NIU cop who survived school's mass shooting: It 'made me who I am.'
The giant chalkboard on one wall of Maria and Dave Christiansen's kitchen features a bilingual "Febrero" calendar where the 14th sports her handwritten "Happy Valentine's Day" message for their kids. There's no mention of that day being the 10th anniversary of when she almost died, or that she'll be at work as a Northern Illinois University police officer at a campus memorial service for those who did die.
"I didn't know I had been shot until I started feeling the blood, tasting it. I thought I was going to die because it was so hard to breathe," said Christiansen, thinking back to Feb. 14, 2008, when she was sitting in the fifth row in NIU's Cole Hall and was among the first targeted by a former student carrying multiple guns who killed five students and wounded 21 before killing himself.
In those first moments, Christiansen didn't know if she'd be able to survive the helicopter trip to the hospital. Others, suddenly bereft, could not imagine a future at all.
"To survive the first 10 minutes was a monumental task," remembers Eric Mace of downstate Petersburg, who with his wife, Mary Kay, lost their only child, Ryanne, 19, who grew up in Carpentersville.
Yet, a decade has passed, and this week the survivors, parents, students, first responders, school officials and others gather to honor the victims but focus on the future.
"I think of all the good that came after her death with the impact that Gayle's life has had," says Joe Dubowski of Carol Stream, who, with his wife, Laurel, celebrates all that is being done in the name of their daughter, a 20-year-old anthropology student when she was killed.
Every February, a Mass is celebrated in 20-year-old Catalina Garcia's memory at Our Lady of the Mount Catholic Church in her native Cicero.
Julianna Gehant already had served her nation and was a 32-year-old Army veteran from Mendota.
Both women were studying to be elementary teachers when they were killed.
And Daniel Parmenter was a 20-year-old finance major from Westchester with a wide circle of friends and a future filled with possibilities.
More than 1,800 people have donated more than $745,000 to The Forward, Together Forward Scholarship Endowment, which has allowed NIU to award $4,000 each to 50 students in the names of the slain students, school spokesman Joe King says.
Individual departments also award scholarships in the names of Parmenter, Gehant and Mace.
Stratford Middle School in Bloomingdale gives a music award in the name of Dubowski, who also has her name on a fund for an orphanage in Ukraine.
The living embodiment of NIU's "Forward, Together Forward" motto, Christiansen credits her school's extended family for helping her recover and build a life forged by that experience. The shotgun blast ripped open her neck, tore through her esophagus and narrowly missed her spinal cord. She has flashes of memories: her friend bending over her, sobbing. NIU's then-police Chief Donald Grady elevating her legs to conserve blood in her core and asking her questions to try to keep her conscious.
A helicopter rushed her to Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove, where her parents were warned, "Say goodbye to your daughter now because we don't know if she's going to make it," Christiansen says.
She recovered her voice, but the left side of her mouth and neck are still numb. She has traces of lead in her blood and shotgun pellets in her neck and head.
"When I get an X-ray at the dentist, it just lights up," Christiansen says with a laugh.
After spending 11 days in the hospital, the 20-year-old junior came home to her parents in Elgin with a feeding tube and therapy to teach her how to talk again.
She returned to NIU a few months later.
Already committed to working in law enforcement, she interned with the NIU police department and was hired as an officer after her 2010 graduation.
She admits to feeling "a little jumpy" when she returned to NIU after the shooting and had an art class in an auditorium like the one where she was shot. The first time she went to the gun range with her fellow officers, she hesitated and told them, "I just need a minute," before she fired at her targets.
"I remember my first gun call," she says, referring to a request from DeKalb police to help find a suspect with a handgun. "I've got my gun drawn and I'm thinking this guy could just pop out anywhere and start shooting."
But she went from victim to survivor to police officer a long time ago.
Christiansen is a trained instructor in ALICE, or Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, and Evacuate, a program created to help people survive attacks by mass shooters or other violent intruders.
"I haven't shot at anybody or been shot at, but I definitely know what I have to do. I just need to do what I've been trained to do," Christiansen says, as she nonchalantly wipes up water spilled by her son, Sebastian, 2, on her lap.
Her daughter, Alexis, 4, once noticed the scars on Christiansen's neck and said, "Mommy, you have an owie," but the children are too young for the full story of how she went from a wounded student to a police officer trying to keep other people's children safe.
It makes perfect sense to Christiansen.
Then known as Maria Ruiz-Santana, she realized she wanted to be a law enforcement officer shortly after she came to Elgin at age 13 from Mexico with her parents as a legal resident.
A class at Larkin High School had students research a name, and she got serial killer Ted Bundy.
"I loved it," says Christiansen, who wanted to work in law enforcement since that day.
On the morning she was shot, she got a phone call from the Elgin Police Department confirming her request to go on a ride-along with officers.
Getting shot didn't discourage her career plans.
"If anything, it was the opposite. It motivated me even more," Christiansen says.
She met her husband, a DeKalb County sheriff's deputy, while she was translating for Spanish-speaking people at an event to show parents how to fasten car seats.
She can't help but think about the NIU shooting when she's called to Cole Hall or hears a report about a gunman, but "I'm beyond that," she says.
She remembers finding a box of evidence labeled with a name and having to ask a fellow officer who that was.
"He was the 2/14 shooter," Christiansen says. "To this day, I cannot remember his name. It's not like I told myself to block that name. It's just not there."
Whether she is on duty or out with her husband and kids, Christiansen is vigilant.
"I always think about what-ifs," she says. "What do I have to do to respond to that? Your body's not going to go where your mind hasn't been."
She'll be mindful of that as she guards the crowd at the wreath-laying ceremony in NIU's memorial garden on Valentine's Day, even as she acknowledges the pain and sorrow in the wake of her five dead schoolmates.
"It's hard not to. I don't want to block it out," Christiansen says. "But as horrible as that was, it's still something that made me who I am."
Even the saplings planted in the names of some victims continue to grow into something better. "That thing is huge now," Eric Mace says of the tree planted near the lagoon on campus in honor of Ryanne. The tree features a plaque quoting Ryanne's Valentine's Day message posted on her MySpace page for the day she was killed: "Saying you love someone is not enough, it's how you treat them that shows your true feelings."
They remember the loss, and face the future together.
"Tragedies such as these stay with us forever, but they don't have to fundamentally change who we are," says Joseph Peterson, 36, the instructor in the classroom who recovered from being shot in the shoulder and now is a professor of geology at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh. "We survive and grow from them. We move forward."