NIU Massacre Remembered One Year Later

Cole Hall, site of shootings, remains shuttered, empty, unchanged

Sunday, Feb 15, 2009  |  Updated 12:58 PM CDT
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NIU: Forward Together Forward

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NIU student says a prayer in front of a memorial to slain students.

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NIU shootings: One Year Later

The families of NIU shooting victims share their memories and heartbreak. Alex Perez visits with the Garcia and the Mace family one year later.
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When Maria Ruiz-Santana talks about the day a suicidal gunman shot her in the throat during her geology class at Northern Illinois University, she sounds as if she's describing a nightmare from long ago.

"It feels like it happened to me years and years ago," said a calm, upbeat Ruiz-Santana, 21, who was among the 25 people shot in the Cole Hall lecture.

But in reality, it's just been one year.

On Feb. 14, 2008 Steven Kazmierczak fatally shot five students before turning the gun on himself. 

During a day of planned events on the NIU campus to mark the anniversary, families and students stopped to remember and hoped to move forward.

Kazmierczak's victims and their families have found different ways to cope. Some, like Ruiz-Santana, found closure in a visit to the still-closed Cole Hall. Joe Dubowski has left his late daughter Gayle's bedroom just as it was that day. Harold Ng, who was struck in the head by shotgun pellets, has turned to his faith.

"There's an anxiousness," Scott Peska, director of NIU's Office of Support and Advocacy, said of the nearly 25,000-member student body. "The whole campus, they're remembering how they were impacted."

Ruiz-Santana, who previously wanted a career in law enforcement, wants to be a police officer and even interned with the NIU campus police last semester. She wants to help victims of mass shootings and is considering getting a gun license.

"I'm not afraid of guns even after what happened to me," she said.

After Ruiz-Santana was shot, she lay bleeding and gasping for air in the lecture hall aisle. She heard gunshot blasts and saw the gunman's feet walk past her.

"Even when I was there just laying on the floor, it was just so unreal," she said.

Then after a few minutes, the shooting stopped. Later, the authorities arrived.

Ruiz-Santana credits NIU police chief Don Grady with saving her life that Valentine's Day. He held her hand and talked to her to keep her from going into shock.

"He keeps denying it, but I still believe he is my hero," Ruiz-Santana said. "I don't know if I would have been here if it wasn't for him."

It also was Grady who took Ruiz-Santana and her parents into Cole Hall just two months after the shootings. Visiting Cole Hall meant convincing herself that it actually happened, she said, that she survived and had put it behind her.

Grady said he's taken 10 groups of people into Cole Hall this past year.

"I do ask if it's something they're certain they want to do," Grady said. "It's not the easiest thing to go in there."

Walking into Cole Hall brought Ruiz-Santana flashbacks of when Kazmierczak stepped on to the lecture hall's stage and started firing.

"I wanted to go back because I felt that was the way for me to heal completely, emotionally," she said. "Right after I got out of the room I felt like it was over. The doors are closed. Let's move on."

That attitude is why Ruiz-Santana will be successful in whatever she chooses, including police work, Grady said.

"She's refused to let this event define her," Grady said. "She's very grounded and she's very focused."

Ruiz-Santana also has let go of any resentment toward Kazmierczak.

"I was mad and I was really upset and I just wanted to scream from the top of my lungs," she said. "But there's no reason for me to be angry with him if there's nothing I can do about it."

But Joe Dubowski is still angry. His only daughter -- Gayle Dubowski, 20, a talented singer and pianist -- was killed in the shootings.

Her family has been in counseling and Joe Dubowski said talking through the grief has helped some, but he's still looking for answers. Kazmierczak left no suicide note and took steps to hide his motive, authorities said.

"Part of the anger that I feel toward the shooter is that he denied the world any exploration of what he did or what he was going through," Joe Dubowski said. "He denied the world an opportunity for forgiveness."

Gayle Dubowski's bedroom in the family's Carol Stream home remains just as she left it.

"As time goes by it will be time to give (some of her) things away," Dubowski said. "It's kind of a touchy thing still."

NIU presented the Dubowskis with their daughter's degree at commencement ceremonies last spring. Hundreds stood to cheer as her name was read. Moments like that help bring Joe Dubowski closure. But there are tough days.

"It just strikes me of the growing distance between the present and the last time I saw my daughter," Dubowski said.

Also killed that day were Catalina Garcia, 20; Julianna Gehant, 32; Ryanne Mace, 19; and Daniel Parmenter, 20.

Harold Ng, 22 is a communications major who was shot in the back of his head. He's trying to move past the attack, but says attending any anniversary memorials may be too painful.

His scars -- both physical and emotional -- remain. Recently his mom commented on the marks on his scalp while giving him a haircut. Ng's mind also spins when he thinks about how he could have died that day.

"I've always had those questions," he said. "What if it was me? Why was I lucky?"

Since the shootings, Ng also said he's followed through on some of his life passions, like becoming a worship leader at the Baptist Campus Ministry.

"(The shootings) gave me the motivation to do things I wouldn't normally do, get involved more," Ng said.

Baptist campus minister Rene Gorbold said Ng has changed.

"He's still a fun, goofy person," she said. "But there's a much more serious side to him that I didn't necessarily see before."

Yet all of the NIU family has changed, with everyone recovering in their own way, on their own time.

As for Ruiz-Santana, she feels that she enjoys life more.

"It's helped me be more mature than what I was before," she said. "It just makes me a better person."

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