Illinois Shooting Victims Move On in Different Ways
DeKALB, Ill. (AP) — When Maria Ruiz-Santana talks about the day a suicidal gunman shot her in the throat in her geology class at Northern Illinois University, she sounds as if she is describing a nightmare from long ago.
“It feels like it happened to me years and years ago,” said Ms. Ruiz-Santana, 21, who was among the 25 people shot during the lecture, at Cole Hall.
But it has been just one year. Last Feb. 14, the gunman, Steven P. Kazmierczak, fatally shot five students before killing himself.
The university had a day of activities planned for Saturday to mark the anniversary, including a commemoration ceremony, candlelight vigil and memorial wreath laying.
Mr. Kazmierczak’s victims and their families have found different ways to cope. Some, like Ms. Ruiz-Santana, found closure in a visit to the still-closed Cole Hall. The father of one victim, Joe Dubowski, has left his daughter’s bedroom as it was that day. Another victim, Harold Ng, who was struck in the head by shotgun pellets, has turned to his faith.
“There’s an anxiousness,” Scott Peska, director of the Office of Support and Advocacy at the university, said of the nearly 25,000-member student body. “The whole campus, they’re remembering how they were impacted.”
Ms. Ruiz-Santana, who had wanted a career in law enforcement, still wants to be a police officer and even had an internship with the campus police department last semester. She said that she wanted to help victims of mass shootings and that she was considering getting a gun license.
“I’m not afraid of guns, even after what happened,” she said.
After Ms. Ruiz-Santana was shot, she lay bleeding and gasping for air in a lecture hall aisle. She heard gunshot blasts and saw the gunman’s feet walk by.
“Even when I was there just laying on the floor, it was just so unreal,” Ms. Ruiz-Santana said.
After a few minutes, the shooting stopped. Later, the authorities arrived.
Ms. Ruiz-Santana credits the campus police chief, Donald Grady, with saving her. He held her hand and talked to her to keep her from going into shock.
“He keeps denying it, but I still believe he is my hero,” Ms. Ruiz-Santana said. “I don’t know if I would have been here if it wasn’t for him.”
It also was Chief Grady who took Ms. Ruiz-Santana and her parents into Cole Hall just two months after the shootings. Visiting the site meant convincing herself that the shootings had actually happened, she said, that she had survived and had put it behind her.
Chief Grady said he had taken 10 groups of people into Cole Hall in the last year. “I do ask if it’s something they’re certain they want to do,” he said. “It’s not the easiest thing to go in there.”
Walking into Cole Hall brought Ms. Ruiz-Santana flashbacks of when Mr. Kazmierczak stepped onto the lecture hall stage and started firing. “I wanted to go back because I felt that was the way for me to heal completely, emotionally,” she said. “Right after I got out of the room I felt like it was over. The doors are closed. Let’s move on.”
Chief Grady said that attitude was why Ms. Ruiz-Santana would be successful in whatever career she chose, including police work. “She’s refused to let this event define her,” he said. “She’s very grounded, and she’s very focused.”
Ms. Ruiz-Santana also says she has let go of any resentment toward Mr. Kazmierczak. “I was mad and I was really upset and I just wanted to scream from the top of my lungs,” she said. “But there’s no reason for me to be angry with him if there’s nothing I can do about it.”
But Mr. Dubowski said he was angry. His only daughter, Gayle Dubowski, 20, a singer and pianist, was killed in the shootings.
Her family has been in counseling, and Mr. Dubowski said that talking through the grief had helped but that he was still looking for answers. Mr. Kazmierczak left no suicide note and took steps to hide his motive, the authorities said.
“Part of the anger that I feel toward the shooter is that he denied the world any exploration of what he did or what he was going through,” Mr. Dubowski said. “He denied the world an opportunity for forgiveness.”
Gayle Dubowski’s bedroom in the family’s home in Carol Stream remains just as she left it. “As time goes by, it will be time to give things away,” Mr. Dubowski said. “It’s kind of a touchy thing still.”
The university presented the Dubowskis with their daughter’s degree at commencement ceremonies last spring. Hundreds stood to cheer as her name was read.
Moments like that help bring closure, Mr. Dubowski said, but there are still tough days. “It just strikes me of the growing distance between the present and the last time I saw my daughter,” he said.
Also killed that day were Catalina Garcia, 20; Julianna Gehant, 32; Ryanne Mace, 19; and Daniel Parmenter, 20.
Mr. Ng, 22, is a communication major who was shot in the back of his head. He said that he was trying to move past the attack but that attending any anniversary memorials might be too painful.
Mr. Ng said his mind also spun when he thought about how he could have died that day. “I’ve always had those questions,” he said. “What if it was me? Why was I lucky?”
Mr. Ng said that since the shootings he had followed through on some of his life passions, like becoming a worship leader at the Baptist Campus Ministry. The shootings, he said, gave him the motivation “to do things I wouldn’t normally do, get involved more.”
Rene Gorbold, a Baptist minister on campus, said Mr. Ng had changed.
“He’s still a fun, goofy person,” Ms. Gorbold said. “But there’s a much more serious side to him that I didn’t necessarily see before.”