James Q. Stevens eyed the high-powered rifle he cradled in his arm and talked quietly to the nine hostages who huddled before him in the narrow office hallway at Lake Braddock Secondary School. "I've done this, now my life is ruined," the teen-ager said. "I won't get out of here alive . . . Should I just shoot myself or let the police shoot me?"
That is how John W. Alwood, the Lake Braddock principal and the last hostage to be released by Stevens Thursday morning when the 21-hour siege in Fairfax County ended with no serious injuries, recalled it yesterday. Here is Alwood's reconstruction of the ordeal, related as he sat in his ground-floor office suite where he had been held hostage only the day before.
"He was in the frame of mind to get killed," the 54-year-old Alwood said of Stevens.
That perception led the hostages -- who initially feared for their lives -- to spend much of their time trying to calm the gunman, who frequently seemed more concerned with ending his own life than taking another. They talked about his talent as a country singer and song writer. They told him they remembered his performances in the school talent shows. They told him he was good enough to go professional someday.
Stevens' mood switched from that of a belligerent gunman who stormed the offices firing as many as six shots and barking out orders to that of a frightened 18-year-old trying to escape the desperate situation he had created, after his girlfriend had broken off their relationship and rejected his offer of marriage.
Alwood was just returning to school from a meeting about 1 p.m. Wednesday when a student shouted that someone was in the school with a gun. He met assistant principal John G. Cockey racing toward the central administrative offices with the same report. They stepped into the inner offices and were confronted by Stevens, who fired a shot into the ceiling and then leveled his weapon at Cockey.
"I thought, Is this real?" Alwood said. "That was the only time I was really scared that someone was going to get shot." It was the only time Stevens pointed a gun at any of the hostages, Alwood said.
Stevens ordered Cockey to call Stevens' girlfriend, 17-year-old Rebecca Golas, from class. As Cockey stepped to the public address system, Alwood slipped into an adjoining workroom, apparently unnoticed by the gunman. Meanwhile, other people in the office had scattered -- some fled into the hallway while seven darted into the nearby data-processing office.
Cockey summoned Golas who came to the door minutes later. Terror-stricken by the scene, the girl said, "It really is you, Jamie," then turned and fled. Stevens fired another shot.
"You've got 30 seconds to go get her," Stevens yelled at Cockey, who raced immediately out the door. The gunman then turned back to the end of a short hallway where he had earlier confronted school finance officer June Harrison, 57.
"Help me! help me!" Harrison said, according to Arline Didier, 37, a reading teacher who heard the commotion from the copying room at the other end of the office. As Didier stepped out into the hall to investigate, Stevens turned toward her and shouted to Harrison, "Tell her to get back!"
Didier said she darted back into the room, pulled some boxes from underneath the copying machine and crawled underneath them where she remained throughout the 21-hour siege, apparently forgotten by Stevens. School officials later found a bullet hole in the door of the copying room.
Stevens took Harrison into her office at the far end of the hall, while the six school staff members and a parent in the nearby data-processing room ran across the hall to the tiny workroom where Alwood was hidden. There they crouched in the dark for two hours. "That was the scariest time," Alwood said. "We had no idea what he was doing with Mrs. Harrison outside."
Eventually, Stevens became worried about the special police team, Alwood said. Stevens wanted to check every place they could hide. He ordered Harrison to show him every cubbyhole in the offices. When Alwood finally heard a key inserted in the door, he said, "Jamie, we're in here. It's Mr. Alwood."
Stevens opened the door and erupted in a rage, cursing and shouting. He slammed the butt of the rifle through a thick glass office partition, cutting his hand.
By this time, Harrison was talking to Stevens "like a mom would to a son," Alwood said. She doctored his bleeding right hand with bandages from a first aid kit in the workroom where Alwood and the others had been hiding. While Harrison bandaged, Stevens cradled the gun in his left arm.
About midnight, Stevens walked to the end of the hall and fired a shot to see if he could still use the trigger with the bandaged hand. He made the hostages sit in chairs facing each other in a short hallway flanked by the workroom, two restrooms and the public address system.
"No one will listen to me," Stevens said at one point. "At least now they're listening."
After negotiations with the police, Stevens began freeing hostages, one by one. He usually let the hostages decide who would go first, but apparently concerned about Harrison's health, Stevens asked her to leave several times.
"She wanted to stay," Alwood said. "She felt like he trusted her." Stevens finally ordered Harrison to leave and she was taken to a local hospital and released.
By Thursday morning, Stevens had freed all the hostages except Alwood, who then worried that Stevens' mood might change from calm to panic with only a single hostage left.
"Jamie, you said you're going to let me out in an hour," Alwood said. "Is that true?"
"Yes," came the reply. "I told you I would."
Minutes after Stevens slid his rifle down the hall to the police negotiator and surrendered, Alwood, a deeply religious man, walked over to the youth and said, "I'm glad you came out. If you need me once you've paid your penance, call me."