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SANTEE SCHOOL SHOOTINGS

A Wrenching Vigil in a Parking Lot

Scene: Across from the campus, parents dialed and redialed cell phones, trying to reach children. Other students wept and waited.

March 06, 2001|ROBERT LEE HOTZ and KEN ELLINGWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SANTEE, Calif. — In the Albertson's parking lot across from Santana High School, the sobs mingled with the warble of cell phones as distraught parents and stunned students milled between the lines of yellow police tape after Monday's school shooting rampage.

Seeking some sign that their children had escaped harm, parents anxiously speed dialed phone numbers over and over while others searched frantically for a family face in the crowd. One mother ran along the sidewalk punching the numbers on her phone and crying loudly to anyone who would listen, "He should have answered by now."

The school's principal, Karen Degischer, had been at a meeting off campus when the shooting started. "This is my worst nightmare,' she said as she arrived back at work.

It was the last thing anyone had expected that morning in the school at the end of Carefree Street.

For a time the neighboring mall, a prototypal setting of red tile roofs and white stucco walls, of fast-food shops, a coin laundry and a beauty parlor, became a suburban refugee camp. It was a scene of anguish and reassurance set against the specter of a half-dozen television satellite trucks raising their dishes skyward like hands in prayer.

Within minutes of the morning shooting, which left two students dead and 13 people wounded, police had cordoned off portions of the sun-drenched parking lot at the corner of Mast and Magnolia into a series of outdoor interview areas and a holding pen. For survivors, there were hugs and tears and questions from police in the front of the Round Table pizza parlor, where children usually go after football games.

Parents often rushed past their own children in the confusion.

When the shooting stopped, Tanya Jones, a 15-year-old high school freshman, ran home to call her mother at the fast-food restaurant where she works, to let her know that she was safe. But news of the shooting traveled faster than Tanya could run and her mother was already on her way to the school.

Like so many others Monday, they found each other in the parking lot.

As they fell into each other's arms, Santee Mayor Randy Voepel spoke through the loudspeaker on a parked police cruiser. He urged patience. "Santee is the focus of the whole country and quite a bit of the world. I want you to know we will be doing the right things for the right reasons," he told the crowd.

Tony Foglio, a pastor at the Sunrise Community Church nearby, said a prayer over the bullhorn. "Give us the strength we need to endure . . . to heal this community."

Clutching a brown teddy bear handed out by Red Cross workers, Heather Noble, 15, stood outside the Valley Orthodox Presbyterian church across the street. She was still weeping.

Earlier in the day, the Santee sophomore was walking down the school hall when she heard the shots and saw her friends throw themselves on the floor.

She ran out the front gates and stopped at the nearest house for help, to call her mother. She was reunited with her parents in the church parking lot. There, they dried her eyes. "You just never know," Adam Noble, her father, said as they hugged. "You just never know what is going to happen."

Then the teenager learned that her friend, Heather Cruz, 15, was among the wounded. And the tears flowed anew.

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