TUCSON, AZ (KOLD News 13) - When the family of Wildcat gymnast Heather Swanson moved from North Lauderdale to Parkland, it was because of the school system. The district was well-rated. It was also small, and its size was a good indicator about the closeness of the community.
“It was very safe,” said Swanson. “I never felt like I was in danger of anything. Everyone just knew each other. Nothing bad ever happened growing up.”
The district is home to three elementary schools, one middle school, and one high school. Marjory Stoneman Douglas. Named after the famous writer and outspoken political activist, the high school campus has a student body of just over 3,000. They are students who, for the most part, have known each other all their lives.
“You see friendly faces everywhere. Everyone knows everyone. It’s just reassuring to see them all the time.
Stoneman Douglas’ mascot is an eagle. The motto is, “Once an eagle, always an eagle.”
“We’re always supporting each other,” said Swanson. “Whether you’re alumni from 2000 or graduating this year, we’re all family.”
Prior to Feb. 14, 2018, Stoneman Douglas resembled any other typical high school with its courtyard, its buildings and portables, its green grass, its fence, and parking lot. These days, however, the campus looks different.
“The whole fence is covered in banners saying anything about the 17.”
17. As in the number of students and faculty gunned down when a shooter opened fire on that February 14th.
“It was just something so shocking,” said Swanson. “That this even could happen in my home, in my hometown. Somewhere I had never felt unsafe before.”
That Valentine’s Day was a Wednesday. Here in Tucson, it was an off-day for the Arizona junior which meant she didn’t have gymnastics practice. Instead, Swanson was at home with roommates, watching television, when the first text message arrived.
“My family has a group chat,” said Swanson. “My younger brother, the one who was in school that day, he was like, ‘There’s a shooter on campus.’ I’m like, ‘Excuse me? What do you mean?’”
16-year-old Gary was in the Culinary Arts building when the screaming began.
“Kids just started piling in his classroom,” said Swanson. “They were shutting doors. He remembers all the loud gunshots.”
2,000 miles away, Swanson sat helpless, glued to every screen that could give updates.
“I called my parents. Turned the news on right away. Everything was being shown.”
The only relief came in the form of Gary’s texts because Gary’s texts meant he was still alive.
“He just kept saying, ‘I love you,’ in the messages in case anything happened,” said Swanson. “I felt useless. There’s nothing I could do. I just had to pray and hope that whatever damage happened, it was as limited as could be.”
The damage, however, was significant. 17 lives taken too soon. Enough to classify Stoneman Douglas one of the top ten worst mass shootings in United States history.
“One of my teammates, Alex Greenwald, one of her lifetime best friends was a swimmer named Nicholas. He was killed in that as well. And she just completely…” she paused. “I don’t even know how to explain it. I can’t imagine having that happen. I can’t imagine my family without my brother. It just wouldn’t be the same.”
While Gary Swanson survived, the truth is nothing has been the same for Parkland, Florida since that day. Though these days, light breaks through the darkness.
“I love the community,” said Swanson. “How everyone’s so close now. It was a tragic event, but people are coming back from it and they’re making a difference any way they can.
Like in the form of a song. Shortly after the shooting, two Stoneman Douglas drama students, Sawyer Garrity and Andrea Peña, wrote a piano ballad called Shine.
“We’re singing for those 17,” Peña told the South Florida Sun Sentinel. “To sing to those 17 and sing for all of the victims of any school shooting, that’s what it’s really about for us.”
Swanson uses the song when she performs the uneven bars during Wildcat gymnastics meets.
“It goes, ‘You’re not going to knock us down. We’ll get back up again,’” said Swanson. “I think that’s true for all life. You can have something bad happen to you but it’s how you overcome it and what you make of yourself after it that matters.”
Twelve months after the shooting, what matters most for Heather Swanson is ensuring the memories of the Parkland 17 live on.
“The number 17 means not to take what you have for granted,” she said. “I try to be more connected with my family and friends. And remember I’m lucky to have them with me. Because things could be different.”
In a small city like Parkland, Florida, in a close student community like Stoneman Douglas High School, the connection between family and friends is everything. In the face of unspeakable tragedy, it’s the only thing. Thankfully, it seems the Stoneman Douglas family remains strong. For as the motto goes, once an eagle, always an eagle.
“I feel blessed to be from there.”