On Thursday, Antoinette Tuff and Kendra McCray, the 911 dispatcher on the other end of that line, were together again, sharing a hug and tears before sitting down to recount the episode with CNN’s Anderson Cooper. (CNN Photo)
by Greg Botelho
(CNN) — Barely two days ago, their paths crossed in the worst possible circumstances — a man armed with an assault rifle had entered Antoinette Tuff’s school, and she called police.
On Thursday, Tuff and Kendra McCray, the 911 dispatcher on the other end of that line, were together again, sharing an emotional hug and tears before sitting down to recount the episode with CNN’s Anderson Cooper.
“We made it!” Tuff joyfully declared, with McCray responding, “We did.”
Antoinette Tuff and Kendra McCray hug, shed tears as they reunite in a CNN exclusive interview. (CNN Photo)
The atmosphere for the reunion was starkly different than their original encounter as voices on opposite ends of a telephone line.
That happened at 12:51 p.m. Tuesday when, according to DeKalb County, Georgia, Police Department spokeswoman Mekka Parrish, authorities got their first call about a shooting at the Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy in Decatur, just outside Atlanta.
Shortly before that, the gunman had slipped into the school and gone into its main office, where he shot one round into the ground.
“I knew then that it was for real,” recalled Tuff, who was in there with him. “And that I could lose my life.”
It was then that Tuff, bookkeeper in that school’s front office, dialed 911. But she wasn’t the only person that could be heard a few miles away at police dispatch — at times, there was the voice of the suspect, later identified as Michael Brandon Hill, in the background.
The gunman used Tuff as a conduit to relay information to police, which in this case meant McCray, who took Tuff’s call at the dispatch center.
In their voices, both women sounded calm throughout the call — even as gunshots were ringing out around Tuff, and later when the suspect reached into a bag to reload his AK-47-type assault rifle.
But inside, they now admit, they were terrified.
McCray recalled Thursday how her hands were shaking, though she knew that she couldn’t reveal her fears in her voice. And Tuff said she was trying to incorporate the lessons she’d learned in church to stay strong for herself, the 800-plus elementary school students in the classrooms behind her — and for the gunman whom she came to feel for.
“I was actually praying on the inside,” she recalled. “I was terrified, but I just started praying.”
Early in the call, Tuff was blunt in what amounted to a vital assessment of the situation: “He doesn’t want the kids. He wants the police. So back off,” she told McCray. In the next breath, Tuff asked him, “And what else sir?”
The suspect darted from the office to outside a few times, becoming particularly “agitated” in Tuff’s words when police fired back with bullets “coming from everywhere.”
“And I said to him, come back in here right now,” said the school bookkeeper, who admitted she had to go “to the bathroom so bad” the entire ordeal. “… Don’t worry about it, stay with me, we’re both going to be safe,” she told the man.
The scariest moment, Tuff said, came when — after having fired shots, several times, at police positioned outside — the suspect went into his bag, reloaded his gun and packed his pants and jacket pockets with yet more bullets.
“I knew when he made the last call that he was going to go,” she recalled on CNN. “Because he had loaded up to go.”
But the tone changed over the next few frenetic minutes, much like what was happening at the school.
In the beginning, the gunman appeared “like he didn’t care,” giving the impression that he’d come “in purposely knowing that he was going to die and take lives with him,” said Tuff. But his language, and actions, softened — and so did Tuff’s feelings for him.