By Kimberlee Kruesi, Travis Loller and Adrian Sainz
Authorities released 911 recordings on Thursday that capture the terror inside a Nashville elementary school during a mass shooting this week, as callers pleaded for help in hushed voices while sirens, crying and gunfire could be heard in the background.
Police released recordings of about two-dozen emergency calls made during Monday's attack at The Covenant School, in which three children and three adults were killed. They include the voices of teachers and school officials, some whispering while hiding in classrooms, closets, bathrooms and offices, as alarms rang loudly. One teacher tells an operator she is with 17 children in a classroom and hearing “so many shots.”
In another call, 76-year-old retired church member Tom Pulliam tells the dispatcher he is with a group, including several children, walking away from the Christian school. Although Pulliam remains calm, the tension and confusion of the situation are clear, with several adults speaking over each other and children’s voices in the background.
When the dispatcher requests a description of the shooter, Pulliam asks a second man to get on the line.
“All I saw was a man holding an assault rifle shooting through the door. It was — he’s currently in the second grade hallway, upstairs” the man says, noting that the assailant was dressed in camouflage.
Asked about how many shots were fired, a woman responds, “I heard about 10, and I left the building.”
Pulliam, who was driving with his wife near the church when the attack happened, told The Associated Press on Thursday that he is struggling to make sense of it. He said he mostly recalls the children and how calm they seemed, not “yelling and screaming or anything.”
“Up there for a normal day of school, these young children," he said. "Now, there’s difficult days to go through.”
In another call that started just before 10:13 a.m., a woman tells a dispatcher that she can hear a pause in the gunshots from her hiding spot in an art room closet.
Asked if it is a safe spot, the woman answers, “I think so,” as children can be heard in the background.
The teacher then says she can hear more gunshots, begging the dispatcher, “Please hurry.”
In another call, lead pastor Chad Scruggs, whose daughter was killed in the attack, identifies himself and tells the operator he’s outside the building and heading toward the gunshots.
“I’m getting calls from the inside,” he says.
One woman, who hid under a desk in a nursery, tells a dispatcher the school, which is attached to the Covenant Presbyterian Church, sometimes has some staff members carry firearms but does not have dedicated security guards.
“We do have a school person, or two, I’m not sure, who would be packing — whose job it is for security,” she says. “We don’t have security guards, but we have a staff.”
A spokesman for the police department did not immediately respond to a message asking who from the school might have been armed for security. A school spokesperson said the school didn't immediately have comment on the question.
Authorities say the attack ended when police shot and killed the assailant, a former student they identified as 28-year-old Audrey Hale.
The release of the recordings came as protesters gathered at the Tennessee Capitol to demand the Republican-led Legislature tighten gun controls.
Chants of “Save our children!” echoed in the hallways between the Senate and House chambers, with protesters setting up inside and outside the building. Some silently filled the Senate chamber's gallery, including children who held signs reading “I'm nine” — a reference to the age of the kids who died. Most protesters were removed from the gallery after some began yelling down at the lawmakers, “Children are dead!”
The three students who were killed were Evelyn Dieckhaus, Hallie Scruggs and William Kinney. The three adults were Katherine Koonce, 60, the head of the school, substitute teacher Cynthia Peak, 61, and Mike Hill, a 61-year-old custodian. Funeral plans for the six victims were announced, with the first service scheduled on Friday, for Evelyn. Evelyn’s obituary urged mourners to wear joyful colors as a tribute to her “light and love of color.”
The protests followed a Wednesday night candlelight vigil in Nashville where Republican lawmakers stood alongside first lady Jill Biden, Democratic lawmakers and musicians including Sheryl Crow. The speakers read the victims' names and offered condolences but refrained from political statements.
Absent from the vigil was Tennessee's Republican governor, Bill Lee, who has avoided public appearances this week and has not proposed any steps his administration might take in response to the shooting. Lee has been an advocate for less restrictive gun laws along with greater school security.
As with similar responses to gun violence, the state’s Republican leaders have avoided calling for tighter gun restrictions and instead have thrown their support behind bolstering school security.
In a letter to Lee, Republican Lt. Gov. Randy McNally called for securing windows and glass in school buildings, adding magnetic locks on doors, modernizing camera systems, and increasing armed guards. McNally said later that he also is in favor of red flag laws like one in Florida.
Meanwhile, Tennessee’s U.S. senators, Republicans Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty, were pushing for legislation that would create a $900 million grant program to “harden” schools and hire safety officers.
Police have said Hale drove up to the school on Monday morning, shot out the glass doors, entered and began firing indiscriminately. Metropolitan Nashville Police Chief John Drake has not said what investigators think the shooter’s motive was, only noting that the assailant didn't target specific victims and had “some resentment for having to go to that school.”
Drake said the shooter had drawn a detailed map of the school, including potential entry points, and conducted surveillance before carrying out the attack.
Police have said Hale was under a doctor’s care for an undisclosed “emotional disorder.” However, authorities haven't disclosed a link between that care and the shooting. Police also said Hale was not on their radar before the attack.
Social media accounts and other sources indicate that the shooter identified as a man and might have recently begun using the first name Aiden. Police have said Hale “was assigned female at birth” but used masculine pronouns on a social media profile. However, police have continued to use female pronouns and the name Audrey to describe Hale.
Sainz reported from Memphis. Associated Press writer Kristin M. Hall in Nashville contributed.