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‘I thought I had died’: Teacher recounts shooting by 6-year-old student

Students return to Richneck Elementary in Newport News, Va., on Jan. 30. (Billy Schuerman/AP)
5 min

Teacher Abigail Zwerner said she will never forget the look on her 6-year-old student’s face when he pulled out a gun in her Virginia classroom in January, pointed it at her and then pulled the trigger.

“I remember the gun going off. I remember feeling something,” Zwerner said. “I was terrified. In that moment, my initial reaction was, ‘Your kids need to get out of here. This is not a safe classroom anymore.'”

Zwerner, 25, gave her first account of the Jan. 6 shooting at Richneck Elementary School in Newport News in an interview broadcast Tuesday morning on the “Today” show. Zwerner described the moments after the shooting, her recovery and failures she believes led to the shooting. She told Savannah Guthrie the incident has “changed me … changed my life.”

How Richneck Elementary failed to stop a 6-year-old from shooting his teacher

Zwerner said her classroom was plunged into chaos after the student pulled the trigger. She said she was shot through the hand and a bullet lodged in her upper chest. The 15 to 20 students who witnessed the shooting were terrified and some began screaming.

Zwerner said she ushered the students out of the classroom and went to get help for herself, but the bullet had collapsed one of her lungs and she was drawing ragged, “raspy” breaths. Her vision blurred as she made her way to help, she said.

“I went to the office and just passed out,” Zwerner said. “I thought I had died.”

At a news conference after the shooting, Newport News Police Chief Steve Drew hailed Zwerner as a hero and credited her with saving lives, saying she was the last one to leave the classroom. Drew grew emotional describing Zwerner’s actions that were captured on surveillance video.

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After the shooting, a school employee restrained the boy until police arrived, while Zwerner was rushed to the hospital with critical injuries, police said. Zwerner said a doctor told her the shooting could have been fatal. Zwerner said she believed her life was saved because the bullet hit her hand before her chest, lessening its impact.

Zwerner said she has had four surgeries since the shooting. The bullet damaged multiple bones in her left hand, and she still does not have full use of the hand. During the interview, her hand was wrapped from a recent surgery. Zwerner said she still has fragments from the bullet lodged in her upper chest.

When Guthrie asked how Zwerner felt about the student who shot her, Zwerner said she can’t shake the look on the boy’s face. She said she “can’t make sense” of the shooting, which she described as “surreal.” She has nightmares about it.

“Some days are not so good days where I can’t get up out of bed,” Zwerner said. “Some days are better than others where I can get out of bed and make it to my appointments. From going through what I’ve gone through, I try to stay positive. I try to have a positive outlook on what’s happened and where my future’s heading.”

Zwerner faulted school officials for the handling of the incident.

Zwerner’s attorney said in an interview with “Today” she plans to file a lawsuit over the shooting in a couple of weeks. She had previously said officials ignored multiple warnings that the boy had a gun on the day of the shooting. A spokeswoman for Newport News schools declined to comment on Zwerner’s assertions in a statement.

“We want our community to know that the safety and wellbeing of our students and staff is our most important priority,” the statement said. “We will continue to do whatever it takes to ensure a safe and secure teaching and learning environment across all our schools. We appreciate the support of our community as we move forward.”

The shooting generated a firestorm of controversy in Newport News, where some parents and teachers blamed the school district for failing to address issues of violence in the city’s schools. The Newport News School Board ousted its superintendent in the wake of the shooting, and Richneck’s vice principal resigned.

A prosecutor is weighing whether to file charges. Police finished their investigation in late February.

Former Va. principal unaware that 6-year-old had gun, attorney says

Legal experts said it is unlikely the boy will face criminal charges, because Virginia law presumes a child under 7 cannot form the intent to carry out a crime.

It’s possible the boy’s mother will face charges for failing to properly secure the weapon or child neglect. The gun used in the shooting, which authorities said was purchased legally, belonged to her. James Ellenson, an attorney for the boy’s family, said previously that the gun was stored on the upper shelf of a closet with a trigger lock, but they don’t know how he got hold of the weapon.

Ellenson said in a statement Tuesday morning that “we are heartened to see all the love and support [Zwerner] has and pray for her continued healing.”

Zwerner said in the “Today” show interview she misses her students and wants them to know she loves each one. She said it is difficult to say what justice in the case would mean, but she has been heartened by the outpouring of support from people across the country. The incident grabbed national headlines and she has received a flood of cards and well wishes.

“It’s hard to comprehend sometimes how many people out there really are just supportive and caring,” Zwerner said. “There have been so many strangers reaching out.”