Parents were dropping off their children. Giggling kids were climbing on the jungle gym, swooping on the swings and twirling hula hoops. The first bell announcing the start of school was just minutes from ringing Tuesday at Rancho Tehama Elementary.
A loud boom echoed through the oak trees and the rolling Tehama County hillsides.
Was it fireworks? Was it a car backfiring? The employees inside the school’s small office didn’t know.
“They couldn’t tell exactly what direction, but they could hear that it was loud, and it got their attention,” said Richard Fitzpatrick, superintendent of the Corning Union Elementary School District. “And then several seconds later, they heard a ‘Pop! Pop!’ – two shots very close together. The staff, particularly the school secretary, knew that something was very, very wrong.”
What the employees at the school did in those next few seconds likely prevented the grounds of this small school of just under 100 kindergarten through fifth-grade students from becoming a blood-soaked nightmare strewn with the bodies of children.
They immediately ordered the students to get inside the classrooms. The teachers locked the doors. Less than a minute later, a white pickup driven by Kevin Janson Neal plowed through the locked chain-link fence on the side of the campus.
Neal murdered his wife the night before, authorities said, and hidden her body under the floor of their filthy, garbage-strewn mobile home. That morning, he’d shot and killed two of his neighbors. Armed with two rifles, two handguns and wearing a military-style tactical vest capable of holding multiple magazines, he stole the pickup, then drove through town toward the school, firing randomly at buildings and anyone he saw.
A neighbor told The Sacramento Bee that Neal may have gone to school to kill the 7-year-old son of one of his neighbors he had terrorized for months.
Fitzpatrick has watched recordings made by school security cameras that morning, and he has talked to the teachers and school staff members who were there. He said that while most of the students had made it inside by the time Neal rammed the gate, a few stragglers were still outside.
“My head custodian poked his head around the corner and made eye contact with the shooter,” Fitzpatrick said. “The shooter shifted focus from students and the school – and the world – to my custodian, and raised his rifle.”
The gun jammed. Neal spent the next several seconds trying to get another round into the rifle’s firing chamber. The custodian yelled for the remaining children to get inside. He also ran for cover.
Fitzpatrick said the custodian bought the children a few vital seconds. They all got inside.
Over the course of the next few minutes, Neal tried to get into classrooms, but couldn’t. Only a bathroom was unlocked.
That didn’t stop him from shooting. He fired into classroom walls and through windows. He sprayed bullets at parents who were driving into the parking lot. Across the street, at least three bullets tore through the home of Nicolai Didur, a 51-year-old Ukrainian immigrant and his 4-year-old son, Ruslan.
Didur was asleep when he jolted out of bed at the sounds of gunfire and bullets crashing through his house. The shooting was so close, he at first thought a shooter was inside, trying to kill Ruslan.
“I thought I only had a few seconds to save my son,” said Didur, who knows the sound of a rapid-firing semi-automatic well from his time in the Soviet military. “He was here shooting, shooting, shooting: ‘Dah! Dah! Dah!’ ” he said, mimicking the sound of successive gunfire while pantomiming a shooter firing a rifle.
“He’d load. Unload. Load. ‘Dah! Dah! Dah! Dah! Dah!’ It was 30, 40 shoots I hear,” Didur said through a heavy Ukrainian accent.
Eventually, Neal got back into the mangled truck and continued on his bloody rampage. In total, he killed five people, including his wife, and wounded at least six adults before he was shot and killed by two officers racing toward Rancho Tehama. They rammed another stolen vehicle Neal took from his victims and returned fire.
The officers weren’t hurt.
At least six children were injured that morning, including three boys who were in a car with their mother, Tiffany Phommathep, another one of Neal’s neighbors. They were on their way to class when Neal fired on them. Tiffany was badly wounded after shielding one of the boys with her body and remains hospitalized in Chico. The boys’ wounds were minor.
Only one boy, 6-year-old Alejandro Hernandez, was shot at the school. He remains at UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, where he’s being treated for bullet wounds to his chest and leg. The rest of the wounded students at the school suffered minor injuries, some from shrapnel and broken glass.
Fitzpatrick knows it could have been much, much worse if not for how quickly the adults got children behind those locked doors. Fitzpatrick said that when he met with the Rancho Tehama school employees, they told him they wanted the superintendent to handle all interviews on their behalf. He said they asked him not to give reporters their names.
They didn’t want the attention. They didn’t think of themselves as heroes.
But Fitzpatrick thinks they are. He told them as much.
“Wherever they went in their lives and however, whatever that journey was for them, that they could know in their hearts they made a difference for a hundred kids,” he said. “I think there’s a message of hope. I think there’s a positive message – that we don’t always have to be the victim. If we can do what we can with professionalism and love and selflessness, we can get kids home.”
The school is closed until after the Thanksgiving holiday. Crews worked through the week getting it ready for when students return.
The crime scene tape at Rancho Tehama Elementary was gone by Thursday afternoon.
So were the dozens of bullet casings from Neal’s shooting spree. A crew worked all day Thursday fixing windows and caulking over bullet holes. The only signs of Tuesday’s horror still visible was the mangled chain-link gate that Neal had rammed his pickup through, a small pile of broken glass on the asphalt and a pink hula hoop, dropped that morning by one of the students.
“How does this little school ever come back to normal? I don’t know,” said Tehama County District Attorney Gregg Cohen. “Sure, the windows will be fixed and the bullet holes will be patched or repaired. But the emotional toll is still there.”
Even those who never heard a single blast from Neal’s guns are traumatized. You could see it Thursday on Johanna Rector’s face.
Rector, a 56-year-old school bus driver who’s been busing Rancho Tehama school kids for nearly 30 years, doesn’t take guff from anyone. When she says she’d tell a local politician “to his face” that he’s an idiot, you believe her. When she says she’s not shy about giving the teachers in her district a piece of her mind, you just know she has – and pity the teacher at the other end of her acerbic glare.
She’s not someone who allows herself to cry very often. But she did Tuesday after she received frantic text messages from friends who learned about the shooting while she was in a school-district training session in nearby Corning. She picked up five students at the school just an hour before Neal started shooting.
She has seen the desperate poverty in which many of the students live in this isolated rural community 2 1/2 hours north of Sacramento. She knows of one child who had to “steal” money from his drug-abusing mother so he could pay the family’s propane bill.
Not knowing who was hurt or killed and the thought of survivors forced to add this extra trauma to their already troubled home lives absolutely melted Rector’s tough-as-nails persona.
“I was just crying off and on all day, and I’m not like that. I’m not a baby,” she said Thursday afternoon after parking her bus at the elementary school, having just dropped off a group of older students coming from another local school. “It was just the thought of somebody that would hurt kids and not knowing which kids were hurt, you know what I mean?”
Fitzpatrick, the school district superintendent, said counselors will be available to students, their families and school staff members in the days and months ahead – for as long as they need.
“We want to make sure we do that piece right,” he said. “These families and these students are the reason we do what we do, and (getting them help) is crucial.”
Help was already starting to arrive Friday in the form of playtime for the children and their families.
Rancho Tehama Elementary’s county-run after-school program, Safe Education & Recreation for Rural Families, hosted a “Family Fun Day” at Rancho Tehama’s community center. Anyone in town was invited to come and unwind.
Piles of pizza boxes, pies and other treats had been donated by local groups. Hungry families could take as much food home as they wanted.
Balloons twisted in the wind. Dance music blared from speakers. Kids crawled through a tent filled with story books, stuffed animals and sleeping bags. Parents colored and made crafts with their kids at long tables inside.
Parents, teachers, SERRF employees and students shared hug after hug after hug – many of them with tears in their eyes.
Love and the community’s bond will keep Neal from continually victimizing these families, long after his death, said Ken Yuers, the school’s fourth and fifth grade teacher.
“Rather than let this guy win,” he said, “we’re coming together.”
Outside, Pablo Saldana watched with a small smile on his face as his 9-year-old son, Jonathan, spun six hula hoops to the beat of the music, seemingly oblivious to the fact that a few days earlier the fourth-grade boy had been cowering with his fellow students as bullets tore through the walls and windows of his school.
“I bring him here to take the scare away,” Saldana said.
As upbeat as organizers tried to make it, there were signs the community was still on high alert, its nerves still raw and frayed.
Earlier in the afternoon, someone in the hills outside of town fired a gun. That’s a normal sound in the wilds of Tehama County where hunters and target shooters are common, but organizers feared it may have scared some people away from gathering in such a large group.
Liz Hern, a SERRF staff member all the kids lovingly call “Miss Liz,” said she had to tell one little girl, known for her piercing screams during playtime, that she probably ought to lay off the playful shrieks at Family Fun Day.
“Screaming,” Hern said, “makes us nervous anymore.”