For two Seattle Pacific University students, the scene was all too familiar.
Sarah Macdonald, a Pusch Ridge Christian Academy graduate, and Jon Heddles of Ironwood Ridge High School, were living in Tucson at the time of the Jan. 8, 2011 Safeway shooting that took the lives of six and injured 13 others, including then-Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.
Now they are once again seeing the aftermath of a community in shock, mourning, and prayer after a 26-year-old gunman killed 19-year-old student Paul Lee and injured two others during a shooting rampage that took place on the quiet, 4,000-student campus of SPU on June 5.
Macdonald was in a friend’s dorm when she began hearing police cars whiz past and helicopters overhead. She was about 300 yards away from the science and engineering building, where, little to her knowledge at the time, a gunman had already begun wreaking havoc on the peaceful, faith-based college campus located in what is considered to be a safe area.
Seeking more information about the school lockdown, Macdonald turned on the television, where SPU had already made national news.
“That is the thing that got everyone the most,” said Macdonald, who had three classes in the science and engineering building. “Nobody ever thought this would happen here. We just couldn’t wrap our minds around it.
We are such a small, tight-knit community. When we saw that, we just started praying hard.”
By the time most of the information had been received, the gunman had already been subdued while attempting to reload. Jon Meis, a Dean’s List student who at the time of the tragedy was also working as a building monitor, pepper sprayed and then tackled the shooter, later identified as 26-year-old Seattle resident Aaron Ybarra. Ybarra had at least 50 more shotgun rounds on his person at the time he was disarmed.
Engaged to be married, Meis is now being hailed a hero. He has received about $50,000 in donations toward his wedding, but has since requested all donations be given to the families of the victims.
While Meis has shied away from the spotlight, his peers continue to recognize his bravery.
“We are so thankful,” said Heddles. “We are in awe of what he did, but at the same time, it didn’t surprise me. We are a Christ-centered campus, and we have a lot of self-sacrificing people on campus like Jon Meis. As shocking and horrible as this is, it could have been worse.”
“That brought hope,” added Macdonald. “That showed us we don’t have to focus on the evil that was done here, but we that can focus on the heroes like that who would sacrifice themselves for someone else.”
Heddles, who was at a nearby friend’s house when the shooting began, was familiar with the lone murder victim. The two had gotten to know each other from staying on the same floor of Ashton Hall and from the occasional study session. He described Lee as “full of life.”
“He was full of energy and enthusiasm,” said Heddles. “He made people feel loved and important, even if that was just him saying hi as he passed you in the hallway. He could always bring a smile to my face.”
As was seen in Tucson following the Jan. 8 shooting, the Seattle community – and particularly those students who walk the hallways of SPU each day – continues to come together in the wake of tragedy. A number of prayer services and candlelight vigils have been held for which overwhelming crowds have shown up to pay their respect and show support. Counselors have also readily offered their services to students in need.
Just days after the SPU shooting, Reynolds High School, located about 12 miles east of Portland, fell victim when a student shot and killed 14-year-old freshman Emilio Hoffman. That marks the 74th school shooting since the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy in December 2012. Included in that tally is one in Arizona, at Cesar Chavez High School in Phoenix.
And while the SPU shooting marks one of the most recent to occur, Heddles and Macdonald say they are ready to forgive the shooter.
“Despite our anger and confusion, there’s been a huge display of grace and mourning toward the shooter himself,” said Heddles. “Obviously we are so upset by what he did, and will never be able to understand, and we want justice served. But many of us on this campus believe in the power of God with unconditional love, and hope that the lord will be able to work in this troubled young man’s life and redeem him.”
Prosecutors in the case have filed murder and attempted murder charges against Ybarra, and are seeking life sentence. According to a recently published CNN article, Ybarra, on the day of the shooting, wrote in his journal, “I just want people to die, and I’m going to die with them.”
There has been no indication as to whether or not the fact that SPU is a faith-based campus had anything to do with Ybarra’s motive.
As the days and weeks pass, Heddles and Macdonald hope SPU is remembered not as a school victimized by tragedy, but as one that has been triumphant in unification and strength.
“I want to help shape this story as one of courage in the midst of despair,” said Heddles. “I want SPU to be represented as strong and hopeful. It’s easy to get into the political debate in situations like this – and that’s an important conversation to have – but there is a more important story, which is grief and mourning, but also tremendous unity.”
“We want people to look at SPU and see the way we’ve responded. We want them to be heartbroken for us, but to also know we will get through this by loving each other.”