WARNING: This story contains distressing details
Authorities in Nashville, Tenn., released 911 calls Thursday that capture the terror inside an elementary school during the attack this week that left three children and three adults dead, as callers pleaded for help in hushed voices as sirens, crying and gunfire could be heard in the background.
Police released recordings of three calls made during Monday’s attack at the Covenant School.
One caller told a dispatcher that she could hear gunshots as she hid in an art classroom closet.
“It sounds like somebody is shooting guns,” the caller said in the recording, which started just before 10:13 a.m. local time.
She then noted that there had been a pause in the gunshots. The dispatcher asked if she was in a safe spot and said two other callers had reported gunshots at the school.
“I think so,” she said, as children could be heard in the background.
The caller then said she could hear more gunshots, and muffled thuds can be heard on the recording.
“I’m hearing more shots,” she said. “Please hurry.”
Another caller said he was in a room on the second floor.
“I think we have a shooter at our church,” he said, later adding: “I’m on the second floor in a room. I think the shooter is on the second floor.”
And in another call, a man told a dispatcher that he was with a group of people, including several children, and that they were walking away from the school toward a main road.
Although the man remained calm, the tension and confusion of the situation are obvious, with several adults speaking over each other and children’s voices in the background.
Three adults and three nine-year-old children were killed in the attack.
Authorities say police shot and killed the assailant, a former student they identified as 28-year-old Audrey Hale.
Calls for tighter gun controls
The release of the recordings came as people protested at the Tennessee Capitol in favour of tighter gun controls, haranguing the Republican-led legislature to take action.
Chants of “Save our children!” echoed noisily in the hallways between the state Senate and House chambers, with protesters setting up shop inside and outside the Capitol.
Some silently filled the Senate chamber’s gallery, including children who held signs reading “I’m nine” — a reference to the age of the kids who died.
Most protesters were removed from the gallery after some began yelling down at the lawmakers: “Children are dead!”
The protests followed a Wednesday night candlelight vigil in Nashville where Republican lawmakers stood alongside the president’s wife Jill Biden, Democratic lawmakers and musicians including Sheryl Crow, who has called for stricter gun controls since the attack.
The vigil was sombre and at times tearful, as speaker after speaker read the victims’ names and offered condolences to their loved ones but refrained from any statement that could be seen as political.
‘Our city’s worst day’
“Just two days ago was our city’s worst day,” Mayor John Cooper said. “I so wish we weren’t here, but we need to be here.”
Police have said Hale drove up to the school on Monday morning, shot out the glass doors, entered and began firing indiscriminately.
Among those killed were students Evelyn Dieckhaus, Hallie Scruggs and William Kinney. Katherine Koonce, 60, the head of the school; substitute teacher Cynthia Peak, 61; and Mike Hill, a 61-year-old custodian were also killed.
Absent from the Wednesday vigil was Tennessee Republican Gov. Bill Lee, who has been an advocate for less restrictive gun laws along with greater school security and who once intimated that prayer could protect Tennessee from school shootings and other things.
Lee issued a video statement Tuesday saying that Peak was a close friend of his wife, Maria, and that the two had been planning to meet for dinner on Monday.
“Maria woke up this morning without one of her best friends,” Lee said, adding that his wife once taught with both Peak and Koonce.
The women, he said, “have been family friends for decades.”
Lee has avoided public appearances this week and has not proposed any possible steps his administration might take in response to the school shooting.
Republicans talk school safety measures
As with similar responses to gun violence, the state’s Republican leaders have avoided calling for tighter gun restrictions and instead have thrown their support behind adding more school security measures.
In a letter to Lee, Republican Lt. Gov. Randy McNally called for securing windows and glass in school buildings, adding magnetic locks on doors, modernizing camera systems and adding armed guards.
“While these changes would come with a cost, I believe it is important for us to have a conversation about how to increase and modernize security at schools in Tennessee,” McNally wrote.
Along with improving school safety measures, McNally told reporters Thursday that he is in favour of red flag laws like one in Florida.
Meanwhile, Tennessee’s U.S. senators, Republicans Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty, were pushing for legislation that would create a $900-million US grant program to “harden” schools and hire safety officers.
Blackburn and Hagerty said Thursday that they would introduce the SAFE School Act, which would help public and private schools train military veterans and former law enforcement officers to provide security.
They said the grants could also be used to bolster physical security measures. Blackburn introduced similar legislation in the last Congress, but it failed to gain support.