Thursday, September 20, 2012

Shooting at Woodland Hills High School: 20 Years Later

20 years ago tomorrow and over 6 years before Columbine, there was a shooting at Woodland Hills High School just outside of Pittsburgh. Fortunately, what could have been a life-changing event for thousands of people turned out to be a minor footnote at least for me. On Monday, September 21, 1992, I was in first period chemistry class extremely overwhelmed by the material. Although the bell rang to switch classes, my chemistry teacher, Mr. Nelson, didn't dismiss us immediately either to finish the lesson or to assign us homework. With only a few minutes to get to the next class and no flexibility from most teachers if you're late, you always wanted to leave immediately after the bell rang, particularly when you heard other students in the hall.

On this day though, the sounds of people walking and talking in the hall were interrupted by five loud popping sounds directly outside my classroom. To me, it sounded like balloons popping. It was not balloons. Either Mr. Nelson saw what was happening or was familiar with the sound of gunfire and immediately closed the door and put a rolling cart with a TV in front of the door. Although I remember the pops, I don't recall hearing any screams.


While we had no idea what was happening or happened outside the classroom, Mr. Nelson made sure that we didn’t go near the door. Although my memory about this event 20 years ago is a little fuzzy, I believe that he called the front office to let them know that he heard what could have been gunfire. My guess is that he knew what was going on but didn’t want to alarm us too much.

What did happen was that a sophomore (I think I remember the name, but I don’t want to write it here in case I’m incorrect) brought a gun into school and tried to shoot a specific person. Amazingly, in a crowded hallway he only hit one person and it wasn't the person he was attempting to shoot. He did shoot my classmate Rich who was coming from the physics classroom next door. The gunman then ran down the stairwell and exited the school.

At some point, maybe a few minutes later, maybe 30 minutes later, someone from the office announced what happened. The only thing I vividly remember from that day was that the office said this was a dispute that occurred outside school. For some reason, I thought this meant literally outside the school which was just down the street from my home. It was at this point that I started freaking out a bit until a classmate told me to shut up. That worked.

The gunman was caught later that day, and obviously, never returned to Woodland Hills High School. Meanwhile, I don’t remember what happened to us the rest of the day. I don’t think we got excused early, but no one was focused on learning and lessons that day. No one had cell phones and there certainly wasn’t internet at school in 1992, so most of what we discussed was rumors and theories. All of the local TV stations arrived at the school, so I got most of my information from watching the news that evening. Within a couple of days, the school installed metal detectors. Actually, I think that there was just one metal detector on the first day, and the school administration wanted 1000+ students to go through it. That plan didn’t work well since it was impossible for everyone to go through and start class on time.

Twenty years later, there’s not really much to discuss. Rich was shot in the shoulder, but returned to school on Wednesday, only two days later. A friend believes that the shooter died several years ago. Meanwhile, besides this minor synopsis (subscription required), I can’t find anything online about the incident since Pittsburgh’s two major newspapers at the time, the Pittsburgh Press and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, were both on strike.

If any fellow Woodland Hills classmates are reading this, please feel free to share your thoughts about the shooting in the comments section below. Is there anything that I’m missing? What were your experiences that day?

20 comments:

Mr. Brame said...

Wow. What a terrifying story. I'm glad your chemistry teacher was so quick on his feet.

D Luv said...

Wow... 20 years ago... I remember this day, although it's very vague. I was at the other end of the school, I think, and I never heard the gunshots. I also remember speculating as to what was going on. I do not remember the name of the shooter either.

I do remember the first day of the metal detectors, and what a fiasco that was, with all of us in line outside waiting to get in. They finally gave up, after what seemed like forever, and let us all into school because it was taking so long. After that, they would randomly have us go through the detectors, wand some of us, and also randomly checked backpacks... a very memorable time in our senior year...

Unknown said...

I was in the physics class (across the hall I believe) with Rich and actually left class on time. I remember making the left to walk to the end of the hall and then down the stairs. I also, vividly, remember looking to my right at the top of the stairs and seeing a punk point a silver handgun down the hall. After that I just remember bolting down the stairs and making a beeline for the music department. The shooter did end up passing me again on the lower level floor as he fled the school. After that, I mostly remember normalcy. No one had ever dealt with something like this before. Classes resume, I made a quick call home to let them know what had happened and that I was OK, and then all the rumors started. I too remember the first few days of disorganized chaos with the few metal detectors..and the new normal of lines into school.

Thanks for the flashback Sean. Hadn't thought of that one in a while.

Jennifer Wyatt said...

Wow. No kidding about the flashback. I have thought about this incident many times in the past 20 years, but never has it been so vivid in my own mind, until reading your story. What a scary day that was. The only thing going through my head was that I hoped Jon (my brother) was ok. -- Jennifer Stivanson

Anonymous said...

I do not remember much of that day but I do remember how school changed after that day...metal detectors...bookbag searches....we lost a bit of our innocence and security that day.

Anonymous said...

The shooter is still very much alive to this day.

Anonymous said...

I sat next to the gunman in home room - never would have guessed that he was going to do that morning.....

Beth said...

Wow...I remember that day very well. I was not near the incident, but my classmates coming in to our next class told me. I was in complete shock that something like this could happen. I never knew until reading this, that the gunman attended our school. I thought they had said it was an outsider. And yes, the dreaded metal detectors...... I will never forget that day. I was a junior in shock!

Michael said...

I was walking with Rich when it happend. Such a surreal experience. Thank goodness that no one was seriously hurt and Rich was back in action in a couple of days. Thanks for posting. It's nice to share the memory with other people who were there.

Robbie Meigs said...

Hey Sean, I was also in the same physics class with Rich and left before him and went left into the stairwell. At the time I thought some A-hole was lighting fire crackers, people were screaming and pushing down the steps. I never saw the gun. When the guy brushed passed me by on the first floor, I thought for a second to grab the jerk. Thank god I did not do that! One of the Chemistry / Physics teachers then pushed passed a lot of the kids following behind the shooter. I would have to look at a year book to try and remember which teacher it was. Since I was walking to the music rooms, I saw the shooter head straight out the front door to the school and the run out to the right and towards the hill to the main entrance off of the pike. Probably towards your old home SJ.

I talked to Rich sometime after his shoulder healed at a party. The .22 caliber was still in his shoulder and wasn't going to be removed. He said the shooter yelled at the sophomore/freshman that had an altercation with him over the weekend. He pulled the gun out and people started to scatter. He said the guy fired shots into the air and one ricocheted of the ceiling / light and then hit him in the shoulder.

I remember being told and it being reported that the shooter was from the wilkinsburgh high school and the kid he got in a fight with went to woodland hills. I just remember the guy was tall and sported a short 'fro. I didn't thing the gunman was from whys, but someone posted above that the guy was I homeroom with him.

This also reminds me its 18 years since Richie Snell was shot and killed at this time of year. He was a good guy and I remember meeting him in 2nd grade at schafer. I forgot the day his dad died when we were young and in school until Paul Meier reminded me after Richie's death.

Robbie Meigs said...

One more thing, I think it was Liam (I could be wrong but it seemed like he was always the last one out of any class) that said he was still gathering up his this and was oblivious to what happened in the hall way. He got up to leave the room and saw Rich holding his shoulder bleeding, at that point realizing something unusual was happening that day.

Bryan Lichius said...

Rich was and still one of my best friends. We occasionally talk about that day. I was on my was to see him as I was the other end of the hallway when I heard the pops. My 1st though was someone had some part poppers, the ones confetti flies out when you pull the string. When I got to that end of the hallway I was one of the last in the hallway and saw a shot out florescent light and thought that had exploded. At that point a teacher was screaming at me to get into the room. When I did I saw Rich standing there with blood all over his shirt and thought he got hit from the glass from the light. I asked him about it and he said he got shot. We went to see him at the hospital and Sally Wiggen had just got done interviewing him. It's hard to believe the was 20 years ago.

Wendy Catalano said...

I had Mr. Nelson either the period after you had him, I think. I was in a different part of the school when the shooting happened and I don't think I got the complete story until I got up to his class. Mr. Nelson was still pretty shaken up by what had happened... Somebody had asked him what had happened and he told us, but he didn't mention what he had done to protect you guys.

They didn't dismiss us early that day, if I can recall. Wow, it was neat to hear your account of it, Sean!

Sean said...

Thanks to everyone for sharing their thoughts and memories of that day.

Wendy - To your last point, I couldn't see Mr. Nelson boasting to anyone about what he did. I'm sure he just saw it as his job and responsibility.

Bryan - I didn't realize (or forgot) that Rich got interviewed by Sally Wiggin. That's a minor consolation.

Rob - I agree that Rich was a good guy. It's still sad that his life was taken way too soon.

Sean said...

If anyone is confused by my last comment to Rob, I was refering to Rich Snell. The Rich that got shot is thankfully still alive.

Anonymous said...

I was in the same chemistry class that day. I do remember Mr. Nelson kept us over after the bell rang to change periods. Then, I heard what I thought were books dropping in the hallway but then I saw people start to run. I saw Rich take it in the shoulder right before Mr. Nelson closed the door. We were watching some sort of video that day because he then pushed the TV/VCR stand in front of the door. Funny, didn't even think about the fact we didn't even get out of school early that day.

Hope all is well with everyone.

-Jason

Anonymous said...

I wasn't there at the time of the shooting because I was late that day. I can remember being on my way to my locker, which happened to be right around the scene of the shooting. I can still se Mr. Ladick running down the steos screaming he's got a gun, run! I ran back doen the stairs and hid ariund them. I don't remember seeing the gunman cause I was too scared to look. I do however remember the metal detectors first day at the highschool. It was hell trying to get 1000 of us thru them and to class on time. It's kind of ironic because I was just talking to my fiance about it tonight and decided to see what I could find on it.

Sterling Stone said...

I remember this day well. But what I found more sickening was the response. Do you remember the shoulder target shirts? Do you remember the metal detectors for "every 6th person" entering the building. (I, for some reason or another, was always the 6th person for about 2 years. Sometimes the rent-a-cop guards couldn't count, cause they would go from 1 to 6.) Do you remember it being a joke? Sad part is that if someone would have payed attention, maybe, just maybe, there would be another shooting on the anniversary of this shootong.

Mark V. said...

Several years before the shooting, I witnessed the shooter beat up a girl at West Jr. High in the cafeteria. Apparently the girl threw something, maybe a french fry, at a friend at her table and it accidentally hit him. He lost it and started beating up this girl. He also may have threw a chair or two if I recall correctly. In hindsight, they should have expelled him back then.

Anonymous said...

I was walking down the science hall upstairs toward the foreign language rooms...I was with a classmate just past the bathrooms and we heard the gunfire. It was a little weird...we thought someone was getting paddled. He was screaming as if it were him getting paddled. Then we were shuffled into a chemistry room where we sat for what it seemed to be forever. Mr. Sockman addressed the school and the day went on. I'm sitting here thinking why I was in that hall. And why was I with who I was with. I have to figure out what class I had first period. Anyway...I remember watching the news later that evening and there was a girl from school interviewed and she said, "mr. Sockman says its safe here. But I don't feel safe." Then the debauchery that was the metal detectors...holy shit that was a nightmare!