‘We all ran for our lives’: Michigan students describe mass shooting as never-ending nightmare

By: - February 15, 2023 2:50 pm

Students gather at the rock to mourn after the Feb. 13, 2023 mass shooting at Michigan State University, Feb. 14, 2023 (Susan J. Demas of the Michigan Advance).

Michigan State University students are angry.

Yes, they are traumatized; yes, they are overwhelmed with grief and sadness. They know they will need mental health support in the coming days, weeks, months, and years. But, right now, in the wake of three students being killed and five others being injured in a mass shooting at Michigan State University Monday night, they are also deeply angry.

“I’m pissed off that guns are this easy to access,” said Madeleine North, an MSU sophomore originally from Traverse City. “We need major gun reform. We need so much more than what we have currently.”

North then quoted what Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, an MSU alumna, said in her statement issued Wednesday following the shooting: The bloodshed that has stained our country’s college campuses, schools, movie theaters, dance floors, and grocery stores is a “uniquely American problem.”

It is, MSU students told the Michigan Advance, a problem that should not exist. It is a problem that, with some political resolve to do the right thing and back gun reform across the state and country, should be relegated to history, students now dealing with life-changing trauma said.

Why is it, they asked, that teenagers and young adults who have been terrorized by gun violence are the ones asking for someone, anyone, to help?

Why is it that after the mass shooting that left four students dead at Oxford High School a little more than one year ago, this has happened again? (And that students who survived the Oxford and Sandy Hook shootings were forced to face another mass shooting, this time at their college.)

Why did this happen again nearly a quarter of a century after a mass shooting killed 15 people at Columbine High School?

Why can this question be repeated too many times to list all 366 schools where children, teenagers and young adults have witnessed mass shootings since Columbine?

The shooting at MSU that killed Arielle Anderson, a junior from Grosse Pointe; Brian Fraser; a sophomore from Grosse Pointe; and Alexandria Verner, a junior from Clawson was the 67th mass shooting in the U.S. this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive.

“It’s Valentine’s Day, and we’ve gone zero days without a shooting,” North said of the country. “That’s just unacceptable.”

The MSU gunman, Anthony McRae, who police said is not affiliated with the university, killed two of the students at Berkey Hall and then killed the third student at the MSU student union. Another five students who were shot are now in critical condition at Sparrow Hospital in Lansing.

McRae, 43, was found by law enforcement in Lansing roughly three hours after the shooting in Lansing. After being confronted, police say he fatally shot himself.

State Democratic lawmakers — now in control of the House, Senate and governorship for the first time in nearly 40 years — have vowed that change is coming.

Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks, D-Grand Rapids, whose daughter attends MSU, and state Sen. Rosemary Bayer, D-Beverly Hills, whose district includes Oxford and who leads the Firearm Safety and Violence Prevention Caucus, said Tuesday that legislators are close to reintroducing three packages of gun reform legislation. The pending bills would mandate universal background checks for anyone who wants to purchase a firearm in Michigan, require gun owners to store firearms that could be accessed by minors in a secure location, and permit a court to order the temporary removal of firearms from someone who may be a danger to themselves or others.

“Last night, as I watched the events unfold, I was a mom filled with dread,” Brinks said. “…Today, I’m more than just a mom, and I know we have a responsibility to act on this duty to keep the people of our state safe.

“We will be taking action soon.”

Because the Legislature is no longer controlled by Republicans who thwarted Democrats’ — and a couple Republicans’ — efforts to pass gun reform legislation after the Oxford shooting last year, Brinks and Bayer said they’re confident the bills will not only receive hearings but will ultimately be signed by Whitmer. The governor has long pushed for gun reform, including in her State of the State address in January.

“We’re going to move as fast as we can” to introduce the legislation,” Bayer said. “It’s not going to be very long. …We are definitely going fast. We are cutting at least a month off of what we expected to do. Everyone cares about this.”

Students and parents said they’re relieved to hear this. Still, they said, they deeply wish it had happened sooner. If it had, their entire lives would be different right now. They would be giving out Valentine’s cards they made with their sorority sisters in the hours preceding the shooting. Their campus wouldn’t be almost entirely silent; the only sounds often being students crying or the media crowded around the school.

There would be no yellow police tape lining the campus. The words, “How many more?” would not be painted in red on the nearly 150-year-old MSU landmark known as “The Rock.”

But that is another life now. That is the life they had before they received the email from the university telling them to, “Run, Hide, Fight.”

That is the life in which Anderson, Fraser and Verner were alive. Now, when the students return to campus, Anderson, Fraser and Verner will never join them.

“Shootings, let alone school shootings, shouldn’t be a topic at all or something we should have to reform,” said Alexandra Paladina, a 21-year-old MSU student who lives in Grand Rapids and is originally from Pittsburgh. “Schools should be safe. Students should feel safe and secure. It’s saddening.”

Like North, Paladina said she wants to see major change when it comes to guns.

“I need to see something that completely transforms the way guns are accessible,” she said. “It’s so unacceptable the way that people are able to get guns: assault rifles, magazines that are made for killing people.”

The students who spoke to the Advance often referred to yesterday’s shooting as a nightmare from which they cannot wake up. In less than 24 hours, their hearts have been shattered, and they don’t know that anything will be able to fully repair them. They wonder if the person they were before the shooting — the person they were just one day ago — is gone forever.

“I don’t think we fully understand — when people go through this, these thousands of kids on this campus, it is not over in one day, one week,” said Kelly Dillaha, the mother of twins who attend MSU and were barricaded in their room just off campus. “This is going to go with them for the rest of their lives.”

Dillaha, a Birmingham resident and the Michigan program director for the progressive women’s group Red Wine & Blue, which advocates for gun reform, said her sons texted her husband a picture of the furniture they had placed against their door during the shooting.

“They asked if he thought it was strong enough to hold somebody back,” she said.

There are countless stories involving barricades, students said: Countless stories of students waiting in silence as they wondered if what they had pushed against the door would keep a gunman out. If they should be texting goodbyes to family and friends.

“There was someone who was trapped in a bathroom for three hours on my dorm floor; they had to barricade the door with bodies,” said North, who sheltered in place in the dining hall.

A freshman, who felt too emotionally shaken and afraid to use his name in this story, said he and his roommate “hunkered down in the dorm until it was over, and we barricaded the door.

“The entire time we were watching CNN, the police scanner and Twitter to find out what was happening,” he said. “… I thought I was going to pass out. I could feel my heart rate skyrocket, especially with the helicopters overhead and every bang and crack sounding like a break-in.”

Paladina said she and others barricaded themselves inside the Roadhouse Pub in East Lansing. She had been on campus when she received notice that there was an active shooter.

“We all ran for our lives” and “then decided to try to make our way off campus, thinking it was safe,” she said. At the Roadhouse Pub, “the staff was amazing and let us stay” until they were ready to leave.

Ultimately, Paladina said, she’s “grateful I’m alive.

“I can’t fathom that it happened, and it feels like a nightmare,” she said. “I had a heart transplant and have gone through so many traumatic things, but this is something I still haven’t been able to process.”

In the wake of all of this, students said it’s crucial that they and anyone else impacted by the shooting receive mental health support.

“What needs to be done to support students right now is giving them time,” Paladina said. “I want protests; I want marches; I want movements, but right now we need to grieve.”

North said the same.

“There needs to be an emphasis on mental health,” she said. “There are going to be so many people who will hear someone clap their hands and flinch. I won’t be able to go into that union for at least a month. There need to be resources; professors need to give students slack on assignments. There needs to be grace given all around.”

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Anna Gustafson
Anna Gustafson

Anna Gustafson is the assistant editor at Michigan Advance, where her beats include economic justice, health care and immigration. Previously the founder of the Muskegon Times and the editor at Rapid Growth Media in Grand Rapids, Anna has worked as an editor and reporter for news outlets across the country. She began her journalism career reporting on state politics in Wisconsin and has gone on to cover government, racial justice and immigration reform in New York City, education in Connecticut, the environment in Wyoming, and more. Previously, Anna lived in Argentina and Morocco, and, when she’s not working, she’s often trying to perfect the empanada and couscous recipes she fell in love with in these countries. You’ll likely also find her working on her century-old home in downtown Lansing, writing that ever-elusive novel and hiking throughout Michigan.