Parkland survivors recall high school massacre in harrowing testimony on second day of trial

·5 min read

On day two of the sentencing phase in the trial of Nikolas Cruz, who committed one of the worst mass shootings in US history at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, teacher and student survivors told the jury of their experiences that day.

While the first day of the trial included horrifying cellphone footage recorded by students as Cruz opened fire on classrooms on 14 February 2018, day two of proceedings included approximately 15 minutes of silent security camera video shown only in court.

While there was no audio to the footage, several jurors were seen to gasp and cover their mouths in shock, as cameras tracked the shooter on his rampage around the 1200 building of the high school campus in Parkland, Florida.

In his opening statement on Monday, prosecutor Michael Satz had given a minute-by-minute account of what transpired during the massacre noting when and where individual victims were slain by Cruz.

Now, a group of survivors, most injured during the attack, appeared in court to piece together a harrowing account of the events of that Valentine’s Day four years ago.

Student Christopher McKenna testified about his encounter with Cruz in the building’s stairwell on his way to the restroom shortly before the shooting began. He was chillingly told by the then 19-year-old holding an AR-15 to get out because “things were about to get bad”.

Mr McKenna said he ran out of the building and alerted Coach Aaron Feis just before gunshots began. Mr Feis took the freshman away from the scene and then went to investigate. He became one of Cruz’s victims.

Asked to identify who he saw in the stairwell that day, Mr McKenna stood and pointed directly at Cruz.

Former student Christopher McKenna identifies Nikolas Cruz as the man whole told him ‘Get out of here! Things are about to get bad!’ moments before the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018 (REUTERS)
Former student Christopher McKenna identifies Nikolas Cruz as the man whole told him ‘Get out of here! Things are about to get bad!’ moments before the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018 (REUTERS)

The court heard from survivors William Olson, Alex Dworet, and Kheshava Manhapuram, all 14 at the time, who had been in the same English class that Mr McKenna had left.

Mr Olson recalled hearing the first gunshots and not being initially sure what was happening. He found himself on the floor by the teacher’s desk and saw his friend Alex Schacter was still at his desk and not moving. Mr Olson was wounded in the arm, and his parents, seated in the gallery, were visibly upset by his account of the attack.

Sitting near Mr Olson, Mr Dworet was similarly injured, sustaining a wound to the back of his head in the initial moments. He too recalled seeing Mr Schacter fatally injured, still at his desk.

Mr Mangapuram was hit in the side of his stomach when shots came through the door of the classroom and remembers Mr Olson and Mr Schacter being struck too.

The most emotional testimony of the day came from Dara Hass who was teaching the class in which the three boys were injured and in which Mr Schacter died. Ms Hass remembered screaming and the air becoming hazy with smoke as debris flew across the room. Recalling each of the students by name, she spoke of attending to the injured outside after the police arrived.

In a nearby room, a class was being taught the history of the Holocaust. Juniors Isabelle Chequer, Daniella Menescal, Samantha Grady, and Samantha Fuentes were stoic in recounting the confusion as they and their classmates scrambled for shelter out of the line of sight of the window in the door to the locked classroom.

They recalled students moving filing cabinets to better shield themselves from the gunfire and crawling across the floor for better cover. Each was injured by shrapnel, ricochets, or bullet grazes.

Ms Fuentes had a gunshot wound above her knee and still has shrapnel in her body to this day, including behind her eye. She continues to have problems with her range of motion and stamina.

All recall seeing that students Nick Dworet and Helena Ramsay, both 17, had been fatally shot. Mr Dworet’s brother Alex, who testified earlier, lay injured in the nearby English class. Ms Grady recalled Ms Ramsay spurring her into action when the shooting began and being beside her.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School teacher Dara Hass wipes away tears as she testifies (Getty Images)
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School teacher Dara Hass wipes away tears as she testifies (Getty Images)

On the floor above, student Ana Martins and teacher Michael Powell were in a study hall session when Cruz launched his attack. Ms Martins, 14, described how she and a friend spoke with Gina Montalto who was working on a laptop in the hall outside the locked classroom as they returned from the bathroom.

Once back at their desks, she had stood to let Luke Hoyer and Martin Duque, also both 14, back into the locked room when the first shots rang out. Before she reached the door she was pulled away by a friend and they took cover under the teacher’s desk. Gina, Luke, and Martin were all killed.

Mr Powell believed the initial loud booms were part of a promised drill and ordered the children in his class to shelter away from the door. As the noise continued and it became clear it was not a drill, and checking to make sure the door was locked, he let in a boy from the hall and four girls who had been hiding in the restroom opposite.

Each piece of testimony was met with silence from the court and tears shed by families in the gallery.

Just as on day one of the trial, seated with his lawyers, Cruz kept his head down, appearing to write or doodle on the pad in front of him.

Having already pleaded guilty to 17 counts of murder, the 12-person Florida jury will instead be tasked with deciding on his punishment: either a death sentence, or a life sentence without parole.

The jury of seven men and five women, selected from a pool of 1,800 candidates, will need to be in unanimous agreement to levy an execution sentence.

The hearing continues on Wednesday.