She thought her brother could be gone

Former students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School mourn at a candlelit vigil held in the MLK Plaza to honor 17 victims of a shooting at their former school in Parkland, Florida. ORACLE PHOTO/JOSH FIALLO

It was Valentine’s day.

After attending her sociology class at USF from 11 a.m to 12:15 p.m., Emily Blank went back to her room to relax and take a shower. She was preparing to go out with her friends to Acropolis for dinner later that night. When she got out of the shower and checked her phone, however, a day of love quickly turned to that of terror. 

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, which Emily graduated from in 2016, was under attack by an active shooter. Her 17-year-old younger brother, Jonathan Blank, was in class at the Parkland, Florida high school of over 3,000 students at the same time.

Her heart sank immediately.

“I got in the shower around 2:25 (p.m.),” Emily said. “I got out of the shower to 336 text messages all saying, ‘There’s been a shooting at Douglas.’”

To find out about her brother, Emily called her dad first. When he picked up, his answer made her fears all the worse.

“My dad said, ‘Jonathan was in one of the classrooms (that was shot into). I can’t talk right now,’” Emily said.

Without elaboration, he then hung up. Emily’s mother, a teacher at a middle school right next to Marjory Stoneman Douglas, was under lockdown herself and couldn’t speak to Emily on the phone.

Three and a half hours away from home, with nobody to provide her with answers, Emily recalled being an emotional mess. She said she screamed into her phone while searching for a news channel at her Sigma Delta Tau sorority house. Her sorority sisters comforted her, but they couldn’t understand her pain.

This was more than just another American mass-shooting to Emily. This was Parkland. This was Douglas. This was family.

After what felt like hours, around 3:15 p.m., Emily’s phone rang. 

The voice on the other end of the line was her brother, alive and physically injury-free. He explained to his sister that he went straight to the ground whenever the sound of gunshots began to ring-out, leaving his phone on top of his desk, which is why he didn’t call to say he was OK sooner. He didn’t want to risk getting up to grab it.

He also told his sister that the gunshots were the loudest thing he’d ever heard.

“It was the scariest moment of my life,” Jonathan told CBS Miami. “I’m with my family and friends now. I tell them that I love them all of the time. You just don’t know when your last time with them is.”

Though Jonathan was able to escape the school without physical injury, others at the school, including two of his classmates — Nicholas Dworet and Helena Ramsey — weren’t as fortunate. Seventeen people in all, 14 of which were students, died from gunshot wounds inflicted by a 19-year-old gunman.

Nikolas Cruz was taken into custody shortly after the massacre and was booked on 17 counts of premeditated murder. He has since confessed to the shootings. 

When Emily heard the gunman had been found and detained, her first thought was about his punishment. 

“My first reaction was that I hope he doesn’t get the death penalty,” Emily said. “I hope he has to rot in a cell for the rest of his life.”

When she saw her brother for the first time on Friday, she said they embraced each other for numerous minutes. They spent all day watching the TV show Narcos together, trying to keep things as normal as possible.

Emily and Jonathan, along with the city of Parkland as a whole will never be quite the same. Even after she returns to classes Monday afternoon, which USF has excused her from, the thought of the massacre will always linger. 

“He’s not the same, and I don’t think he ever will be,” Emily said. “I don’t think anybody can be. Not even myself. If it can happen at Douglas, it can happen anywhere. If it can happen in Parkland, it can happen anywhere.”

“When people would ask me where I’m from, I used to say I’m from a small town inbetween Coral Springs and Boca. I won’t have to say that anymore. Everyone knows where Parkland is now.”