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?