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'You're gonna pay for this'

First responders, school staff train in wake of Newtown

Editor's note: Whiteside County law enforcement and emergency medical personnel held an active shooter drill at Sterling High School on Tuesday afternoon. Sauk Valley Media reporter Kayla Heimerman wrote a minute-by-minute account of the event, and photographer Alex T. Paschal captured images at the scene. Participants treated the drill as much as they could as if it was a real shooting.

STERLING – 12:59 p.m. The hallway is quiet.

1 p.m. Three shots. A scream. Another shot. "What happened?" Two more shots. "You're gonna pay for this. The whole town is gonna pay for this."

A classroom straight through a set of heavy metal double doors and to the left must be where the shooter is holding students hostage.

The hallway suddenly is filled with tension – a palpable electricity – with fear. 

1:01 p.m. A line of police officers and sheriff's deputies flow into the hallway. They have protective glasses, bulletproof vests and steel-toed boots on. Their guns are drawn.

"Go! Go! Go!" the leader blares. "Injury left. Injury right," he notes as he passes two students, both boys, maybe juniors or seniors, slumped against the wall.

1:02 p.m. A scream. Shouting. A scream again. "You're gonna pay," the shooter shouts.

1:03 p.m. Two shots – this time from much farther away, and from another shooter, based on their volume. More screams.

A staticky "shots fired" call comes over the radios clipped to the belts of the officers and deputies who now come back down the hallway. They pass a boy, bleeding from his head, crumpled up behind a door, and a girl, bleeding from her left leg, splayed out under a table.

1:04 p.m. A sheriff's deputy, distinguished by his brown uniform, bends down to talk to one of the boys slumped against the wall.

"Are we clear?" he asks the officers, who are peering into classrooms.

"Is there another shooter around here?" he asks the boy, who is bleeding from his abdomen, his gray T-shirt wet and bloodstained.

1:05 p.m. The other boy slumped against the wall in the hallway cries out to the officers and deputies as they march toward the exit door, away from the scene.

"You gotta help us!"

1:06 p.m. The boys crawl toward the exit to waiting emergency personnel. They are among the few "walking wounded" who are capable of escaping the carnage.

1:07 p.m. Now a tactical team bursts through the door and makes its way down the hallway. Faces barely visible beneath their helmets, they wear protective glasses and masks that cover their chins and necks. Their guns are drawn.

The seven TRT officers get into a diamond formation and march down the hallway around the corner. They check the classrooms one by one, hunting for the shooters and assessing the injured, and worse, the dead.

1:08 p.m. A shot. The tactical team rushes down the hallway, based on the sound of their clunky footsteps on the tile floor.

1:10 p.m. It's quiet, but only for a moment, then screams erupt. "Someone help! Someone please help!" More screams, followed by panicked cries.

1:11 p.m. "Put your hands up. Put them behind your head. Stand up." The tactical team must have found the second shooter. There's a lone shot.

1:13 p.m. The buzz among the officers is that both shooters are dead. Cries for help still are coming from classrooms.

1:14 p.m. Most of the wounded are out of the hallways. Those left – maybe a half-dozen students – are dead.

1:15 p.m. An ambulance pulls up outside the exit door at the end of the hallway, now streaked with blood.

1:16 p.m. Paramedics carry out one of the last wounded students on a stretcher. They take him to a triage area across the street, where three colored tarps are laid out – one green, one yellow and one red.

1:18 p.m. A girl, who looks to be a freshman, sobbing and almost hyperventilating, walks toward the exit door as if in a trance. A waiting paramedic stops her; he asks about her injuries, then directs her outside.

1:22 p.m. Paramedics wheel injured students on stretchers away from the triage area and into waiting ambulances.

1:34 p.m. The tactical team finally exits the school.

A lesson in teamwork

STERLING – It was only a test. It was over in 34 minutes.

But it was an effective lesson on quick response, good communication and teamwork.

Whiteside County law enforcement and emergency medical personnel, along with school administrators and staff, participated in a shooting drill at Sterling High School on Tuesday afternoon.

The drill was aimed at training local first responders for a possible school shooting in light of the Newtown, Conn., shooting in December, Regional Superintendent Bob Sondgeroth said.

More than 50 school personnel, including principals, secretaries and custodians, attended classroom training in the morning. They learned their roles in responding to various shooting scenarios within a school.

Dozens of sheriff's deputies and police officers, including the tactical team, as well as firefighters and paramedics then carried out the active shooter drill in the afternoon. They responded as they really would in such a situation.

The school personnel watched the drill via closed-circuit TV.

The drill portion of the daylong training was to acquaint school staff with the reality of a possible school shooting, said Sterling Police Chief Ron Potthoff, who led the drill.

"We wanted to give them an idea of what they might experience," Potthoff said. "It's going to be over in a few seconds or a few minutes. There might be many casualties. The officers who come into the building might not tend to victims because they have to neutralize the shooter."

The drill Tuesday was the first time law enforcement and emergency medical personnel teamed up to practice their response to a crisis, Potthoff said. It was as much good practice for those agencies as it was for the school staff, he said.

Such drills aim to demonstrate how all involved must communicate well and work together smoothly to respond in an emergency, Potthoff added.

The Whiteside County Emergency Preparedness Task Force organized the drill.

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