In Their Own Words: John Nolt

Witnesses write about the horror and the heroes of the TVUUC shooting—and what came after

On July 27, Knoxville joined a short roster of cities synonymous with sudden, inexplicable violence: Columbine, Blacksburg, Omaha. The shooting of congregants at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church went beyond a nightmarish crime; it's become another sign of the times, reported around the world as a new example of what America has become. But there were many stories that day, and they ought to be told by the people who were there. Here is one of them. Read more essays and Metro Pulse coverage.

John Nolt

As a philosopher, I'm supposed to have reflections on things like this. But in this case I thought it better simply to let the facts speak for themselves.

When the shooting began, my wife, Annette Mendola, and I were sitting on the left side of the sanctuary near the front. Annette's 10-year-old daughter, Évora, was onstage. Évora's father, Karl Kreis, was visible across the sanctuary, high up, silhouetted against the sunny windows.

There was a sharp, painfully loud explosion on the other side of the church somewhere below Karl. The source was not apparent. A woman who had been sitting below Karl tumbled to the floor. A second explosion. "Get down!" I said urgently to Annette. We crouched behind the parapet in front of our pew. There was a door nearby, but people in front of us were hesitating. A third explosion. "Go, go," I urged—"Now!" They moved, and suddenly we were outside under the blue sky and bright sun. Not far away, Évora was standing by herself, crying. Annette ran to her. I followed.

The explosions had stopped. People were weeping or standing in shock. Some adults were gathering children together and looking for those who were missing. Annette, Évora, and I moved with a group of other adults and children up the hill to the east of the church. There we sat, huddled behind bushes, adults on the outside facing inward with our arms around six or eight children. Other adults were compiling lists of the children's names and trying to locate parents. Évora was sobbing, "Where's my Daddy? Where's my Daddy?" Annette was trying to comfort her. We heard sirens. Police cars and ambulances began to arrive, lights flashing.

I spotted Karl striding up the hill. "There's your Daddy," I said. "He's OK." We waved to him, and Karl came up and sat with us and the children. He told us that he had seen a man with a shotgun fire at Greg McKendry. Several men had wrestled the gunman down and taken the gun, and Karl had joined them, helping to hold him to the floor until the police arrived. Karl said that Greg was badly hit, but how many other injuries there might be, or how serious, he didn't know.

Someone asked for volunteers to help with traffic. Karl and I went down to the parking lot exit below and behind the church, to direct departing ambulances out toward Concord Street. For a while we stood there while people were loaded into the ambulances. Then one after another, the ambulances rolled by, lights flashing in eerie silence. Among them was a police car with a handcuffed man in the back seat.

After witnesses had been interviewed, the police allowed us to go home. Throughout the afternoon neighbors, family, friends phoned or came by. We talked and made meals. We checked the Internet for news. But our emotions were flat. The night was restless, haunted by mental reruns of shotgun blasts.

On Monday morning I went to my office and tried to work. But Karl took Évora back to the church to place some flowers there. As they were standing in the now silent sanctuary, Évora stood and sang spontaneously a song that she has heard since early childhood and whose history and meaning has long been a part of her "liberal" education: "We Shall Overcome."

John Nolt is a Professor of Philosophy at UT and President of the Faculty Senate.