Witnesses at UT recall shooting, sense of community

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One year ago today, mathematics sophomore Colton Tooley arrived on campus with an AK-47. After firing multiple shots, he died by a self-inflicted gunshot on the sixth floor of the Perry-Castañeda Library.

Associate English professor Phillip Barrish had just dropped some books into the return slot in front of the PCL that morning when he heard gunfire. After seeing people running as fast as they could down 21st Street and ducking into the McCombs School of Business across the street, he decided to move, he said.

“What was going on hadn’t yet clicked for me, but I decided to step back into the lobby just in case,” he said. “Ironically, this proved not to have been the wisest decision I could have made.”

A man in a black ski mask holding a gun, later identified as Colton Tooley, entered the library about three seconds after Barrish stepped into the entryway, Barrish said. Tooley then moved past Barrish torward the elevators, the professor said.

“As he passed by, I looked at the front of his mask, still trying to figure out exactly what was going on, and he turned briefly to look at me,” Barrish said. “Even then, it took me a second to grasp that what I was seeing — a man with an automatic weapon in the library — was real.”

Although the situation was surreal, there was not a sense of imminent threat for those in the lobby of the PCL, Barrish said.

“I wasn’t afraid for myself or for others in the lobby,” he said. “Somehow, even though he had a gun, he hadn’t struck me as aggressive. Part of me was worried, though, that he might be looking for somebody in particular on an upper floor. As it turned out, of course, he didn’t want to hurt anybody except himself.”

Faculty and staff on campus keep a stronger eye out now for students who may be going to a dangerous place psychologically, and awareness has increased to a certain extent, Barrish said. He said the members of the campus community that were already opposed to concealed carry on campus have also come to feel more strongly about the issue.

“I remember feeling, right after he had walked through the lobby, that we were lucky nobody in the lobby had pulled out a concealed weapon,” he said. “Even at the time, that struck me as the one thing that could have provoked him to start firing.”

Doug Barnett, chief of staff of UT libraries, was in his office on the third floor of the PCL when he learned of the shooting. Despite the hectic nature of the situation, the safety procedures went smoothly, he said.

“That day reinforced what I think we all took for granted — how every member of the University community is a part of one big community,” he said. “Part of what we want to make sure we’re all doing is looking out for each other and being watchful.”

Journalism sophomore Alyssa Sanchez was in an 8 a.m. journalism lecture in the University Teaching Center when two students ran in to announce that they had heard gunshots outside of the PCL. The building was on lockdown soon after, and students kept up by watching the local news and through utilizing social media and text messaging, she said.

“It was really nerve-wracking being so close but not knowing what was going on most of the time,” she said. “I was scared the shooter might come to our building since it was so close by.”

A year later, campus feels safe again, Sanchez said. Although there was fear and confusion in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, the University handled the situation in a way that made campus feel safe again, she said. “Even though the first few days after the shooting, I was scared, today I feel safe walking around campus,” she said. “The situation was handled pretty well, and that secured a lot of the fears students felt this past year.”

Printed on Wednesday, September 28, 2011 as: Students, faculty recall memories of shooting on one-year anniversary