A mother’s powerful letter about the Santa Fe shooting
Deedra Van Ness, the mother of a student who survived Friday’s deadly shooting at a Texas high school, took to social media on Saturday to share her family’s harrowing tale.
In a letter titled “The longest day of my life,” Van Ness described her 15-year-old daughter Isabelle Laymance’s frightening experience hiding with classmates in a classroom closet as a gunman roamed the halls of Santa Fe High School, killing 10 people and wounding many others.
Van Ness said she chose to make her letter public because “it’s important for people to hear these stories and truly understand the impact.”
The full letter is published below:
As my daughter finally sleeps, I no longer can keep the tears from falling. We see / hear about these tragedies through a TV screen once removed. While we grieve with and for the families, we truly have no idea what they are experiencing.
The outpouring of prayers and love from across the country have been very much appreciated by our family. And for those saying that sending prayers means nothing, all I can say is STFU! You have no idea how much it meant to us today knowing we were not alone in praying for our child.
I’ve talked to some people today and then had to shut my phone off as it became too overwhelming. But, I think it’s important for people to hear these stories and truly understand the impact.
Our day started off normal. Isabelle was happy and looking forward to the weekend. I dropped her off about 7 a.m., told her I loved her, to have a good day, and then headed home to get to work.
I got home, walked upstairs and my phone rang. I noticed her name on the screen and figured she forgot something. As I answer the phone, she is whispering and I can barely understand her. Then I hear her whisper….mom, they are shooting up the school, I’m hiding in a closet. I love you mom. In the background, I hear gunfire. I beg her to stay on the phone and she says other kids with her want to call their parents and don’t have phones. I beg her not to hang up as the call drops. I was frozen, standing there with no idea what to do next.
As I ran down the stairs, I’m texting my husband next door telling him to come home now while waking Kam up to tell him what’s going on — thank goodness he already finished school and is home. We meet in the front yard and I’m trying to tell Kenny what’s going on while crying and trying to get in my car. At this point, I don’t know what to do. I send a group text to my family telling them she’s hiding and to NOT to call Isabelle and give away her hiding place. I want desperately to get to my child; however, being a part of a law enforcement family, I also don’t want to hinder the police from doing their jobs to try and save my child. We make our way towards the school and are passed by no less than 30 emergency vehicles along the way. During this time, we are frantic and both of our phones are blowing up. All we can do is stare at them praying she calls us again.
As we near the school, traffic is stopped and parents are running from their cars towards the school. We know they won’t let us near the school, so we sit and wait while arguing and basically freaking the hell out. After being there a while, we can’t stand it any longer and start making our way on foot to the school. We’re almost there when my phone rings and it’s Isabelle telling me they’ve gotten her safely out of the school. She’s in a police car waiting to be interviewed as a witness and the police have told her to tell us to not come to the school. All we can do is return to our car and wait and wait and wait.
We are then forced to leave the area. We were given no choice and instructed to go to another school miles away to await our daughter. As we arrive at the school, we are told to go to another location and give them her name. We are then told to go to another location and wait for them to bus the kids over from the high school. We arrive at that location only to be told to return to the last location. At this point, Kenny has had enough and refuses to budge one more step. They are repeatedly telling us we need to leave that area and he’s standing there with his chin in the air acting like they are not even speaking. His mind was made up and he wasn’t moving one more inch until we had our daughter.
At this point, an FBI officer walks by and Kenny chases him down. Basically, they explain our daughter will be detained for questioning and we should leave a number and they’d call us when she was released — as if there was a chance in hell that we would leave. As we’re speaking with him, the first busload of children arrives. We watch these children walk off looking lost while their eyes search the crowds for their loved ones. Our daughter isn’t on this bus, or the next one, or the next. She calls and tells us she is still at the high school; but, she’s now on a bus and should be there soon. Her friends and boyfriend are calling for reassurance that she is safe.
By this time, we’ve been waiting hours. The parents are forced to stand outside in the heat. Tempers are rising with the temperature and we watch a few parents force their way through to find their kids. We also see the community rallying around and arriving with cold bottles of water and big hugs for the waiting parents. I’m on the phone as another bus passes us, Kenny heads to the back of the building again. The next thing I see is him walking towards me with Isabelle. Finally, I get to hold my baby as we both cry and I try not to notice the blood on her.
As we see the media arriving, we hurry her to the car and head home. We get out of the car and Isabelle turns to me crying and saying…I’m so sorry! I’m completely confused and she says…I’m sorry for calling and upsetting you! I can only close my eyes and think about this child who is still worrying about others after the traumatic experience she just experienced. I assure her that she did everything right and try to get her to go inside. There are only Kam and my mom waiting inside; but, she is too overwhelmed to even see anyone. She hugs her grandma, decides to change her clothes, and heads upstairs almost immediately. As we’re sitting upstairs, she’s clearly in shock looking around the room blankly until she glances down. She looks at me and says…this is my favorite outfit and now there’s blood on it and burst into tears.
We hold her until she calms down and convince her to change clothes. Kam is trying to get near her and she’s just too hyper sensitive to have anyone around. We’re trying to soothe her as Kam walks back into the room with tears in his eyes. I leave Isabelle with Kenny and go to him as he starts crying and telling me he just found out his best friend was one of the children who died. I now have two children crying and we are helpless and can do nothing but hold them and try to make them feel loved and safe. I glance down and notice my foot is bleeding. I have no idea what I’ve done or when it happened, as I don’t even feel it. Kam heads off for time alone and we stay with Isabelle while she begins to calm down. We’re thanking God our child is home and then she begins to talk… I can only say that I’m so glad we didn’t know what was going on while we were waiting…
She arrived at school and headed to her first period, Art. She loves this class and was excited to finish her year end project. As she focused on the project, the first shot barely registers and she isn’t sure what she heard. Suddenly, the kids start screaming and running. The gunman enters their room from the classroom next door and fires a shot that grazes one girl and hits a boy in the classroom. She said everything happened so fast and everyone is panicking and running around the room. There’s a door at the back of the room to which the kids are running…only to discover the door is locked and they are trapped. Seeing the kids turning back from the door, she immediately starts running towards items to hide behind.
She’s moving from item to item as the gunman continues to fire into the classroom. She is now covered in dust from the bullets hitting the walls around her. Kids are scrambling trying to hide / escape and she finds an area where he can’t see her, but she can see him. She finally runs for the supply closet where she and 6 other kids hide. They are able to lock one door and begin blocking the other door as another girl runs into the closet with them. As they are moving heavy items in front of the door, the gunman screams…Surprise M*****F****** and begins shooting into the closet. The gunman hits 3 of the 8 kids in the closet…killing 2 of them instantly. He leaves to chase other kids who ran out of the room and they hear more gun shots. Then he comes back.
By this time, Isabelle has called the police and is whispering into the phone. They tell her to stay quiet and that help is on the way. Then silence on the phone. They hear the gunman in the classroom next door yelling Woo Hoo! and firing more shots. She hangs up and calls the police back to be told that they are entering the premises and to stay quiet and keep hiding. Then she hears only silence again. The gunman then comes back into their room and they hear him saying….are you dead? Then more shots are fired. By this time, cell phones all over the classroom are ringing and he’s taunting the kids in the closet asking them….do you think it’s for you? do you want to come answer it? Then he proceeds to fire more bullets into the closet and tries to get in. She calls the police again and they tell her they are headed towards their classroom. After another 5-10 minutes, the police arrive outside the classroom. By this time, she has been laying on the floor for over 30 min next to her deceased classmates. They listen to the exchange between the gunman and the police, as they can hear him reloading his weapon. Finally, the gunman surrenders and police take him into custody.
As the door to the closet opens, she is staring at guns pointed at her. They are instructed to put their hands ups and slowly leave the closet. As they are leaving the closet, they are walking past bodies in the classroom and hallways. They are frisked and removed from the building where they are placed in police cars awaiting questioning. She and her friends had been in the same room with the gunman the ENTIRE TIME. At this point, she makes the call to us that we received while walking towards the school.
Finally, they get her on a bus where the bus driver is asking her if she knows anything about her own daughter, who Isabelle had seen on the floor as she walked through the classroom. This wonderful woman did everything she could to make Isabelle feel safe while not knowing the status of her own child. As the afternoon progresses, her phone is going crazy with students reaching out to one another. The kids are sharing about what they saw and who had been injured and transported to the hospital. One friend who ran from the gunman tells them there was more than one gunman, although we’ve not heard this again in the media. It’s at this time that I notice she is agitated and I look at her phone. Unbelievably, other students are bullying her on social media. Blaming her for not trying to do more to save her classmates, calling her a liar about what happened, etc. I tell her it’s time to shut off social media and put the phone away.
She is now glued to the TV and my niece, Savannah, is on her way over to be with her cousins. Every noise makes her jump and sounds are triggering reactions. She’s our shadow.
Isabelle becomes more and more upset over the TV, as they are interviewing people that weren’t in the area where the gunman was and they are reporting incorrect information. She tells me that she has been contacted by the Washington Post and wants to let them interview her. Now, you have to remember, this is our extremely shy child and my only thought is to protect my child. We talk about it and I explain that while some may feel better sharing their story, others do not. She is insistent that she share her experience so that people know what happened. Within the hour, we have a reporter and cameraman in our home. They were so polite and careful with her. We’re finishing up the interview and I look down and notice that I never even wiped the blood off my foot.
We turn our phones back on and are being bombarded with calls and texts. Wendy calls as her friend’s son was shot and in surgery. Steven calls from out of town to check on everyone and ask if we know anything about a foreign exchange student his friend is hosting. My niece, Savannah, has come over to be with her cousins. Gregory is now at the house. Our family calls asking if we know anything about the kid’s cousin. By early evening, the families of missing kids are still waiting for news. Explosives have been found in the school and they have been unable to identify the fatalities while they continue to sweep the building. As the evening progresses, Gregory and Kenny take the children to the vigil for the community, while I go for food. On my way to get food, my phone rings with confirmation that their cousin has died in the shooting. After 10 hrs of waiting, the parents were called together and asked for pictures of their children. They then matched them and notified the families. Think about that for a minute….over 10 hrs…not knowing whether your child is safe.
We return home and begin to eat. Remembering that we were supposed to take Gregory to dinner for his birthday, I tell him that we’ll take him another time. He looks at me and says…this is just a meal. I could’ve been remembering that I lost my sister at my birthday for the rest of my life. As confused as I was feeling, this helped me focus.
As the media announces the names of the confirmed dead, Isabelle falls apart. She’d been watching the TV so intently waiting for this. She had prayed that her friends lying around the school were just injured and the confirmation of their deaths was crushing.
Isabelle tells me that she’s afraid to take a shower. I tell her that she might feel better if she washes away the day. She decides to try and took the quickest shower of her lifetime. She said the water hitting the tiles reminded her of sounds she heard while locked in the closet.
Later in the evening, another parent reached out to ask if Isabelle could come over as her daughter wanted to see her. As she also wanted to check on her friends, I drove her over. We weren’t there 15 minutes and she was ready to leave. One of the other girls was not at school today and the other had run out and was not near the shooting area. As we get in the car, Isabelle tells me that she couldn’t breathe and had to leave. They felt like strangers to her, as they didn’t have the same experience. We talked about grief and how each child’s experience and reaction to it will be different depending on where they were in the school at the time. For now, she feels like she needs to be with those people in the two classrooms that were targeted…and I completely understand.
We get home and she asks her daddy if she can sleep with me. He left to go take care of Kam and I’m sitting her watching her sleep. I’m so proud of her and her bravery and caring heart. She saved herself, called the policy, shared her phone with others who were afraid, spoke to a reporter to share her story, and stayed strong until she was able to transfer her burden to us. So far, she’s sleeping peacefully. No tossing, turning… nothing I anticipated. But as she dreams, she knows that I’m sitting her watching over her and I hope that’s enough for her to find peace in her slumber.
As for today….
The bus driver who so kindly watched over my daughter…lost her own.
My daughter lost two beloved teachers and friends.
My son lost his best friend.
Our family lost their cousin.
A family in Pakistan lost their daughter who was here as a foreign exchange student.
Other families’ children didn’t come home today.
Our community lost their innocence and feeling of safety.
And I noticed that I still haven’t washed the blood off my foot