Shortly after 1 p.m. yesterday the girlfriend of James Stevens was called to the administrative office over the loudspeaker at Lake Braddock Secondary School. Students in the Algebra II class where she is a student helper began giggling.
"We thought she was in trouble," said Yong Kin, a 10th grader in the class. But a short time later, the girl, a senior, entered the classroom, sobbing. "She said, 'My boyfriend has a gun and holding people hostage,' and then she left," Kin said.
As word that 18-year-old Stevens, armed with a rifle, had allegedly taken nine adult office workers hostage spread through the school and the suburban neighborhood where Stevens lives, friends reacted with disbelief. "I don't believe it. It doesn't sound like him," said Sharon Kline, who lives next door to Stevens and has known him more than four years. "I never saw him mad."
Kline, who graduated last year from Lake Braddock, described James Stevens as tall, quiet and friendly. He was supposed to graduate last year with Kline, but left school instead. He works at a clothing store on Port Royal Road and is taking a government class at night to complete his graduation requirements, she said. Stevens lives with his mother and 11-year-old brother.
Friends say his loves are country music, which he writes and performs in local clubs, his car, a Ford Mustang Mach I, and his girlfriend, who had stopped dating him Tuesday night.
When the incident began yesterday afternoon, teachers were quietly informed. Some told their students that a gunman was holding people hostage in the administration office; some said nothing, students said.
One seventh grade teacher said she decided not to tell her students, but when one went to the bathroom she learned about it from a friend. The teacher made the girl sit in the front of the class so she couldn't tell anyone.
Students said when they did learn of the incident there was little panic.
"Our teacher went out briefly and then came in and said we couldn't leave," said Kathy Rivoire, a senior. "He said some guy in the main office had a gun. At first we didn't believe him. We thought he was joking."
But from classroom windows students could see police darting between cars in the school parking lot, said junior John Martel. He said his teacher ordered those students who had stood to sit down.
Sophomore Tim Byrnes said he was among students who were moved from their classrooms to rooms farther away from the administrative offices. "It didn't make us that nervous. They brought a TV out and played soap operas," said Byrnes. "Then we started learning from TV what was going on."
As time passed, students said, they got restless and more rowdy, but that no one became upset. Some students tried to crawl out windows of one classroom and the two-hour wait before students were evacuated took on a party atmosphere.
"The teachers were really great," said Eric Story, a senior. "They were really calm and protective."
Story's mother, Jesse, was not so calm, however. She said she heard the news on the radio at the office and tried to call the school but the line was busy. She then tried the police, who referred her to the Fairfax County School Board offices. It helped little when she learned that no students had been taken hostage.
"My children were still there," she said.
Victoria Espinosa, whose daughter is a ninth grader at Lake Braddock, the largest school in Fairfax, lives near the school. So when she saw the police cars gathering at the school, Espinosa walked over to see what was going on.
"I was very very afraid that he would run crazy with the gun," she said. "When I finally saw my daughter , I thought, 'Oh, she's safe. Oh, those poor people who are still in there.' "
The school nurse said she spent a frightening three hours in the school clinic, situated next door to the administration offices where the incident was occuring. When she first heard shots -- up to six were fired, witnesses said -- she immediately shut and locked the door, turned off the lights and sat quietly with the sick children who were in her office until police knocked on the door and let them out.
About 3 p.m., police led Lake Braddock's 4,300 students out the back and side doors to waiting buses. When students saw the television cameras they began clowning, waving and yelling, "Hi, mom."
The streets of the normally quiet, upper-middle-class neighborhood were jammed with cars and students who walked around asking to be interviewed. Some neighbors griped that cars were blocking the streets. When a young woman came out of a home crying and was identified as the daughter of a hostage, the sobbing girl was immediately mobbed by reporters and camera crews.
"My god, don't any of you have any compassion?" one woman yelled.