Yvonne Cech and Diana Perri Haneski met 36 years ago while working at a Connecticut radio station. They married men they met at the station and moved hundreds of miles apart, but their lives appeared to continue in sync. They twice gave birth within weeks of one another. They each earned a master’s degree from the same university.
Cech became a librarian at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Haneski became a librarian at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
And now, each has survived a mass shooting at her school. Last week in Florida, Haneski used lessons she had learned from Cech’s experience in 2012.
“The kinds of conversations we had after Sandy Hook were about looking at your surroundings differently, security . . . how you would shelter children and how you would be able to escape,” Cech said. “Fortunately, Diana is very smart and she was retaining all of that information. And very, very unfortunately, she ended up having to use it.”
People in this world divide their lives into “before” and “after”: before they survived carnage, or lost a loved one, and everything after. They call themselves the “club no one wants to join,” but it is a group that keeps getting bigger.
With the growing list of mass shootings in America, survivors have taken it upon themselves to connect. They offer support that only someone who has huddled in a closet while a gunman lurked outside, or buried a murdered child, can provide. They find one another via formal and informal networks, social media and, as their ranks grow, by unlucky coincidence, such as Cech and Haneski’s friendship.
When a lone gunman attacked Sandy Hook, killing 20 students and six teachers, Cech and her staff shepherded 18 fourth-graders into a closet, barricading it with a filing cabinet.
Haneski was among the first people Cech spoke with in the days after the shooting, and the two would talk about it during annual trips with friends from the radio station. Haneski internalized what Cech told her and built it into her daily routine. She was never without her cellphone or school keys; if an outfit didn’t have pockets, she would keep them in a pouch. She was more aware of her surroundings and security.
“I didn’t think I was getting ready for the same thing that happened to her,” Haneski said.
On Feb. 14, the fire alarm went off at Haneski’s school in Parkland, Fla., at about 2:20 p.m. Haneski thought the culinary department had burned something. She shuttled children out of the media center. But she had a school radio on her. “Code red, lockdown,” someone said. The voices made it clear that this was not a drill.
She opened a door to a hallway and told the students to come back inside the media center. She ushered children into a large equipment room on one side of the library; another staffer did the same, getting dozens of children into another room on the other side.
Haneski and about 50 students crouched behind media and computer carts and paper boxes. A clerk covered the windows with paper and turned off the lights. Haneski texted her husband and told the students to message only their parents and not to look at the news or social media.
Haneski immediately thought about Cech.
She remembered she had barricaded her students in the closet with a filing cabinet and put media carts in front of the door. About 90 minutes after the shooting in the Florida high school started, the SWAT team came to rescue the group. Haneski again remembered what Cech told her: Make the officers push their identification under the door. Police ended up breaking the door down because Haneski did not want to open it.
Cech was in a meeting in Connecticut that day. She looked at her phone and saw many missed calls from another friend from the radio station. She slipped away and called the friend, who told her that there was a shooting at Stoneman Douglas.
“I kept thinking, ‘That can’t be. That just can’t be,’ ” Cech said. “I immediately felt like I had to come and be with her because I remembered how helpful it was for me when people who had been through the same thing offered support.”
After Newtown, Cech and others who worked at Sandy Hook met with teachers from Colorado’s Columbine High School, where a 1999 shooting that killed 13 students ushered in the modern era of mass school shootings and security lockdowns. A group from an Amish school in Nickel Mines, Pa., where a gunman killed five people in 2006, took a bus to Newtown to meet with survivors.
“It’s hard to imagine for anyone who hasn’t been through it what it feels like and what you’re going through,” Cech said. “I felt like I had a real need to talk with them, just because it was people who would understand it in a way that no one else could. And I found it very helpful.”
After Caren Teves’s oldest son, Alex, was murdered in a 2012 shooting at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater while shielding his girlfriend from gunfire, Teves and her husband returned home to Arizona, “alone in our tragedy.” Soon after, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was hosting a town hall meeting. Teves wanted to go, but didn’t think she could do it alone.
She reached out for support to the Everytown Survivor Network, survivors of gun violence and their loved ones run by the gun control group Everytown for Gun Safety. They connected her to Pat Maisch, who survived a 2011 mass shooting in Tucson. She drove two hours to accompany Teves to the town hall.
She and Maisch now call one another sisters. There are days when Teves doesn’t think she can get out of bed. She calls Masich.
“We help each other incorporate our tragedy into our lives,” Masich said. “There are thousands and thousands like me. And that’s what kills me. When I hear about another mass shooting, my first thought is, ‘My God, people are going to have to go through this.’ ”
The women have turned their grief into action, lobbying legislators, testifying before Congress and speaking about guns and life after a mass shooting.
Teves and her husband started an organization called No Notoriety, urging the media not to publish the names of mass shooters.
In the days after nine people were killed in 2015 at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., Lucy McBath went on Facebook to find survivors and the families of those who died to let them know she was praying for them. McBath’s son, Jordan Davis, was killed in an argument over loud music at a Jacksonville, Fla., gas station in 2012.
McBath mailed handwritten letters to Charleston.
The Rev. Sharon Risher, whose mother and two cousins were killed, spotted one with her name written on the side. Risher felt compelled to open it, and she immediately felt as if McBath was someone she could confide in without having to be careful about what she said.
The two found common ground in their devout faith, and they hugged and sobbed when they first met face-to-face in what McBath called a “painful” meeting. McBath lost her son, and she could not imagine the “emotional, spiritual burden” that came with losing three loved ones.
Risher worked as a trauma chaplain at Parkland Hospital in Dallas, helping countless people through their grief. But she could not process her own.
“My brain just couldn’t compute that type of devastation even though I had helped other people,” Risher said. “Lucy gave me this love. She gave me that encouragement.”
Zach Elmore’s sister, Alicia Johnston, was wounded during the October 2017 mass shooting at a concert on the Las Vegas Strip that left 58 people dead and more than 500 injured. He said that once the shooting fades from public view, people forget that there are families who are torn apart and survivors who will never be the same. He and his sister have both been in touch with people who survived or whose loved ones were killed in a mass shooting.
“There are a lot of people who are out there who have been through those kinds of things and they are very willing to have those conversations,” he said. “Unfortunately, that community has grown exponentially.”
On Saturday, more than 100 teachers and local school officials packed into a room of the Broward Teachers Union, miles from Stoneman Douglas in Florida. The meeting was a way for teachers to grieve with one another, and to meet educators and students who survived Columbine and Newtown.
“We are all family . . . you do not journey this alone,” said Crystal Miller, who survived Columbine as a 16-year-old. “Eighteen years ago we stood exactly where you are now. . . . It should have never happened again. You should not be sitting here, it is not okay, it is not all right.”
Cech arrived in Florida on Friday and went right to Haneski’s house.
The women greeted one another with a long embrace. Haneski was simultaneously grieving and ready for action. The first words she said to Cech after the shooting: “How can we make this the last one?”
Cech went to a student’s memorial service with Haneski and spoke with school board members. For years, the women had talked about doing something together, maybe writing a book. Now they have found their cause — ending gun violence.
“People might think this is unusual or atypical. This is going to happen more and more and more unless we do something to change it,” Cech said, noting that she wishes Haneski never had to use the knowledge gained from Sandy Hook. “While I’m glad that Diana had that information in her mind and it’s useful to her, I’m angry as hell she had to use that information.”
Renae Merle, in Tamarac, Fla., contributed to this report.