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Teacher recalls 'madness' of the Red Lake shootings

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Red Lake shop teacher Chris Johnson is working his way through the memories and emotions from the school shootings three weeks ago. (MPR Photo/Tom Robertson)
It's been three weeks since 16-year-old Jeff Weise went on a killing spree on the Red Lake Indian Reservation, killing 10 people including himself.

Elementary and middle school kids went back to school Monday morning. High school students and teachers returned to the high school building for a healing ceremony Monday, before classes resume Tuesday. Many teachers have been silent, at least publicly, about what they saw that day. Shop teacher Chris Johnson agreed to share his story.

St. Paul, Minn. — Chris Johnson says, emotionally, the March 21 shootings haven't hit him yet. Johnson is a pretty matter-of-fact kind of guy. He served 20 years in a National Guard infantry unit. He thinks his military training might be one reason why he's mentally processed the trauma in concrete terms.

Johnson says it hasn't been that easy for all teachers. He says some probably won't be ready to come back to school on Tuesday.

"There's some teachers that are having a real tough time. A real tough time. And they were in some of the thick of the action down there," Johnson says. "Unlike me, I had the comfort of staying in relative security, and knowing what was happening, but not being able to communicate -- these teachers were there."

Chris Johnson was in his welding shop in the old section of the school. All but one of the shootings took place in a newer section, which opened just last fall. Johnson's classroom was empty, just himself and a custodian named Tom. Johnson recalls it was maybe five minutes before 3 p.m.

"All the sudden we hear these noises. And I said, 'What in the hell was that?' And both Tom and I looked out my welding shop window," Johnson recalls. "And there is our security guy laying on the floor down the hallway, about 35 feet from our window. I swear I could have looked for a minute, thinking, 'What in the hell am I looking at? What is this?'"

Of the whole thing, that was about the worst thing I saw was all these poor kids getting stopped in the middle of the hall, at the sight of this security guy laying there at the front desk.
- Red Lake teacher Chris Johnson

The security guard was Derrick Brun. Brun, 28, was Jeff Weise's first victim at the school. Other accounts say Brun acted heroically at his front-door post. But he wasn't moving when Chris Johnson saw him. Johnson called 911 but got a busy signal. His next move was to lock down his classroom and turn out the lights. That's what Red Lake teachers were trained to do in a drill a few years ago.

At that point, Johnson stepped out of his classroom door into the hallway. A bunch of kids from a room across the hall were peering out, looking to see what was going on. Johnson says he screamed at them to get back in and close the door.

"And then I could hear, bam bam bam, bam bam bam bam, shooting down the hall and someone was rapid-firing. And the first thing I thought, 'Oh man, someone's getting it down there, someone's getting it.' And I got back in my room," says Johnson. "The only thing I could think of was, what can I do? And walking down the halls wasn't one of my options."

Johnson realized he could escape from the building or stay put. He decided then to stay, if only to watch the hallway and make sure the kids across the hall were safe. Then a few more gunshots rang out.

Johnson says he's pretty sure the first police officers walked through the main entrance within five minutes of the initial shots. Not knowing where the shooter was, officers headed toward his welding shop. Johnson waved them off and sent them to the south end of the school.

"They got around the corner, and no more than a minute later I could hear their weapons going off," says Johnson. "And these were different reports, from a different type of weapon, and the first thing I thought was, 'They got him. They got him, or they're engaging, one or the other.' And I thought, 'All right, we're probably secure down at this end.'"

At that point, Johnson helped evacuate the nearby classroom. He says the kids went screaming through his shop, and out the back door.

Johnson stayed behind alone, and waited. The shooting had stopped. Soon paramedics began coming in. Kids were being hustled out of the building.

"All these kids, some covered with blood, stopped right at Derrick's body, screaming hysterically. And I wanted to yell at them, 'Just keep going, just keep going.' But the gal that was with them, the teacher, she shoved and pushed and kicked all those kids over Derrick and got them all out the building," Johnson recalls.

"Of the whole thing, that was about the worst thing I saw was all these poor kids getting stopped in the middle of the hall, at the sight of this security guy laying there at the front desk," he says.

Johnson considered Derrick Brun his friend. He'd talked to him just minutes before the shooting began. Johnson found a fire blanket in his welding shop and made sure the paramedics covered Brun's body.

Johnson said it was a strange scene outside, where teachers and students, still in shock, began to gather.

"We all headed out to the front of the building and just stood, like, I can't believe what just happened," he says. "And this all happened in 10 minutes. You know, it was just madness."

Chris Johnson says standing outside with the others, he had three very distinct thoughts. The first was how good it felt to breathe the fresh, crisp afternoon air. The second was how glad he was to be alive.

"I don't know where this one came from, but the last one was, I never want to have another drink of alcohol again in my life," he says. "I was thinking about how clearly I was thinking. It was like an epiphany for me."

Johnson says in a way, that last thought made sense. He'd struggled with a drinking problem for several years, and had been sober for eight months. For Johnson, the events of March 21 sealed the deal.

Since the day of the shootings, Johnson says he's been exhausted. He's slept a lot, taking long naps during the day -- unusual behavior for him.

Johnson says teachers have each reacted differently to the trauma.

"Other people have said they haven't been able to sleep or have difficulty sleeping. Me, I can't remember what day it is, and what the date is," he says. "That's what I've noticed in this whole thing, it's like one day flows right into the next."

Johnson says he's ready to get back to school. He wants to get his students busy on shop projects they left behind three weeks ago. He believes that will be therapeutic for him, and for the kids.

No one knows what to expect Tuesday, when classes resume on a half-day schedule at the high school. The big question is whether students will show up, or whether they'll stay away.