’t communicate,” said a BSO deputy at the scene that day who asked not to be named.
BSO has known for years that its emergency radio system was on its last legs and a liability during a mass casualty event.
The county government has been working to replace an analogue network of 14,000 radios, having long ago acknowledged that the system was nearing the end of its functionality.
“The system does take time to develop. You want to do it right for our first responders,” said Alphonso Jefferson, the assistant Broward County administrator overseeing regional communications.
But Jefferson said the problems appear to have been related to user error: deputies were talking over each other and over-using single channels.
“The system did not fail,” Jefferson said. “I stress that because the system was operational. Communication was happening.”
When Jordan was able to use her radio, she seemed to reiterate Peterson’s commands. “I know there’s a lot going on, do we have a perimeter set up right now and everyone cleared out of the school,” she asked one minute before law enforcement entered Building 12.
And when Chad Ryen, a Margate police officer, arrived at Stoneman Douglas he said he saw “officers with their weapons drawn, positioned behind vehicles and pillars,” according to his report.
A BSO deputy told him not to go in: “Standby, SWAT is on the way.”
Ryen, a SWAT officer himself, disagreed with the strategy. The shooter had stopped firing but was still on the loose.
“Based on my training and experience, I made the determination to make entry into the school,” Ryen wrote, although acting on faulty information he searched the wrong building.
In the catastrophic chaos, BSO deputies didn’t have recent training to fall back on. The last time they went through an active shooter training cycle was 2016, according to Dale. Some, like Capt. Jordan, hadn’t been through one since 2015. (Coral Springs officers do active shooter drills ever year, according to Chief Clyde Parry.)
“Agencies have a large number of mandatory issues they have to train for as part of their certification,” Dale said, pointing to needed training for tasers, crowd control, body cameras and other law enforcement responsibilities. “You can only take a deputy off the road for so many days before they spend most of their time in training.”
Apart from Peterson, no BSO deputies are under internal affairs investigation for their actions that day, he said.
Explaining deputies’ actions during the shooting, Dale said: “The common belief is that the person on the ground [Peterson] has access to more accurate information. They can deviate from the direction, but do so at the risk that disregarding Peterson’s direction could place them in some unforeseen harm.”
He said BSO is studying how to improve its active training protocols.
What BSO deputies knew and when is likely to be a focus of FDLE’s investigation.
BSO maintains it did not have the proper information to realize Cruz was attacking Building 12 and that people needed help inside.
One of the problems BSO points to: 911 calls made from cellphones in Parkland go to a Coral Springs communications center.
If it’s a police emergency, an operator transfers the call to BSO, which patrols Parkland. If it’s a fire call, it goes to the Coral Springs Fire Department, which provides fire-rescue.
Terrified students and teachers calling from inside Stoneman Douglas used cellphones, not land lines, meaning their calls went to Coral Springs, which received an estimated 86 calls.
The callers said they were inside classrooms in Building 12 — and needed help now.
But only three of the calls were passed to BSO, Dale said.
What explained the difference between how Coral Spring police and BSO deputies responded to the shooting?
“The quality of the information,” Dale said. “Coral Springs may have benefited” because its officers had a better idea of where the shooting was taking place.
Still, some information got through.
For instance, a BSO dispatcher was told by Coral Springs that a person had been shot in Building 12.
But as the dispatcher prepared to relay that information to deputies two minutes into the shooting, Peterson interrupted her transmission to say he heard shots fired — the shots that killed Feis.
The BSO dispatcher didn’t repeat her message, according to Dale.
“Coral Springs has its own dispatch. There’s a reason for that,” Coral Springs Mayor Walter “Skip” Campbell told the state’s Parkland shooting commission Tuesday. “We did not have confidence — still do not have confidence — in the system that Broward County put together. ... Our communication dispatch people attempted to call the Broward Sheriff’s Department, attempted to communicate with them, to no avail.”
That meant it was up to deputies on the ground to figure it out for themselves.
Coral Springs officer Tim Burton didn’t go into Building 12 right away either — but his commanders have still hailed him as a hero.
Burton was the first armed Coral Springs cop on the scene. A Stoneman Douglas employee told him the suspect had been seen near the 1200 building and drove him part of the way there in a golf cart.
At the freshman building, Burton wrote in his report, he saw Peterson “seeking cover behind a concrete column.” Peterson told him to watch his back in case the shooter was planning an ambush so Burton took cover. (Cruz was already gone.)
Unlike Peterson, Burton gave clear commands in line with active shooter training to other Coral Springs officers who were responding.
“[Suspect] last seen in the three-story building (12), north parking lot,” Burton radioed at 2:29 p.m.
A dispatcher helped with information collected from 911 calls, telling Coral Springs officers that three people had been shot in room 1216.
“It’s the three-story building considered the freshman building,” Burton said.
For the Coral Springs officers flooding the scene, Burton’s information was “like a beacon” directing them to Building 12, according to Brad McKeone, deputy police chief for Coral Springs.
But the information couldn’t be shared with BSO.
Coral Springs and BSO don’t just use different 911 systems — their police also have different radio frequencies.
An attempt to “patch” the two channels together failed. Both agencies blame the other for what went wrong. The end result: Police responding to the same deadly scene couldn’t talk to each other.
Coral Springs Mayor Campbell said that, for all the talk about Coral Springs and BSO being on different radio systems, it appears to have helped the response to have had a second police department using functioning radios.
“Had we not had our system going, there would have been more deaths,” Campbell said. “I’m not trying to blame anybody. I’m not trying to point fingers. But there’s a problem that has to be fixed. It’s definitely a county problem, and I can state on the record as long as I’m there and as long as the city commission is there, we’re not going to go with the county.”
At 2:32 p.m., four Coral Springs officers, assisted by two BSO deputies, finally went into Building 12.
They might have been able to get there even earlier. Coral Springs fire-rescue dispatched its personnel at 2:23 p.m. But dispatch didn’t tell police there was a mass casualty situation just outside their jurisdiction until 2:26 p.m.
“There is an active shooter working at Douglas, multiple gunshots are being fired,” a dispatcher said after an officer called in for confirmation of what he’d been told by fire-rescue. “We can hear them in the background. Our 911 lines are blowing up.”
(Coral Springs says its dispatchers first had to alert the fire department and BSO, both by transferring calls and relaying information directly over the radio, before notifying police.)
Inside the building, deputies and police saw the dead and the wounded. “The corridor was smoky and smelled of gunpowder and blood,” one Coral Springs officer wrote in a report. A BSO deputy described victims lying in “pools of blood.”
Soon, law enforcement flooded the building, taking pulses and looking for those who could be saved. The bulk of BSO’s SWAT team, which had been training 18 miles away, arrived at Stoneman Douglas around 2:45 p.m., according to South Florida law enforcement sources.
Even then, there were problems: School personnel rewound security footage to see where Cruz had gone. That information was relayed to officers and deputies who didn’t realize the footage was delayed. Police were searching for several minutes for a shooter who had fled. Air-rescue was denied due to fear that the killer could start shooting at a helicopter. It took several minutes to realize there was no more threat of that.
At that point, BSO’s SWAT team began looking for viable patients on the third floor, a source said.
Cruz was arrested more than an hour after the shooting began. He threw up when a witness prepared to identify him, according to an arresting officer. He now faces the death penalty.
During his rampage, he spared one student: freshman Chris McKenna, who was on his way to the bathroom. In a first-floor stairwell, McKenna saw Cruz, who had just entered Building 12, pulling a rifle from a black duffel bag.
“Get out of here,” Cruz told him. “Things are gonna get messy.”
McKenna, 15, ran, finding Feis in a parking lot near the baseball field. The Stoneman Douglas staffer jumped on a golf cart and headed to Building 12.
It would be his last ride.
This story has been corrected to reflect how Andrew Pollack learned details of interior surveillance footage and the first name of BSO Col. Jack Dale.