(CNN) — Barely two days ago, their paths crossed in the worst possible circumstances — a man armed with an assault rifle had entered Antoinette Tuff’s school, and she called police.
On Thursday, Tuff and Kendra McCray, the 911 dispatcher on the other end of that line, were together again, sharing an emotional hug and tears before sitting down to recount the episode with CNN’s Anderson Cooper.
“We made it!” Tuff joyfully declared, with McCray responding, “We did.”
The atmosphere for the reunion was starkly different than their original encounter as voices on opposite ends of a telephone line.
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That happened at 12:51 p.m. Tuesday when, according to DeKalb County, Georgia, Police Department spokeswoman Mekka Parrish, authorities got their first call about a shooting at the Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy in Decatur, just outside Atlanta.
Shortly before that, the gunman had slipped into the school and gone into its main office, where he shot one round into the ground.
“I knew then that it was for real,” recalled Tuff, who was in there with him. “And that I could lose my life.”
It was then that Tuff, bookkeeper in that school’s front office, dialed 911. But she wasn’t the only person that could be heard a few miles away at police dispatch — at times, there was the voice of the suspect, later identified as Michael Brandon Hill, in the background.
The gunman used Tuff as a conduit to relay information to police, which in this case meant McCray, who took Tuff’s call at the dispatch center.
In their voices, both women sounded calm throughout the call — even as gunshots were ringing out around Tuff, and later when the suspect reached into a bag to reload his AK-47-type assault rifle.
But inside, they now admit, they were terrified.
McCray recalled Thursday how her hands were shaking, though she knew that she couldn’t reveal her fears in her voice. And Tuff said she was trying to incorporate the lessons she’d learned in church to stay strong for herself, the 800-plus elementary school students in the classrooms behind her — and for the gunman whom she came to feel for.
“I was actually praying on the inside,” she recalled. “I was terrified, but I just started praying.”
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Early in the call, Tuff was blunt in what amounted to a vital assessment of the situation: “He doesn’t want the kids. He wants the police. So back off,” she told McCray. In the next breath, Tuff asked him, “And what else sir?”
The suspect darted from the office to outside a few times, becoming particularly “agitated” in Tuff’s words when police fired back with bullets “coming from everywhere.”
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“And I said to him, come back in here right now,” said the school bookkeeper, who admitted she had to go “to the bathroom so bad” the entire ordeal. “… Don’t worry about it, stay with me, we’re both going to be safe,” she told the man.
The scariest moment, Tuff said, came when — after having fired shots, several times, at police positioned outside — the suspect went into his bag, reloaded his gun and packed his pants and jacket pockets with yet more bullets.
“I knew when he made the last call that he was going to go,” she recalled on CNN. “Because he had loaded up to go.”
But the tone changed over the next few frenetic minutes, much like what was happening at the school.
In the beginning, the gunman appeared “like he didn’t care,” giving the impression that he’d come “in purposely knowing that he was going to die and take lives with him,” said Tuff. But his language, and actions, softened — and so did Tuff’s feelings for him.
“I really began to feel sorry for him,” she told Cooper, adding that the suspect told her he was off his medication and considering suicide. “I knew that where he was at mentally was not a good place. But I knew that he was there, for whatever particular reason, in life.”
The man with the rifle eventually let it be known, via Tuff, that he was no longer threatening to shoot any police officers who approached; by then, he was communicating with them about where he should put his gun, where he should get down on the ground in surrender, and how police would come and get him.
As all of this unfolded, the dispatcher talking to Tuff largely remained silent — except a few brief acknowledgments about what she’d heard and the constant clatter of her keyboard.
In her heart and behind the scenes, though, McCray was sweating it out. Thankfully, she had a “true hero” partner in Tuff who, with her clear descriptions and calm demeanor, made it so the call-taker and thus police could very easily “visualize what she was seeing and what she was going through.”
Even to the end, emotions ran high. The suspect started getting “agitated” after he’d decided to surrender, standing back up and taking a drink of water because police had yet to come and get him.
Recognizing what was happening, McCray said she put her phone on mute.
“I’m hollering across the (dispatch) room: ‘Hey, he’s getting agitated, we need to move.’”
They did get inside the Decatur school in a flurry soon thereafter, surrounding and detaining Hill. That was then, finally, both Tuff and McCray could breathe a sigh of relief.
“You did great,” McCray said to Tuff 31 long minutes after that first call came in. “You did great.”
Hill, meanwhile, was swiftly taken away by law enforcement officers and now sits in a Georgia jail awaiting charges that likely will include aggravated assault on a police officer, making terroristic threats and false imprisonment, according to authorities.
Tuff would like to visit him, calling him a “hurting soul” who she’d like to help.
“We all go through something,” she said, with her 911 call reflecting on her challenges raising a disabled child and suicidal thoughts after the end of her marriage after more than two decades. “And I believe that God gives us a purpose in life.”
And Tuff believes she was meant to be at McNair on Tuesday, even though she’d originally been scheduled to be off. She thinks she was meant to be up front to first encounter the gunman — in that location at that time because she’d been delayed from going back to her desk. She said it was all part of God’s plan — for her, for the suspect and for McNair’s students.
But that doesn’t mean Tuff knew she had it in her, to face down a gunman and potential death so calmly, and to live to tell about it.
“No, no. If somebody would have told me that I was going to be doing that that day, I wouldn’t have believed it,” she told CNN. “God has a way of showing you what’s really in you.”