Spanish teacher who survived Parkland shooting: “I screamed at my students to run”

Patricia Rivas Puerta, from La Rioja, recounts to EL PAÍS the hours leading up to the horrific Florida school attack

Patricia Rivas Puerta.
Patricia Rivas Puerta.

Patricia Rivas Puerta from Calahorra, La Rioja survived the deadly shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School, where 19-year-old Nicolas Cruz killed 17 people with an AR-15. The 40-year-old Spaniard, who teaches Spanish and French at the school, spoke to EL PAÍS by phone on Friday about what happened on the day.

I woke up, like I do every morning, at 6am. The school day here begins at 7.15am. For breakfast I had a muffin, cookies and coffee and juice. I drove to school. I took around 10 minutes down a route with traffic but not too much.

At first, it seemed like it was going to be just another normal, run-of-the-mill day. I gave two groups an exam, I spent a bit of time preparing things and at 12.25pm, at lunchtime, I left with my packed lunch to eat with my colleagues from the foreign language department. We always have very lively conversations. That day we were talking about Valentine’s Day. I told them as a Spaniard I was surprised by how it was celebrated here. In the United States, it really is a festival of adolescent love with teddy bears, balloons and hearts. I told them that in my country it was not celebrated this way and that I thought living here with so much hype could make young people who did not receive anything feel left out. They thought the same and a colleague believed a girl might have brought a teddy bear for herself out of fear she wouldn’t get a present. I ate my breaded fillet and at 1.05pm I began my last class.

It seemed like it was going to be just another normal, run-of-the-mill day

In this school, every class is 90 minutes. They’re called blocks. I was totally calm. I was thinking about leaving as early as possible to see at the very least the second half of the soccer game between Madrid and París Saint Germain de la Champions. I support Barcelona but a game like this is always interesting and I wanted to see how Neymar would play.

My last block was what they call here: personalization, a kind of watch duty. Students can take advantage to go to other classes if they have to make up time in another subject. Lots of students ask for it, I sign their permission slips and they leave. Twelve stayed. There were 15-year-old-boys and girls who began to work on their things. I did the same. It was calm, like always.

At 2.20pm a girl asked to go to the bathroom and I told her to go quickly because you’re not allowed to go after 2.30pm. It is a school with a lot of security. Kids cannot go to the bathroom if a teacher does not sign a permission slip. They also have to carry an ID card but as you can expect with teenagers, they don’t always have it on them. What’s more there is a security team that control everything: the hallways, the patios … and know the school’s 3,200 students. Oh I forgot to mention something!

In the morning in the first class, when I was handing out the exam papers, a fire alarm went off. It was a test. I left with my students and following protocols, we got to the parking lot, which was our assigned security spot in the case of an emergency. I arrived last because I was checking that nobody had been left behind. Everything went fine and the school administration sent an email congratulating the teachers.

But going back to the last class I had, the girl had left for the bathroom and five minutes before she came back, the alarm went off again. We thought that it was another fire drill. Although we found it strange, we left again. But when we got to the parking lot, when we reached our assigned area in the case of an emergency, we saw a member of the security team screaming that it was a code red. I quickly saw in his face that this was no test, he was scared. His eyes filled me with terror. In that moment, I screamed at my students to run.

From the sound of the sirens and the helicopters we realized that whatever had happened was no prank

Once we arrived back at the classroom, I opened the room with my keys and the five students who had stayed with me entered. I looked to make sure that there was nobody trying to get into a classroom. I locked everything. The entrance was blocked and only someone with a master key could open it. The doors are robust, although there is a small window above them which allows you to see inside. So we hid ourselves in the corner furthest from the door, where we couldn’t be seen from outside.

We huddled together. We began to hear police sirens. They arrived very quickly. In the United States, the police outfits are incredible. From the sound of the sirens and the helicopters we realized that whatever had happened was no prank. But we did not hear shooting. In no instance did we hear shots.

We spent about 20 minutes in silence. Every now and again, one of the students would call some friend in whispers and write them messages. A girl turned on the television on her telephone and we watched live what was happening in our very school, right where we were. There was a shooter. What began as unease and my heart beating a thousands times per minute, turned into real fear. I thought then that we would be safer in the small room within the classroom which is used for storage and also has a lock. Thanks to the emergency courses I received I knew that shooters don’t try to open locked classrooms but rather keep trying one after another until they find one that is open.

What began as unease and my heart beating a thousands times per minute, turned into real fear

We bundled ourselves into the storage room and locked the door. Now we were doubly closed in. Some students wanted to turn on the light but I preferred to leave if off so that nobody could see through the cracks that somebody was inside. The students behaved very well, although they were scared, uncomfortable and felt claustrophobic. We were there for an hour, in silence, without talking. We heard movement in the classroom next door, where we figured there were other students and teachers and we kept hearing police sirens outside. Two girls hugged one another. I saw two boys, who usually run rings around me, completely defenseless – because of course, they’re really just kids. A girl asked if the others believed in God to see if they wanted to say a prayer together. Everyone said yes. So we bowed our heads but there was no prayer. On the television, they said the shooter or shooters were still in the school.

Not long after we heard voices outside of the classroom. We thought it could be the police. We remained silent. Five minutes passed and they opened the door to the room. We still didn’t know who was coming in. They reached the storeroom and asked if anyone was inside, if we were okay, if anything had happened to anyone. “This is the police, come out with your hands above your heads, do not make any strange movements and follow the instructions,” they told us. They took us out in a line against the wall, escorting us until we reached the garden area in the main parking lot and here we met up with other students and teachers. All my students were fine. The girl who went to the bathroom was missing but we quickly learned that nothing had happened to her.

A girl asked if the others believed in God to see if they wanted to say a prayer together

In the parking lot, I received a WhatsApp message from my mother with a shot of what she had been seeing on television. I could not believe that this was my school. I told her that it was my center but I was safe. I tried to calm her but I couldn’t keep talking because I had to help a girl who didn’t have a telephone contact her family.

Jamie Guttenberg.
Jamie Guttenberg.REUTERS

Around 20 to 30 minutes later, they told us we could leave the area. After speaking for a few minutes with my colleagues, I went home and called my family back and spoke to my friends who had written to me. I started to look for more information and find out about other people in the school. I thought that there had been between one and three victims, but there were 17. In the evening, I saw the image of one of the girls who had died. She had been in the exam with me that morning. Her name was Jaime Guttenberg. She was one of my most brilliant students. She was not like other kids who keep to themselves and aren’t interested in the teacher. She asked me lots of things about Spain.

That night I had a terrible sleep. I go to bed very early because I have to wake up early but I couldn’t get to sleep until midnight, which is the Spanish equivalent of going to bed at 3am. I fell asleep at once because I was exhausted but I kept waking up, I had nightmares and I got out of the covers. It was a very bad night. The last two days have been crazy, very stressful. Today I rested a little better but it’s more or less the same. I need to disconnect. It was a nightmare. I could say a lot of other words but this one comes first: a nightmare.

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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