UNC Charlotte shooting survivor returns to campus for fall semester
Not long before 5:30 on Monday afternoon, Drew Pescaro will return to a classroom at UNC Charlotte. He will make the short walk to campus. He will enter the Fretwell Building for JOUR 2160, Intro to Journalism. He will walk into the classroom on the first floor, and he will try to take a seat in one of the first few rows, on the end closest to the door.
He does not know how he will handle any of this. He does not know what it will be like to sit in a classroom again. He does not know what might race through his mind if someone comes in late – if a closed door opens, or if he hears a loud noise, an unexpected bang. He does not know what it will be like to walk into one campus building three and a half months after being carried out of another.
When Pescaro approaches Fretwell, he could turn around, if he wants, and see the Kennedy Building. They are less than 500 feet apart. Fretwell is where Pescaro’s junior year begins. Kennedy is where his sophomore year ended, where last April 30 he smelled gunpowder and listened to the faint breaths of the dying, where Pescaro, bleeding from his back and abdomen, feared he might die, too.
More than 100 days later, Pescaro can still hear the faint breaths and, louder, the screams of classmates who escaped. A gunman entered his classroom on April 30 and began firing. He shot six students. Two of them, Riley Howell and Ellis Parlier, died. Four others, including Pescaro, survived, left with the memories and the scars.
Some of them, Pescaro can show you: the entry wound on his back, the exit wound on his abdomen; the lines that look like a zipper going up his stomach, where staples used to be; the marks where surgeons inserted drains. During a press conference at the North Carolina General Assembly earlier this month, Pescaro lifted up his shirt. He wanted everyone to see.
“It’s what I have to live with every single day,” he said then, looking down at the marks on his body, and then up again. But those were only the scars that were visible.
The day after his appearance at the General Assembly, Pescaro, 20, was back home in Apex. He called it “my most powerful moment” – the chance to speak at the legislature, in front of a wall of cameras and a crowded press room, and urge state lawmakers to do something to address gun violence.
“I just want action,” he had said then in front of the cameras, and moments later he stepped from behind the lectern to reveal his body. His longtime girlfriend, Erin, was there to support him. So was his father, Edward, a high school English teacher. When the event ended, advocates who wore matching red shirts – “Moms Demand Action,” they said – approached Pescaro and thanked him.
He spoke with people for a long while. Young. Old. They greeted Pescaro and shared their own experience with gun violence. Some state lawmakers promised him they’d work for change. His father, meanwhile, stood nearby, looking up through the atrium at the second-floor offices. Some legislators had heard his son speak. He wondered where a lot of the others were, what they were doing.
Outside, the flags flew at half staff. It was two days after a weekend of mass shootings – 22 dead in El Paso, 10 more in Dayton – and the nation mourned. Edward Pescaro looked at the flags, two of them, and the symbolism was not lost on him, the sight of a familiar ritual after a familiar American tragedy.
“There’s ‘thoughts,’” he said, motioning toward one flag, before the other, “and ‘prayers.’”
Finding his voice
Days earlier, Drew Pescaro and his father had been on vacation, in Massachusetts. They were making their way back to North Carolina when a gunman opened fire in an El Paso Wal-Mart and, all of a sudden, halfway across the country, the news sent Pescaro back inside of the classroom in the Kennedy Building, back to the floor after he’d fallen out of his chair upon the bullet entering his back.
That’s how it was every time news spread of another mass shooting and, since April 30, there had been 160 mass shootings in America and counting, according to gunviolencearchive.org. The website considers a mass shooting to be one in which four people are shot, regardless of how many die. The greater the death toll, though, the more people wanted to talk with Pescaro.
News reporters called him after El Paso. So did Christy Clark, the Democrat who represents Mecklenburg County in the statehouse. That’s how Pescaro came to speak at the General Assembly. He appreciated the platform yet he wondered, too, why he hadn’t been offered it sooner after the shooting he’d survived. Had that not been enough?
In the months after, Pescaro has wondered how best to amplify his voice, so that his experience might inspire change. He wanted to see gun control reform. He wanted lawmakers to address mental health, both for potential shooters and the victims who have to live with their carnage.
And he wanted to see the legal process expedited. It was more than three months, he said, before he received a call from the district attorney’s office with an update about his case, and he’d been wondering what was taking so long.
“I just feel we wait way too long to handle these situations,” he said, “and it is traumatizing for the families who now have a dead, you know, son or daughter, and traumatizing for the people that live.”
Pescaro had tried to become a voice. But in a strange way, sometimes Pescaro wondered if what he’d been through hadn’t been horrific enough for people to want to listen to him.
That maybe if more of his classmates had died, lawmakers might be more willing to hear him. That maybe if he’d been paralyzed, in a wheel chair, he’d have a more powerful voice. He made that point at the General Assembly, that the death count in Charlotte “was not impressive enough” to inspire change.
“It really is sad that we live in a society now that if 10 or more people weren’t killed, it’s no big deal in the eyes of just the general public,” Pescaro said at home in Apex.
And so this is what his life was like now, three and a half months after he almost lost it: he was still learning how to deal with the anger and fear. He tried talking about it with a therapist, who told Pescaro that, for the sake of his mental recovery, it was a good thing that he saw the gunman coming, that it wasn’t a total surprise.
Still, he often found himself looking over his shoulder, he said, “to make sure there’s not a gunman in the same area as me.” Sometimes he found solace in video games, including the kind that some politicians blamed for mass shootings. Pescaro experienced real violence in a college classroom. He found peace, meanwhile, in playing Call of Duty. If he wanted music, he turned on Eminem.
He tried to focus on his goals, to remind himself that he had the rest of his life. He’d been through something, after all, that reinforced the reality that it was fleeting. He wanted to work one day in professional sports, in an NBA front office. A dream job, he said, would be in media relations or communications with the Charlotte Hornets.
The franchise invited Pescaro back to Charlotte over the summer for the NBA draft. They put him in a hotel and he shadowed the communications department for two days. Later, Pescaro learned that the Hornets offered to pay for his final two years of school. He accepted after deciding for good that, yes, he would return to Charlotte – that he needed to return; that he couldn’t run from what happened.
“Who’s to say I transfer to a different college and that happens there?” he said.
When he returns to school, he plans to pick back up where everything was before last April 30: covering sports for the school paper; working in the 49ers’ football office as a recruiting assistant. Last year, his intramural team won a flag football championship, but he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to play.
Pescaro was still regaining strength after spending most of May, 27 days, in the hospital. When he’d come home his mom, a nurse practitioner, had to help hold him up in the shower. Now he could do that on his own but he was still learning to process the constant reminders, the scars. The ones on the front, around his abdomen, reminded Pescaro of physical pain, his time in the hospital.
“The one I look at the most, I would say, is the one on the back,” he said. “The entry wound.”
That one, he said, “helps me to realize that yes, this was terrible, but it could have been so much worse had that been an inch more to the left. Either I’m not alive anymore or I’m alive and I’m in a wheelchair for the rest of my life.”
‘I saw the guy coming’
He was at home now, one of the final days of his summer break. The dogs were barking, and his dad was out back on the porch, and his little brother was upstairs, playing Guitar Hero, and it all felt like a normal, lazy Wednesday afternoon in August. A lot of the things that Pescaro collected during his month in the hospital were upstairs in a room, in a box, out of sight.
He was still deciding what he’d do with it: the leather bag with the NBA logo; the sports jerseys that professional athletes brought when they visited Pescaro in the hospital – ones from Tim Tebow, his favorite athlete; another from Chris Hogan, the New England Patriots wide receiver; another from Larry Ogunjobi, who was Charlotte’s first NFL draft pick and now plays for the Cleveland Browns.
He’d signed his No. 65 jersey and left a note to Pescaro, the words written on the numbers:
“Drew, sometimes life knocks us down, but it’s not how many times we get knocked down but how many times you get up. God has a greater purpose for you yet. Never give up. You got this.”
Throughout the summer, Pescaro had been in contact with the other survivors: Sean DeHart, Rami Al-Ramadhan and Emily Houpt. She’d graduated but the other two, Pescaro said, had made the same decision as he did – to return to campus.
They planned to get together at the start of the semester. Pescaro, too, had recently joined a Facebook group, The Rebels Project. Survivors of the 1999 Columbine shooting created the group after the Aurora movie theater shooting in 2012. It was a support group for people who’d been through “mass trauma.”
“I feel like that’ll be a valuable tool, in terms of, you know, learning how to live with this,” Pescaro said. “Because these are people that have been living with it in some cases, 20 years, 10 years.”
For now, though, the focus was not on the long-term recovery but the short. It was on returning to school, and making it through the first class, and then the next. Most of Pescaro’s classes this semester, he said, would be near the Kennedy Building. He will often have to confront the physical reminders.
There is symmetry, too, in his first day back. His first class begins at 5:30, the same time as his final class last semester. When Pescaro walks into the classroom in the Fretwell Building on Monday, he will try to find a seat near the door. It is not, he said, because of a desire to be closest to the nearest exit. Instead, sitting near the door is his way of coping with something that haunts him as much as anything.
“The number one struggle that I deal with,” he said, pausing to find the right words, “is the fact that, you know … I saw the guy coming in before he started shooting and I didn’t react.”
And so now he wants to be prepared. After spending months urging action, and change, he wants to be in a position to do something and, in the worst case, to fight.