Antoinette Tuff normally worked as a bookkeeper, but on the day of the attack at Ronald E McNair Discovery Learning Academy, the principal had asked her to provide lunchtime cover on the front desk.
Within five minutes of reaching reception, 20-year-old Michael Hill had forced his way into the building carrying an AK-47.
‘He had his weapon already drawn, fully loaded,’ recalls Tuff. ‘So as I’m sitting there, me and [my colleague] both look at each other, like, “Ok, what do we do now? What are we going to say? How are we going to do this?” That was the first time I had ever seen a gun in my entire life.’
"IF GOD CALLS YOUR NUMBER AT THIS VERY MINUTE, WILL YOU BE READY?"
PREPARED BY GOD
In the lead-up to the attack, Tuff had been facing great difficulties in her personal life. ‘I was already going through a trying time because my husband, who I had been with for 33 years, had left me months earlier for another woman,’ she explains. ‘Not only did he leave, but he took the pay check with him; just not the bills.’
On top of this, she was caring for her severely disabled son and had just received a ‘devastating’ phone call from the bank demanding a payment of $14,000 within seven days. She was told her car would be repossessed if she was unable to pay.
Tuff is convinced that God had been preparing her to deal with the school attack for some time, and that her faith helped her to remain calm at a time when many others would have panicked. ‘I started praying from the moment he stepped in…because I knew that there were 870 students, teachers and parents in the building and that they were all dependent on me to be able to save their lives,’ she says.
‘The whole time I was sitting asking God what to say, how to say it; what to do, how to do it. I was actually screaming on the inside. I didn’t know how calm I was until later on, when I went back to listen to the 911 tape. I know that despite the screaming I was doing, God allowed me to be calm in the midst of it. I know that he was guiding me the whole way through.’
A DeKalb County police officer stands guard as students wait to be reunited with their parents
TUFF BY NAME, TOUGH BY NATURE
The motive for the incident remains unclear, and the fact that Hill targeted this particular school is an even greater mystery. ‘He passed several schools before he got to our school, so I don’t know exactly what his motive was. He could have gone to any of the schools before he got to us,’ says Tuff.
‘He just kept saying that he was mentally disturbed, he hadn’t taken his medicine. He didn’t say that he was coming because of this particular thing or anything like that. He just told us that this was not a joke.’
Tuff acted as a bridge between Hill and the police, and the gunman eventually agreed to hand over his weapons, lie face down on the floor and surrender to the police. He had fired several warning shots, but nobody was injured.
Looking back on the traumatic event, Tuff struggles to remember exactly what she said to Hill, but a transcript of the 911 call, which recorded almost the entire incident, reveals the caring, motherly way she spoke to him, even after his surrender. Despite the danger he posed, she was able to empathise with the fact that he was entirely hopeless and ready to die.
‘It’s going to be all right, sweetie,’ she told him. ‘I just want you to know I love you, though, ok?...We all go through something in life...You’re going to be ok.’
ANSWERING THE CALL
Tuff was branded a hero in the aftermath of the attack and even received a phone call from Barack Obama thanking her for her bravery. But she remains humble about the part she played in preventing what could have become a major tragedy.
‘I don’t really look at myself as a hero; I look at myself as God’s vessel,’ she explains. ‘I know that God used me that day. He called my number and he used me to help save all those lives…I know that it was my faith, and not only my faith but all of the trials and tribulations I had been through. If my ex-husband had not left me I would not know what that young man’s pain felt like. I couldn’t have identified with it because I had never experienced it. But because I had tried to commit suicide…I knew how to recognise the hurt because I was hurting myself.’
ARE YOU READY?
Tuff has written about her experience in a new book entitled Prepared for a Purpose. She is now helping others to uncover and pursue their own purpose in life and has set up a non-profit organisation called kidsonthemoveforsuccess.org.
Her aim is: ‘To allow people to know that in spite of what you’re going through, in spite of what your ups and downs are, we all have a greater purpose. And if we allow God to guide us, he will guide us to our destiny. To be able to let people know that I was just like anyone else. I was a mum, a wife, going to work every day; just an ordinary person.
‘But God called my number and I was ready to be able to listen to him and what he needed me to do. So my message to others today is, if God calls your number at this very minute, will you be ready? Will you allow your heart to be open to be able to help someone else along the way, and to know that at the end of the day, you have a purpose in your life?’
Prepared for a Purpose (Bethany House Publishers) by Antoinette Tuff is available now
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