February 14, 2013 marks five years since a gunman walked into a large lecture classroom at Cole Hall, in the middle of Northern Illinois University and opened fire on more than 100 students.
“I can’t believe it’s been five years,” says Patrick Korellis, “It just seems like yesterday to me.”
Korellis was sitting in the front row of that Oceanography class when he saw the gunman, Steven Kazmierczak come through the stage door of the lecture hall with 15 minutes left in the class.
“He just kicked the stage door open and he had a guitar case and it was Valentine’s Day so what I was thinking was ‘oh, he’s going to make an announcement or something’ or sing a song. So the professor just stopped and looked. [Kazmierczak] set the guitar case down, pulls out a shot gun and just starts shooting. Not a word… nothing,” says Korellis.
The blood chilling experience still haunts Korellis, who was shot in the back of the head and arm by shotgun pellets. He was one of nearly 20 people inside that class injured during the shooting who survived. Five students were fatal wounded, before the gunman killed himself.
“A lot has happened since that time,” says NIU Director of Communications Brad Hoey, who was in his office just yards from the shooting scene of Cole Hall.
“We’re reminded of that fateful day every day. Those of us who are here on campus, those of us who lived through it,” says Hoey. “The faculty, the staff the students–not many remain here who were there on that day.”
But in the face of tragedy, the sprawling campus in DeKalb, moved forward. After initial talk of demolishing Cole Hall, a plan was made to remodel in the interior. Cole Hall once housed two large theater-style lecture classrooms. Last year, the hall reopened and students saw that one classroom, unaffected by the shooting, was given a state-of-the-art facelift while the other classroom was split into two sections. One section now houses a computer lab the other is home to NIU’s new Anthropology Museum.
“It’s really a testament to the resiliency of our campus community and the local community to transform a symbol of one of the darkest days in the history of NIU to a state-of-the-art facility that fosters a teaching, learned and transformational environment,” says Hoey.
But for as much transformation as this campus has seen in five years, the reminders of the pain inflicted in a matter of moments have come far too often since, from similar incidents around the country.
“When I see something happening on the news like the Newtown shooting or something like that it all comes back,” says Korellis.
“I put myself in their shoes and I know exactly what it’s like. I mean, everyone thinks of it differently but when you’ve gone through something like that you know what those victims are going through it’s just terrible and it’s going to affect them the rest of their lives, like it’s going to with me.”
Every year since the shooting, the NIU community has come together to remember their place in history, while the signs of moving forward for those involved continue, including Korellis, who now works at Walgreen’s corporate headquarters in Deerfield.
“I’ve seen people starting their careers, some went onto grad school, some are getting their doctorates. They’re just living their life as it is,” says Korellis.
“Some of my classmates are beginning to have Valentine’s Day dinner with their loved ones or doing something else instead of coming to the memorial.”
On campus, the signs of moving forward are also clear, not just at Cole Hall, at the center of campus… but new residence halls and a new sports facility.
NIU started a scholarship dedicated to the victims of the shooting, while state lawmakers passed the Campus Security Enhancement Act , to strengthen emergency response plans.
All of it, showing that in a place where learning is fundamental, one of the biggest lessons was never wanted, never planned, but moved NIU forward, together nonetheless.
“It’s part of our history and those who were involved in that will never be forgotten,” says Hoey.
Korellis adds, ”Just have to take it day by day just keep moving forward.”