Debbie Monterrey’s cell phone screen flashed three times in a matter of minutes. The St. Louis-based KMOX radio host was interviewing a March of Dimes representative for a segment on baby safety when her teenage daughter began broadcasting frantic texts in all caps.
“Oh my god, there’s an intruder in the building,” was the first message from 17-year-old Caeli, a senior at the Collegiate School of Medicine and Bioscience in St. Louis.
As a veteran journalist, Monterrey’s first instinct was not to panic. Let’s not jump to conclusions, she thought. I’m sure it’s ok – probably a false alarm. But then more texts came.
“OMG, IT’S NOT EXERCISE”
“OMG, THE ALARMS WILL GO OFF”
Monterrey responded to Caeli, who described a barrage of punches and screams. The police were everywhere and the teenager told her mother she was scared. Meanwhile the studio was dead and the guest stared at Monterrey – now it was her turn to ask a question.
“At this point, I’m just trying to keep it together,” Monterrey told the Washington Post. “Nobody knows what’s going on but me. And then I looked up at the TV in the studio and our local Fox subsidiary was making an antenna [shot] the police surrounding this building saying there is an active shooter.”
According to police, around 9 a.m. Monday, a 19-year-old former student broke into the building housing the Central Visual and Performing Arts High School and the Collegiate School of Medicine and Bioscience with an AR rifle and about 600 rounds of ammunition. He is said to have yelled “You’re all going to die!” before firing a hail of bullets that killed 10th grader Alexzandria Bell, 15, and gym teacher Jean Kuczka, 61. Police said seven other students were injured in the shooting – at least the 34th that took place at a school this year, according to The Post’s tracker.
The gunman, identified as Orlando Harris, was killed after a shootout with police. He left a letter that read: “I’ve been an isolated loner my entire life. That was the perfect storm for a mass shooter,” St. Louis Interim Police Commissioner Michael Sack said at a news conference Tuesday.
Monterrey said she would like nothing more than to rush out and make sure Caeli is safe. But as a reporter, she had one job to do — and that was to cover the shooting at her own daughter’s school. She completed the March of Dimes segment allowing herself to cry and sob for 30 seconds during a commercial break as her co-worker hugged her. Then she went into “news mode,” Monterrey said.
“What was going through my mind at the time was, ‘I’ve got to explain this, and as long as I stay in reporter mode, I’m going to be able to hold it together because no one wants a blubber and cry on the newscaster,'” she said.
During the segment, a calm and composed Monterrey shared updates on the situation. Caeli kept texting her and telling her that she was huddled with classmates. When the show came on the hour at 10 a.m., Monterrey quickly rushed out to pick up her daughter.
Once home, Monterrey and Caeli spent the next three hours holding each other while listening to coverage of the shooting. Throughout the day, they were responding to the barrage of messages from people checking them out. Monterrey called it an early night.
Despite covering crime and gun violence in her 19 years as a Total Information AM anchor, the shock of Monday’s shooting has not yet worn off.
“I never lose sight of how horrific and painful it must be for families when there are school shootings,” Monterrey said. “But being in that position, being my child and worrying about my child and knowing all the other students that she goes to school with and worrying about her is so personal, it still is more difficult.”
How she managed to hold it together, she still can’t explain. The roller coaster of emotions is just beginning. And Monterrey is already thinking about the next school shooting she has to report about, which she said was not a question of if but of when and where.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever really thought, ‘Is this ever going to happen to me?’ But you’re always like, ‘Oh my god, what would I do in this situation?’ She said. “And then it was my turn yesterday to see what I would do in that situation.”
Monterrey is one of hundreds of thousands of parents whose child has experienced gun violence at school.
Now she wonders how many more parents will get the same panicked messages she did.