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For parents of Mount Tabor students, a long, anxious wait in a hot parking lot after school shooting in Winston-Salem
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For parents of Mount Tabor students, a long, anxious wait in a hot parking lot after school shooting in Winston-Salem

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“What’s going on? Answer as soon as possible,” Jennifer Coty texted her daughter, Julia, around 12:17 p.m., on Wednesday.

What followed was three minutes of silence.

Three minutes of hell.

Shortly after noon, word spread through social media that there had been a shooting at Mount Tabor High School. Coty was at work, oblivious to the chatter when her son, a student at Appalachian State University in Boone, asked her if she had heard from Julia.

Parents gathered at the city’s reunification center wait to meet their children after the shooting at Mount Tabor High School in Winston-Salem on Wednesday, September 1, 2021.

Coty waited and waited for Julia to return her text, time moving like a slow drip.

Finally, her phone rang. It was Julia.

“There might be a shooting,” she told her mom.

Coty heard shouting in the background. Julia, a junior, was hustled to a safe place.

“Fear set in,” Coty said.

Though she usually works in Winston-Salem, Coty was in Thomasville Wednesday. She bolted to her car and made the 40-minute drive, occasionally breaking down in tears.

Coty, her husband, Kollen Pyle, and hundreds of other parents flocked to the sprawling parking lot at Whitaker Square near the intersection of Robinhood and Peace Haven roads, where they were told to wait for their children.

At first, the reunion felt imminent, but it stretched to hours.

WATCH NOW: Police Chief Catrina Thompson shares an emotional description of the Mount Tabor High School shooting that left a student dead on Wednesday, September 1, 2021.

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As the mid-day heat rose off the blacktop pavement, parents kept their phones on their ears, desperate to talk with their children. A few sat silently inside their cars, their eyes brimmed with tears.

Their anxiety radiated off them, and many did not want to talk.

Fortunately, most students were able to get in touch with their families quickly, alleviating their immediate concern. Still, parents ached to be with their children, to comfort them.

Shanise Curry’s 16-year-old son is a sophomore at Mount Tabor.

“You don’t realize that it (a school shooting) will come to your city,” Curry said. “You only see this stuff in other places, not thinking that it will happen in your own home.”

The plan was to bus students from Mount Tabor to the shopping center, but with the suspect on the loose, law enforcement was cautious about reuniting parents and students in such an open area. So as the manhunt intensified, parents waited.

At times, it got chaotic. Panic set in around 2:40 p.m., when law enforcement came running from behind the shopping center, telling people to take cover. Word spread that the shooter was in the woods nearby. That was never verified, but it triggered a wave of fear with parents and others scrambling inside or behind cars.

“You’re not going back to Mount Tabor,” one mother shouted in the phone. “You’re not going back to high school.”

Parents traded what they had heard, that different schools were on lock down, that the shooter was near Silas Creek Parkway, then Calvary Baptist Church. Some monitored the police scanner on their phones.

A few hours into the wait, employees from Harris-Teeter pushed shopping carts filled with bottled water through the parking lot, handing them out to parched parents. Chick-fil-A did brisk business. Siren bursts penetrated the thick, humid air, a constant reminder that the shooter continued to pose a threat.

Coty and Pyle waited patiently. They knew Julia was safe as she waited with other students inside the school’s auditorium.

“This feels very surreal,” she said.

Around 3:15 p.m., Winston-Salem Police gathered parents in front of the Harris-Teeter entrance and announced that parents would reunite with their children at an undisclosed location. They asked people not to post anything about the location on Facebook Live, such was the level of concern that the students could remain a target.

In their patrol cars, state troopers escorted a long line of parents to the location, Joel Coliseum, which was heavily patrolled, with officers at every entrance. It took another two hours or so for the reunions to begin, for worry to give way to relief.

336-727-7420

@lisaodonnellWSJ

Journal reporter John Hinton contributed to this story.

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