I’m often asked what drew me to write One Breath Away, a fictional account of a gunman entering a small, rural school terrorizing the students, teachers and their families.
Thankfully, I have never encountered such a terrible situation, but years ago, while a senior at the University of Iowa, a disgruntled former graduate entered a classroom with a gun, killed five and gravely injured a sixth person before turning the gun on himself. At the time of the shooting I was with my roommate - a wonderful girl from Iceland - near the center of campus, when a gentle snow started falling unexpectedly, transforming the grounds into a winter wonderland.
Students spilled out into the streets mesmerized by the beauty of the falling snow and for a moment everyone could forget about term papers and tests. The frivolity was short-lived; while my roommate and I were well away from danger we were close enough to clearly hear the wail of sirens. “Did you hear?” someone asked us. “There was a shooting at Van Allen Hall.” Soon the campus was humming with the news, students gathered numbly in tight circles on street corners and in taverns where they could watch news coverage of the tragedy. Through the snow my roommate and I rushed back to our dorm room, where, shaken, we called friends and family to assure them that we were safe. This was before 24 hour news programs dominated the airwaves and we were starved for information. Who would do this? And even more importantly, why? With each new account of a shooting, most recently in Aurora, Colorado, these questions remain.
The lone survivor of the University of Iowa rampage, Miya Rodolfo-Sioson, a 23-year-old student worker at the University was paralyzed from the neck down as a result of the shooting. That could have been me, I remember thinking. Over the years the local news would share updates about Miya’s remarkable life. Miya passed away from breast cancer in 2008 after dedicating her life to advancing the rights of the disabled, a cause very close to my own heart. I most definitely had Miya, her family, and the families of the other victims in my mind as I wrote One Breath Away.
Now, as a teacher, I often think of that terrible day and wonder what I would have done if I had been in that room. I do believe that our schools are very safe places for children. Procedures have been put in place, safety manuals created, doors are locked and visitors have to be buzzed into the school building. Teachers are vigilant, if anything out of place it is reported. That said, I don’t know that any amount of training could fully prepare a teacher for an event as terrible as a gunman entering a school.
When an event like this happens so close to home it can change how one sees the world and has the potential of shattering all sense of security. And while I will continue to carry with me the shock and sadness of 1 November, 1991, I will also remember the good that inevitably comes with the bad: a deeper sense of empathy, appreciation for the little things in life, the importance of not taking loved ones for granted.
One Breath Away by Heather Gudenkauf is out now, published by Mira.