stoneman shooting

My Grandfather Hid in a Closet During the First U.S. Mass Shooting. I Did the Same Thing at My Florida High School.

Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

On September 6, 1949, Carly Novell’s grandfather Charles Cohen hid in a closet in his home in Camden, New Jersey, during what is considered the first mass murder in U.S. history. From inside the closet, he could hear as the murderer, Howard Unruh, shot his parents.

Nearly 70 years later, Carly Novell, 17, found herself huddled in a closet during the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Wednesday. Below, Carly’s story.

I was in my newspaper class. I was just sitting and hanging out and talking to my friend. And the fire alarm went off and we were just like, “Oh … again.”

We’d already had a fire drill in the morning, but we didn’t question it, and we all just started walking outside. And people from the administration were yelling at us and saying, “Go back inside! It is a code red!” We later heard that the shooter pulled the fire alarm to get us all crowded in one place so he could kill us. But I thought it was just a drill, so I didn’t understand why people were so serious.

When I got back to class, everyone was crouched in the corner of the room. When I heard rumors of there being a shooting, I knew I had to text my mom, but part of me didn’t want to because I didn’t want to scare her. At the same time, if anything happened to me, I wanted her to know.

A young Carley Novell with her grandfather Charles Cohen. Photo: Carly Novell

My teacher had a piece of paper over her door, and the door was locked. But we all moved to the closet. In there I couldn’t stop thinking about how it’s just so insane that the same thing happened to my grandfather. It was called the “Walk of Death.” [The shooter Howard Unruh] killed 13 people in my grandpa’s neighborhood in Camden, New Jersey. My grandpa’s mom was telling him to hide in the closet. So he went, and he hid, and he heard it all. If he was here, I can’t even imagine what he would be feeling.

My family has always been really supportive of gun control. I was 8 years old when my grandfather died, but my mom told me how important family was to him because of what happened. Anytime there is a shooting we are always thinking about my grandpa. And now it is happening so much more often. I think my grandfather would be really angry and upset.

When I was in the closet, I didn’t hear anything. I heard sirens, but I have friends who heard gunshots and saw people killed. Everyone was just on their phones trying to see what was happening. We didn’t know what was going on. At one point, someone said there were five shooters. We had to hear it from outside our school. I had a friend in Georgia watching the livestream on the news telling me, “Oh, the police are closing in.”

The thought that I was going to die never really crossed my mind. I didn’t want to think like that, but it could have happened. I didn’t think about anything. I was just texting people that I know from school and being like, “Are you okay?” It was so surreal that I wasn’t really thinking that much.

I think we were in the closet for about two hours. I am not entirely sure. I just wanted to get out. I wasn’t even thinking about how long we were standing there. We were whispering a little bit. We were all just trying to help the people who were freaking out. I was in between two people who were both having panic attacks, so I was just trying to comfort them.

They were crying, and they couldn’t really breathe. I felt so bad. I wanted to help them, but I didn’t know how. I think I was in shock. I think I am still in shock.

Carly Novell today. Photo: Carly Novell

We were all huddled in the closet until the police came. All I wanted to do was get home, and they were like, “Put your bag here, stay with your teacher,” and I just wanted to see my mom.

When I got home, we were just trying to figure out who got hurt and who was okay because we heard so many rumors, like, “This person is dead.” I didn’t know what was true and what wasn’t.

Now, I feel like I’m handling it in a different way. I was just at a local park where we were having a vigil, and a bunch of people were hysterically crying, and I feel like it hasn’t set in enough for me. I’ve cried, but I still don’t feel that feeling. I know it is there. I am just trying to talk about gun control because I feel like all I can do is raise awareness right now.

I just want legislation. Something better than this. I feel like they are valuing the right to bear arms over the people who are dying. It is just enough at this point. It has been enough since the first shooting.

Trump is speaking about thoughts and prayers, but that doesn’t do anything when it already happened. What do prayers do when people are already dead? It would be best to start with automatic weapons, because who needs those? They are literally made for killing a lot of people. It is not something that a person should own.

I think only law enforcement should have guns. If there were no guns, I don’t understand what you would need to protect yourself from. I just don’t want to see this happen anymore. And I don’t want to see it happen at my school.

I am going to a funeral tomorrow for Meadow Pollack. I have known her since kindergarten. It sounds bad, but I kind of just want to feel this. It is here. It is something. I don’t want to feel better. This happened. I shouldn’t try to make it go away.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

My Grandpa Survived a Mass Shooting. I Just Survived My Own.