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‘We have to do something’: Florida lawmakers tour Parkland school

Legislators are faced with a state tragedy unprecedented in its scope while they are in the middle of their 60-day session. The question: before them is What will they do?
Broward Sheriff Deputy units are seen behing Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland on Thursday. [Joe Cavaretta | Sun Sentinel/TNS]
Published Feb. 17, 2018

The images haunt Wilton Simpson.

The state senator, developer, and egg farmer from Trilby came to Building 12 at Stoneman Douglas High School Thursday with a small entourage of lawmakers. They wanted to get a first-hand look at what happened when 17 students and faculty were gunned down by a former student at the school.

"It could have been a killing field," recalled Simpson, the Senate Republican leader in an interview with the Times/Herald. He recalled how detectives described the movements of killer Nikolas Cruz as he shot his way through the freshman building.

Blood spattered the hallways, bullet holes pierced the walls. Books and papers were strewn everywhere. Textbooks sat open on the desks. And in the midst of it all were the bullet casings.

But when Simpson was asked to describe what the students went through, he lost his composure.

"It was horrific,'' he said through sobs.

Simpson, along with Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who will become Senate president next year, and Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, and Sen. Kevin Rader, D-Delray Beach, met with police to visit the high school at the urging of Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation.

"I told them if we are ever going to change anything, they need to see it and look at it,'' Book said. "We have three more weeks in this legislative session. We have to do something."

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, and Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, joined Book and Rep. Jared Moskowitz, D-Coral Springs, for a similar visit Thursday. Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, made a visit with Book and others on Friday.

In a rare confluence of events, legislators are faced with a state tragedy unprecedented in its scope while they are in the middle of their 60-day session. The question: before them is What will they do?

Galvano and Simpson said Friday they heard from students and their families that they never want to return to the site of the shootings. Lawmakers have agreed to have the state help replace Building 12, the site of the massacre, with a new classroom space and a memorial to honor the victims and their families.

"It's frozen like a snapshot in my mind,'' Galvano said. "I won't forget what I saw. You can fill in your mind the panic that must have been going on."

"Everything is frozen in time,'' Book said. "The bikes are all chained up. The cars are still there. There is homework everywhere: papers, pens and pencils. The binders are still open. There are carnations sticking in backpacks because it was Valentine's Day. There are Valentine's cards in the hallway. It takes your breath away."

They described how police walked them through the shooter's time line: How Cruz entered through a stairwell near the parking lot, shot through the windows of a locked classroom on the first floor, and took aim at the students crouched in the corner. Five students in one classroom. Three in another.

They spoke of the brave 14-year-old who opened the door to the stairwell on the third floor to help others escape and then became the target of a hail of bullets.

And they imagined the horror of what could have been — when the gunman attempted to shoot out the hurricane-proof windows of the third-floor teacher's lounge over the courtyard, in an apparent effort to have a sniper's vantage point to gun down hundreds of students fleeing below.

Cruz fired several rounds, but the windows wouldn't break, so the gunman dropped his rifle on the stairwell, removed his flak vest to reveal his "Stoneman Douglas" sweatshirt, and went outside where he joined the parade of fleeing students streaming onto the football field, the legislators said. He had five 30-round magazines that were not used, the lawmakers said. He could have continued to shoot.

"If he had been able to breach those windows, he would have had hundreds of more victims,'' Simpson said.

Some of the lawmakers said they choked up when they came to a pool of dark blood where Aaron Feis, the football coach who died after shielding students from the gunman, was found. A white piece of photo tape marked where his head had lain. A gray piece of tape marked his feet. A heartbreaking trail of blood showed how he had pulled himself outside before collapsing.

Cruz was armed with dozens of rounds of ammunition, police told them, but it was "very cheap ammunition," Braynon said. "Because there are no clean holes."

The resulting carnage was brutal and horrifying, Book said. "There is blood everywhere and the drag marks of the blood."

Galvano said he recalls telling Simpson: "It feels like we're walking on a graveyard."

But lawmakers said they are ready to take action beyond replacing the building and erecting a memorial.

"I'm not prepared to offer condolences without having some additional action,'' Galvano said. "It happens too often. Enough is enough."

Negron released a statement saying he would focus on three priorities for the remainder of the session: provide more resources to schools to identify and treat those suffering from mental illness, increase the funding to schools for security and armed guards, and strengthen the state's weapons background check laws to "make certain those suffering from mental illness do not have access to firearms."

Book said she plans to "keep the pressure on" her Republican colleagues. At one point during her visit on Thursday, she said, as they stepped into a hallway of the now-abandoned school, she reached down to pick up one of the papers fluttering on the ground.

"How a bill becomes a law,'' it read.

For the students who fled, it was just a remnant of their frantic and panicked exodus. To Book it was a poignant reminder of what she and her colleagues are supposed to do.

"Who would we be if we didn't remember what this is supposed to be?'' she said. "I needed them to see the horror. So now if nothing is done, that's on them."

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