FOUR years on from the devastating Parkland massacre, parents of students slain in the tragedy have recounted for The Sun the horrific moment they learned their children wouldn't be coming home.
Families in Texas are suffering the same pain on Tuesday after a gunman opened fire at an elementary school, killing 18 children and a teacher.
On Valentine's Day, 2018, 14 students and three faculty members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School were murdered when a gunman armed with an AR-15 walked onto campus and opened fire inside a hallway.
The culprit, later identified to be 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, arrived at MSD's Parkland, Florida, campus via an Uber at 2.19pm, twenty-one minutes before classes were due to end for the day.
A security worker noticed Cruz and radioed a colleague to report that he was walking "purposefully" towards Building 12. However, they made no attempt to pursue the suspect or declare a "Code Red", which would've initiated an immediate lockdown of the school.
Cruz, a troubled teen who had been expelled from MSD two years earlier, entered the campus through an unmanned security gate, clutching a backpack and a large black rifle bag.
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He unzipped his rifle bag in a stairwell of the 30-classroom block. Cruz quickly assembled his AR-15 rifle and, within 15 seconds, opened fire – indiscriminately shooting at students and teachers as they desperately clamored for cover in classrooms and hallways.
Across a period of six terrifying minutes, 17 people were fatally gunned down and 17 others were wounded. Hundreds more lives would be irrevocably altered.
Cruz was taken into custody less than two hours later, having initially fled the campus by blending in with the crowds of screaming students running for their lives.
Parkland, like a number of other mass shootings before it, would become a political battleground over gun control and mental health reform.
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But four years on from the tragedy, for some survivors and parents of the victims, the "what ifs" of that fateful day remain overwhelming.
Freshman Alyssa Alhadeff, a gifted soccer player and captain of her team, was one of 14 children killed on the afternoon of February 14, 2018.
The 14-year-old, whose mother Lori remembered her as a vivacious and intelligent all-American girl who loved gossiping with her friends and chasing after boys, had been in her fourth-period English class when the gunfire first erupted.
Only hours earlier, Lori had excitedly awoken her daughter for school and handed her a special Valentine's Day gift: a gold bag containing a large chocolate bar and a pair of gold diamond earrings.
Alyssa didn't have a boyfriend at the time, so wasn't particularly looking forward to Valentine's, but still, Lori wanted to make her daughter feel loved and special.
"I was beyond proud of Alyssa," Lori, 46, told The Sun. "And she was so happy with her little gift."
The night before Valentine's Day, Alyssa, who started playing soccer when she was just three years old, had starred in what Lori remembers as the finest match of her life.
"Everything came together for her in that game," Lori, a former health and physical education teacher, recounted. "I remember turning to her in the car after the game and saying, 'Alyssa, you just played the best game of your life!'"
Describing her daughter as the smallest on her team but with the "loudest voice", Lori, a former soccer player herself, said Alyssa's technical skills were "outstanding" and her passing "spectacular."
"She had so much potential … little did I know that would be her last ever soccer game," Lori added, fighting back tears.
"It breaks my heart knowing that she's never going to play ever again."
Around 12 hours later, Lori drove Alyssa to school as she did every morning, waiving her daughter off at the gate telling her that she loved her.
Alyssa returned the sentiment and flashed her mom one of her signature "infectious" smiles.
Lori would never see her daughter alive again.
Fellow freshman Gina Montalto had been finishing up a school project in a hallway inside Building 12 on the afternoon that a gun-touting Cruz burst onto campus.
Gina was a straight-A student and a member of MSD's esteemed color guard.
The Montalto family moved to the Parkland area in October 2006, "ironically", her father Tony told The Sun, for the city's esteemed school system.
"It's a great place to live and it would be perfect if we could just remove one terrible day," Tony, 55, said.
The morning of Feb. 14, 2018, began as any other would for the Montalto's. Gina, 14, woke herself up and got ready for school, and Tony and his wife Jennifer got up to say goodbye as their daughter hopped into their neighbor's car for a ride.
"Because it was Valentine's Day, we handed her a card and a box of chocolate roses," Tony remembered.
"We said, 'We love you and try to eat your chocolate before it melts.'
"And with that, she was gone."
Tony shared an incredibly close bond with his daughter.
Describing her as bright and bubbly, Tony and Gina would attend father-daughter dances for her local girl Girl Scouts group and spend hours building models of monuments together.
"She was everything a father could ask for," Tony said, pausing to compose himself. "She was a wonderful daughter and a fantastic big sister.
"She was often the first to reach out to a new child in the neighborhood and was very caring towards others.
"Gina was just a typical teenager who loved spending time with her family. She hadn't quite broken into that fully-fledged awkward teenage phase yet."
A few weeks before the Parkland shooting, Gina and her dad embarked on what would prove to be their final "adventure" together.
In the January of 2018, the Montalto's had planned to visit the Universal Studios theme park as a family of four, but Jennifer and Gina's brother suddenly fell sick.
Tony and Gina, a Harry Potter fanatic, decided to go on ahead as a duo.
"So we went up there by ourselves and it was just a wonderful time," Tony said. "To stand there and watch her go through the Harry Potter exhibit … she just loved it so much, and we had a great time going on all the rides.
"I just spent the time talking to her about different things. She had such a wide variety of interests and she would indulge me with my suffering with the New York Jets.
"We were very close and it's sad that she's gone," Tony tearfully added.
"But we know that we were blessed to have known her for almost 15 years."
Mitch and Annika Dworet remember their seventeen-year-old son Nicholas "Nick" Dworet was running late for school on the morning of the Parkland tragedy.
The swim team captain, who had a week earlier accepted a scholarship at the University of Indianapolis, flew out the front door to hitch a ride to school with his dad and his younger brother, Alex, 14.
Nick had practice after school was originally meant to take his mom's car so he could drive himself there straight after the final bell.
So instead, he made plans to meet Mitch and Annika in the parking lot of a Walmart across the street from MSD where they could drop the car off to him.
"I told Nick I'll see you later to drop off the car," Mitch said, "and then I told the boys I loved them both.
"Annika and I later went shopping in that Walmart to pick up a few things for my mother, right around the time the boys were due to get out from school.
"And when we came outside that's when everything went sideways."
Mitch and Annika walked out of the Walmart store at 2.35pm. The first thing they saw was a large group of school children standing in the parking lot, which Annika said she thought was strange as the school day wasn't due to end for another five minutes.
"Then I noticed the helicopters and police cars and people running everywhere," the 52-year-old nurse said.
"Someone ran over to us and said there was a shooter at the school, and that somebody had been shot in the leg and the gunman had been killed.
"People were running out from the school, screaming and crying."
Immediately, Mitch and Annika attempted to call both of their sons to check they were okay but neither picked up.
Within a few minutes, Annika received a call from Alex. He told her he was in the back of an ambulance being treated for a wound to the back of his head.
Alex had been in English class in Room 1216 at the time Cruz's rampage began.
He was leaning over to write on a piece of paper when the first round was fired, before another bullet grazed the back of his head. Other students in his class had not been so lucky, he said.
Annika immediately went into "nurse mode", quizzing her youngest on the extent of his injuries.
But never for a moment did she think she had to worry that Nick had been hurt too. That, she thought, was almost statistically impossible.
"There are 3500 kids in that school," Annika remembered thinking. "What are the odds of them both being where the gunman was and both being shot."
A MOTHER'S PANIC
Lori Alhadeff was at home when she received a text from one of her close friends, telling her that shots had been fired a Marjory Stoneman Douglas and that kids were seen running from the campus and jumping over fences.
Almost immediately, Lori said she began thinking the worst. She reached for her phone to text Alyssa to "run and hide", telling her help was on the way – but something within her told her it was already too late.
"At that point in time I just had this huge sense of loss take over my entire body," Lori remembered.
"I got into my car and drove as fast as I could. I didn't even stop for Stop signs."
When Lori hit traffic, she abandoned her car, running the rest of the way on foot.
She arrived outside of the school to a scene of chaos. Police tape and lines of patrol vehicles prevented anyone from getting close.
All the while, terrified children were running towards Lori and away from the school. She spotted a familiar face in the crowd, that of Alyssa's best friend Abby, but she hadn't heard from Alyssa either.
Moments later she received a text from another friend, informing her that Alyssa had been shot and rushed to hospital.
Lori immediately fell to the ground, screaming. She then pulled herself back to her feet, dusted herself off, and took off on foot towards the hospital.
Standing somewhere close by to Lori at that moment was Jennifer Montalto, who had also raced up the school in search of her 14-year-old daughter Gina.
Like Lori, Jennifer had an immediate fear that something was wrong.
The Montalto's were first alerted to the shooting at MSD via a message from one of her colleagues at the school, where she served on the PTA and volunteered a few times a week.
A more optimistic Tony, meanwhile, waited at home in case Gina had made her own way back from school so someone would be there to greet and comfort her when she got home.
"I was hoping for the best," Tony said. "You know, what are the chances with more than 3,300 kids that Gina would – on a huge campus – be in the spot where the shooter was.
"But we hadn't heard from her and just sitting there waiting … was agonizing.
"Then Jen was told they were taking kids over to the Marriot Hotel for some sort of reunification process, so I headed to meet Jen there."
'A BAD FEELING'
Mitch Dworet stood and watched the chaos unfold outside MSD from afar as he waited inside the Walmart parking lot for Nick, while Annika went to the hospital to be by Alex's side.
He grew increasingly worried with each passing minute that he hadn't heard from, or seen any sign of Nick.
Mitch's fears were exacerbated as swarms of SWAT and military-looking vehicles began arriving on the scene.
"It was really difficult waiting there," Nick said. "It was very surreal and just felt as though something was wrong.
"I had a very bad feeling. It didn't feel right that Nick wasn't coming back to us."
All the while, Mitch and Annika were being fed glimmers of – as it would later turn out – false hope through numerous messages from people claiming to have seen Nick or to have heard from someone that had heard from him.
None of the leads contained any concrete information to confirm where Nick may be now. And none of Mitch or Annika's texts or calls had been met with a response.
The Dworets, too, soon learned of the makeshift reunification center at the nearby Marriot Hotel.
Mitch and Annika both headed there in search of their eldest son, once their youngest had been discharged from hospital.
A 'DEVASTATING' LOSS
Lori Alhadeff also ended up at the Mariott Hotel searching for her daughter without success.
The Montaltos, describing the reunification process as "a mess", eventually left the Marriot believing their time would be better spent canvassing the local hospitals.
Tony, Jennifer, and Jennifer's brother each split up to search the city's three main medical centers.
"Jen heard that someone fitting Gina’s description was at one of the hospitals so she headed that way," Tony explained.
"Eventually, it came down to her telling me that I should come there too."
After Tony arrived, the couple were told that Gina – their Disney-loving 14-year-old daughter whose smile could "light up a room" – had died from a mortal gunshot wound to the chest.
She was one of the first victims police encountered when they entered Building 12 at around 2.56pm – more than 30 minutes after the shooting began.
She was assessed by paramedics three times and identified as deceased with a black tag.
However, two medics from a different department later assessed her, one of whom mistakenly believed they'd felt a pulse. She was transported to a hospital at 3.36pm where her death was ultimately confirmed.
"It was devastating. It was unbelievable," Tony said of the moment he was told of Gina's death.
"But at least we were together when they told us."
WORST FEARS CONFIRMED
Back at the Marriot, the Dworets, and Lori Alhadeff and her husband Ilan, waited in agony over the next several hours as they watched other children collapsing into their parents' arms, reunited at last.
Lori was sure her initial feeling that something terrible had happened to Alyssa would soon ring true. She turned to her rabbi, who had driven to the center to be with the children, and instructed him to start planning her daughter's funeral.
"He told me I needed to be more positive but I just knew," she said. "I told him to again to start planning and he promised me he would."
The Dworets, meanwhile, buoyed somewhat by a string of false sightings of Nick, clung on to the hope that their son was still alive and well – that he hadn't been found dead inside the school, and was probably at a friends house, or slowly making his way home.
By this time, it was the early hours of February 15. Almost 12 hours had passed since the shooting, and several children remained unaccounted for.
One by one, parents still searching for their kids were called into a side-room by federal investigators.
The Alhadeff's were called into the room at 2.30am, where an officer confirmed Lori's worst suspicions that her daughter had been murdered.
Alyssa was tragically struck eight times as the gunman sprayed bullets through a window.
Amid the panic, she had sought shelter by crouching down behind her teacher's desk. However, the place where she was kneeling was exposed, and she suffered gunshot wounds to the back of her head, through her heart, and in the femoral artery of her "soccer leg", Lori said.
"My head was just like spinning," she added, describing feelings of confusion and disorientation. "I was also just so angry.
"To make it worse, during the most traumatic moment in my life, I was given the wrong information. I was told Alyssa had been shot in the face and was unrecognizable, but that turned out to be untrue."
Lori buried her daughter the following day, in keeping with the traditions of her Jewish faith.
The reality that her daughter would no longer be coming home set in for Lori before the service when she was finally allowed to see Alyssa's body in person for the first time.
"I remember I was rubbing her hands because she was so cold. I was trying to warm up her body to bring her back [to life]," Lori said through tears.
"I ended up cutting a piece of her hair off because I just didn't want to have everything taken from me at once."
ANOTHER LIFE LOST
The Dworets were the last parents to be called into the room with the investigators.
Though it was 3am and they still hadn't heard from Nick, the couple clung on to the hope that there had been some sort of terrible mix-up.
"When we were walking in there, we were just hoping they were going to say they couldn't find him," Mitch said.
"And you have this story built up in your head that maybe he may have gone home.
"We had all of this hope that they were going to say something different."
Gut-wrenchingly for the Dworets, Annika's earlier calculations that, statistically at least, Nick was likely safe from harm proved inaccurate.
As fate would cruelly have it, Nick was just across the hallway from his brother Alex in room 1214 when Cruz first opened fire.
Nick, who dreamed of one day competing in the Olympic Games, had been in a History of the Holocaust class and was learning about the 1936 Berlin Olympics when Cruz stuck his gun through a window and fired into the class from the hallway.
A classmate of Nick's, 17-year-old Helena Ramsay was also killed.
The rest of the class huddled together in a corner of the room, praying the gunman didn't step inside.
"We just couldn't believe what we were hearing was true," Annika said.
"The hours and days after that moment are a blur, to be honest.
"There were some days that we just didn't want to get out of bed."
'LARGER THAN LIFE'
Today, Mitch and Annika remember their son Nick as a happy, larger-than-life character who was really coming into his own in the months preceding his death.
A gifted and handsome sportsman with an infectiously positive outlook on life, the Dworets said their eldest son was an inspiration to them both and a joy to be around.
"Nick was really into his fashion and music," Mitch said. "Supreme was his favorite brand and he actually turned me on to all kinds of different music … Logic … Mac Miller – I still listen to all of that stuff now.
"As a swimmer, he was also a big eater and really into his food. He loved Sushi, bubble tea, and all fun things like that.
"He just always saw the bright side in things and was just really a good-looking boy who was very happy.
"He was also a wonderful brother who was protective and kind."
Mitch and Annika were also enthusiastic supporters of Nick's swimming career, attending every competition to greet him poolside for a damp hug after his races.
"To watch him swim was actually really pretty," Mitch said. "He was a freestyler but his fly was my favorite. It was just so fluid and striking."
While their son would be laughing and joking with other competitors in the moments before a big race, as soon as he stepped onto the block his parents say his entire demeanor shifted.
"He once wrote down this quote about looking out across the water, that he found freedom when he would look out across the pool," Mitch added.
"That one really struck me."
A few years before Nick's death, Mitch actually quit his high-flying corporate job to spend more time with the boys and Annika and to be closer to home.
"Looking back now, it was a blessing that I did that," Mitch said. "I had more time to watch my son become who he was, to watch him swim, to talk about music and drive him to school – both of my kids.
"Those memories really mean a lot to me now."
MISSED RED FLAGS
In the wake of the Parkland tragedy, it emerged that a decade's worth of red flags concerning Cruz and numerous disturbing displays of behavior had been overlooked or ignored by officials.
Neighbors raised concerns about Cruz as early as age nine, when he got into a rock-throwing fight with another boy.
As he got older, he showed a disturbing propensity for violence towards animals, regularly expressed his enthusiasm for knives and guns, and even began introducing himself as "a school shooter."
Deputies with the Broward County Sheriff's Office were alerted to the teen's behavior several times over the years, and even the FBI received two tips about Cruz and the potential threat he posed to schools – but those warnings were dismissed.
Though the individual incidents may have not foreshadowed a mass shooting, Cruz's pattern of disturbing behavior has left the parents afflicted by the Parkland tragedy asking one question: Why didn't anyone intervene earlier?
In search of answers, many of the bereaved parents channeled their grief into activism, determined to enact positive change in their late children's names.
Tony Montalto was among them. He told The Sun it took more than two weeks before he and his wife Jennifer were able to accept the fact that Gina would never be walking back through the front door.
Several more weeks of feeling distraught and disorientated would follow, he said, as friends and family filled their home, unwilling to leave them alone for even a minute.
"We could barely breathe or function through the days, but fortunately we had the support of family and friends," Tony said.
"We saw the community come together to support all the families – but it was just devastating."
As he continued to mourn the loss of his daughter, Tony said he was further devastated to learn about "all the failures that occurred leading up to it."
"And that was also devastating to me," Tony, a commercial airline pilot, said.
"In my line of work, we investigate a lot of things. It's never one link in the chain's the whole process of the chain that builds to a disaster.
"And we saw that happen here. We wish there had been people who did more at any point along the chain.
"So once we found out that there were all these problems we realized that we had to make a change."
Tony, and a coalition of other bereaved parents, set up Stand With Parkland, a non-profit committed to advocating for public safety reforms focused on the safety of children and staff members at school.
The group also advocates for improved mental health support and responsible firearms ownership under its "Three Pillars of Change" pledge.
"We all come from different political views, religions, and are different races," Tony said of the members of Stand With Parkland. "But we come together to find pragmatic solutions that can be used to help keep students and teachers safe in schools.
"And since we started, we've had some form of school safety law pass every year in the Florida Legislature."
Seeking to keep Gina's memory alive, Tony and Jennifer also set up the Gina Rose Montalto Memorial Foundation, to help gifted students with the cost of post-secondary education, and make charitable donations to causes she supported.
"She'd be in a very exciting place in life if she were still alive today," Tony said. "She'd be in her freshman year in college where she would be enjoying new experiences and looking forward to the future.
"That's one of the reasons we started the foundation. We see her reflected in these other wonderful, high-achieving kids that will go out and become the next generation of leaders.
"We wish Gina was among them, but helping others to change the world will help keep Gina's light shining."
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
Lori Alhadeff also propelled herself into activism, beginning with a heartbreaking impromptu appeal to then-President Donald Trump live on CNN on the day of Alyssa's funeral.
"A crazy person just walks right into the school, knocked on the window of my child’s door and starts shooting, shooting her and killing her,” she screamed on-air.
“President Trump, you say what can you do, you can stop the guns from getting into these children’s hands, put metal detectors at every entrance to the school.”
Soon after, the former teacher launched Make Our Schools Safe, aiming to harden schools against intruders and to train students and teachers so they know how to respond.
She and her husband marched with Parkland students in Washington, demanding gun control. And, in May of 2018, was elected to the Broward County School Board.
Through Make Our Schools Safe, Lori passed Alyssa's Law in Florida and in New Jersey, which requires officials to install panic buttons in all classrooms to improve law enforcement response times during life-threatening emergencies. Similar bills are also being considered in New York and Virginia.
"I still feel the pain of Alyssa’s death," she said. "I still remember very specific moments in great detail which I re-live a lot … and that’s really hard.
"I still live in Parkland so I still drive past the place where I last saw Alyssa alive. I’m also a school board member, so I’m in the school all of the time and in the building where Alyssa was killed.
"It’s very hard and it’s very painful," Lori continued. "And it’s incredibly important that we keep pushing hard to hold people accountable and make sure the layers of school safety are followed with fidelity across the district and beyond."
The Dworets decided to stay away from activism and the political firestorm surrounding the tragedy.
It wasn't that they didn't support calls for increased security measures and other reforms, Annika explained, they just didn't feel it was serving Nick, or themselves, to continuously focus on the way that he died rather than the way he lived.
Instead, they set up the Nicholas Dworet Memorial Fund, otherwise known as the Swim4Nick initiative.
Through the fund, the Dworets strive to ensure all children have access to experience swimming as Nick did, knowing all of the benefits the sport provided him in life.
"It feels like a very beautiful way of honoring him in something that he loved that has helped us, as a family, to not focus on how he died all the time but who he was in life," Annika said.
FOUR YEAR MARK
Four years on from the tragedy, each of the three families will be spending Valentine's Day this year in Parkland, remembering their children and the other lives lost.
Lori will be visiting Alyssa's grave with family and friends for a celebration of her life, before attending a memorial gathering in the city later in the evening.
Tony and Jennifer Montalto will spend the day with their son, who is now older than Gina was, remembering the good times they shared together as a family of four, rather than the horrific circumstances in which she died.
"I frequently really say when I speak about this as Gina's legacy should be laughter, memories of fun and good times we shared, because she was so much more than what was taken from us," Tony said.
"So we'll come together as the three of us and some other family members will be coming into town and we'll just try and support each other, as best we can."
The Dworets, meanwhile, say they plan to spend the day at the beach staring out at the ocean where they know "Nick is now swimming forever."
"I plan to get into the water," Annika said, "and remember Nick for who he was and what he stood for.
"What we miss most about him is his positive attitude, and how determined he was to meet his goals and train harder.
"I've tried to learn that from Nick since he left us."
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