'It was truly horrific': Nashville mourns after deadly mass shooting at Covenant School
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The horrible task of counting began before noon.
How many children and staff members had gone into The Covenant School on Monday morning, and how many had come out alive after the gunshots?
Frantic administrators and teachers, tearful parents, and first responders hurried to get that count finished. Parents were routed to nearby Woodmont Baptist Church waiting, hopefully, to be reunited with their children.
And they waited.
In fear. In shock. In anger. They waited for more understanding in a situation where none would be forthcoming.
The morning was filled with the sound of sirens.
The news they heard just after noon was devastating: Three children and three school staff members were killed. Police said they were Evelyn Dieckhaus, Hallie Scruggs, and William Kinney, all age 9; staff members Katherine Koonce, 60, the head of school, and Cynthia Peak, 61, and Mike Hill, 61.
Police identified the shooter as 28-year-old Audrey Elizabeth Hale, a transgender man who was assigned female at birth, whom authorities killed at the scene. Hale was a former student at The Covenant School, police said.
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Hale was an illustrator and graphic designer who had two semi-automatic rifles and a handgun, police said. Metropolitan Nashville Police Chief John Drake said he was in tears when he heard the reports from officers on the scene.
The police response took 14 minutes.
The shooter entered the school just after 10 a.m. through a side door, began shooting on the first floor, then moved to the second. The first call to the police came at 10:13 a.m. Five police officers confronted Hale on the second floor, and two opened fire, killing the shooter at 10:27 a.m.
Drake said the police found the suspected shooter's car at the scene.
The Woodmont sanctuary was quiet and tensely calm as parents awaited information. Many spoke on phones, giving directions to those still on their way. Volunteers pushed carts with water coolers and multicolored cups through the aisles.
Three yellow school buses filled with children made the 2-mile trip from Covenant and were lined up in front of Woodmont Baptist Church just after noon.
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Several children stuck their head and hands out of open windows, yelling and waving to the parents waiting for them.
On the streets in front of the school, Metro Police and Tennessee Bureau of Investigation buses rolled by.
Across town, Vanderbilt Medical Center was rushed by emergency vehicles. Three students, two adults, and one police officer were being treated for injuries Monday afternoon. The police officer cut his hand on glass.
Metro Police officers escorted two residents out of squad cars at the children’s emergency center, ushering them inside and leaving the scene again. One was clutching what appeared to be a handful of tissues as she tearfully rushed into the emergency room.
School celebrated childhood, empowering minds
The Covenant School's enrollment is from preschool through sixth grade. The school's motto is "Shepherding hearts. Empowering Minds. Celebrating Childhood." On a typical day, Covenant has 209 students and 42 staff members.
The school and church are the centers of the lives of many people in Green Hills, a neighborhood south of downtown Nashville.
Hayley Gammons, now a veterinarian, was part of Covenant’s class that graduated in 2008. Gammons' mother works at school and was not injured.
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“To this day Covenant is still home,” Gammons said. “How many people can say they are still close friends with kids they went to kindergarten with? But that’s just the way it is there. I know the community is so strong with Covenant.”
Barbara Baydoun is a former board of trustee: “This is the most loving school. Happy. The kids are always happy. I don’t know of anyone who would have a grudge, problems with a teacher or staff.”
'Why should children be the ones who suffer through this'
Lisa DeBusk is friends with families whose children attend Covenant.
"It was truly horrific to watch that," DeBusk said. "Our children had gone to preschool together. It's such a close-knit community here. You just don't ever think that when you send your kids to school on a day like today that you're going to potentially not have them come home."
Patricia Mey, who lives in the condo complex across from the school, said she heard the chaos erupt outside as emergency vehicles and helicopters arrived Monday morning.
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"It sounded like a war zone out here," Mey said. "Why should children be the ones who suffer through this?"
Ashbey Beasley was on vacation and about a block away from the school when she heard shots. Beasley, who was at the Fourth of July parade in Highland Park, Illinois, last year when a gunman opened fire, ran over to the scene to find it crawling with police.
“Aren’t you tired of this?” Beasley said, taking over the microphones after a news conference with Metro Nashville Police. “How is this still happening?” Beasley continued at the microphones.
“How are our children still dying and why are we failing them? These shootings, and these mass shootings, will continue to happen until our lawmakers step up and pass safer gun legislation.”
Contributing: Kirsten Fiscus, Chris Gadd, Andy Humbles, Angele Latham and Craig Shoup, USA TODAY Network
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY NETWORK: Nashville mourns after deadly mass shooting at The Covenant School