NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Authorities released 911 recordings on Thursday that capture the terror inside a Nashville elementary school during a mass shooting this week, as callers pleaded for help in hushed voices while sirens, crying and gunfire could be heard in the background.
Police released recordings of three emergency calls made during Monday’s attack at The Covenant School, in which three children and three adults were killed.
In one, 76-year-old retired church member Tom Pulliam tells the dispatcher he is with a group of people, including several children, who are walking away from the Christian school toward a main road. Although Pulliam remains calm, the tension and confusion of the situation are clear, with several adults speaking over each other and children’s voices in the background.
When the dispatcher requests a description of the shooter, Pulliam asks a second man to get on the line.
“All I saw was a man holding an assault rifle shooting through the door. It was — he’s currently in the second grade hallway, upstairs” the man says, noting that the assailant was dressed in camouflage and wearing a vest.
Asked about how many shots were fired, a woman responds, “I heard about 10 and I left the building.”
Pulliam, who was driving with his wife near the church when the attack happened, told The Associated Press on Thursday that he is struggling to make sense of it. He said he mostly recalls the children and how calm they seemed, not “yelling and screaming or anything.”
“Up there for a normal day of school, these young children,” he said. “Now, there’s difficult days to go through.”
In another call that started just before 10:13 a.m., a woman tells a dispatcher that she can hear a pause in the gunshots from her hiding spot in an art room closet.
Asked if it is a safe spot, the woman answers, “I think so,” as children can be heard in the background.
The teacher then says she can hear more gunshots, begging the dispatcher, “Please hurry.”
Another caller says he is in a second-floor room and asks the dispatcher to send help.
“I think we have a shooter at our church,” he says, later adding that he thinks the shooter is on the second floor, too.
Authorities say the attack ended when police shot and killed the assailant, a former student they identified as 28-year-old Audrey Hale.
The release of the recordings came as people protested at the Tennessee Capitol on Thursday in favor of tighter gun controls, haranguing the Republican-led Legislature to take action.
Chants of “Save our children!” echoed noisily in the hallways between the state Senate and House chambers, with protesters setting up shop inside and outside the building. Some silently filled the Senate chamber’s gallery, including children who held signs reading “I’m nine” — a reference to the age of the kids who died. Most protesters were removed from the gallery after some began yelling down at the lawmakers, “Children are dead!”
The protests followed a Wednesday night candlelight vigil in Nashville where Republican lawmakers stood alongside first lady Jill Biden, Democratic lawmakers and musicians including Sheryl Crow, who has called for stricter gun controls since the attack.
The vigil was somber and at times tearful, as speaker after speaker read the victims’ names and offered condolences to their loved ones but refrained from any statement that could be seen as political.
“Just two days ago was our city’s worst day,” Mayor John Cooper said. “I so wish we weren’t here, but we need to be here.”
Police said Hale drove up to the school on Monday morning, shot out the glass doors, entered and began firing indiscriminately.
The three students who were killed were Evelyn Dieckhaus, Hallie Scruggs and William Kinney. The three adults were Katherine Koonce, 60, the head of the school, substitute teacher Cynthia Peak, 61, and Mike Hill, a 61-year-old custodian.
Funeral plans are starting to take shape, with services for Evelyn on Friday, Hallie on Saturday and Hill on Tuesday. Evelyn’s obituary urged mourners to wear joyful colors as a tribute to her “light and love of color.”
Absent from the vigil was Tennessee’s Republican governor, Bill Lee, who has avoided public appearances this week and has not proposed any possible steps his administration might take in response to the shooting. Lee has been an advocate for less restrictive gun laws along with greater school security, and he once intimated that prayer could protect the state from school shootings and other things.
As with similar responses to gun violence, the state’s Republican leaders have avoided calling for tighter gun restrictions and instead have thrown their support behind bolstering school security.
In a letter to Lee, Republican Lt. Gov. Randy McNally called for securing windows and glass in school buildings, adding magnetic locks on doors, modernizing camera systems, and increasing armed guards.
“While these changes would come with a cost, I believe it is important for us to have a conversation about how to increase and modernize security at schools in Tennessee,” wrote McNally, adding later that he also is in favor of red flag laws like one in Florida.
Meanwhile, Tennessee’s U.S. senators, Republicans Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty, were pushing for legislation that would create a $900 million grant program to “harden” schools and hire safety officers.
Metropolitan Nashville Police Chief John Drake has not said what investigators think the shooter’s motive was, only noting that the assailant didn’t target specific victims and had “some resentment for having to go to that school.”
Drake said the shooter had drawn a detailed map of the school, including potential entry points, and conducted surveillance before carrying out the attack. Drake also said Hale left behind writings that the chief referred to as a “manifesto,” but authorities haven’t released the writings to the public.
Police have said Hale was under a doctor’s care for an undisclosed “emotional disorder.” However, authorities haven’t disclosed a link between that care and the shooting. Police also said Hale was not on their radar before the attack.
Social media accounts and other sources indicate that the shooter identified as a man and might have recently begun using the first name Aiden. Police have said Hale “was assigned female at birth” but used masculine pronouns on a social media profile, however police have continued to use female pronouns and the name Audrey to describe Hale.
Associated Press reporter Adrian Sainz in Memphis contributed to this report.