Jonesboro massacre: 'The kids were sitting ducks ... they were screamin g to be let back inside'

David Usborne in Jonesboro reports on the day horror came to the playground
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IT WAS 12.41pm on Tuesday when the normal happy routine at the Westside Middle School, just outside Jonesboro, was first interrupted. Fire alarms sounded throughout the school. Just as they had been instructed in numerous drills, the children, aged 11 to 13, got up from their desks, and, with their teachers, filed calmly outside the school's doors and began to line up on a narrow concrete path outside.

It was barely a minute later when the county sheriff's office got the first call - "Guns fired at Westside School. Come at once." By then, however, the horror was already under way. Pupils and teachers were falling to the ground, blood was spilling on to the walkway and on to the manicured grass on either side. Bullets zinged into the breeze-block wall of the gym, by the pavement.

Cutting the children and teachers down was a ruthless rain of bullets, coming from wooded higher ground just 100 yards away. The source of the gunfire, according to numerous witnesses, was two boys, standing on the bluff. Dressed from head to toe in camouflage gear - the kind that so many fathers and sons wear on hunting expeditions in the surrounding countryside at weekends - they were firing Rambo-style with an array of weapons, including high-velocity rifles and handguns. With an estimated nine guns between them, the pair let off 27 shots.

The panic was instant. But, unable to digest what was happening to them, some of the children at first believed the fire drill was being turned into a fun theatre event by members of the drama class. Only when the blood started to spill did they begin to understand.

"Kids started clapping, they thought it was a play," 13-year-old April Stevens said later, "and everybody started running around." April is one of many children still trying to grasp what happened in those seconds. And how close she herself came to being hit.

"I saw my friends go down and my teacher go down," she said. Holding her fingers just inches from her head she went on: "A bullet came right by me. It went by my ear and I heard the sound of it." One teacher, Shannon Wright, 32, at that moment committed the most heroic act of the day. Seeing that one of her pupils, Emma Pittman, was directly in the line of fire, she stood in front of the girl to shield her. Mrs Wright, believed to have been pregnant, took the bullets herself and was fatally wounded.

What Mrs Wright did to protect the girl was described by another child, Amber Vanoven. "This guy was aiming at her [Emma]. He was fixing to shoot her. Mrs Wright moved out in front of her. And she got shot. She died. I sat and watched her."

There was nowhere for the children to take shelter. This is a modern school, built only three years ago, and the fire- alarm system has a special feature; once the children are out of the school, all the doors automatically lock behind them. As the bullets kept coming, running back inside for sanctuary was not an option.

"The kids were sitting ducks," cried one mother, Twyla Clevinger, who was among the first of the terrified parents to come rushing in their cars to the school. "They were screaming to people inside to open up the doors and the guns kept going off."

The scar of Tuesday's killings will remain with Jonesboro for a generation, but the act of terror itself was brief. In less than four minutes police and paramedic teams were streaming on to the sprawling campus, which also accommodates the local high and elementary schools.

The accused boys had begun fleeing into the woods and towards a white van parked several hundred yards away. As they ran, however, they were brought to the ground by sprinting police officers. The van was found to contain more weapons.

Back at the school, the pandemonium continued. Children, rushing around in confusion, unsure where to go, found themselves witnesses to scenes of gore no adult would wish to see in their lifetime. So appalling were some of the injuries, even those who tried to treat them were still unable yesterday to speak about what they saw without their voices choking.

Paramedics and the surviving teachers began herding the screaming children into the gym, the only building where the doors were unlocked. The pavement and the grassy area around it became an instant hospital unit. The dead were sorted from the injured. A few moments later, the first of many ambulances arrived to ferry the wounded to St Bernard's hospital, where long-rehearsed public emergency procedures had already been activated.

By the evening, when the first of the media satellite lorries began swarming into the area, the awfulness of the afternoon was already being tidied away. As police measured and tagged bullet holes in gym wall, weeping school staff laboured with bleach and mops to remove the bloodstains from the path.

As darkness came, the first tributes to the dead began to arrive, bouquets of flowers, giant white ribbons and smaller ribbons and pins that by yesterday all of Jonesboro was wearing in mourning on dresses and jacket lapels.

The impossible dream: America without guns, page 21