The TSA agent spotted something suspicious in her luggage.
Four months after the 17 murders in her Florida schoolhouse, where she hid 66 students in a storage room from an active shooter, the female Transportation Security Agent stopped Melody Herzfeld at Chicago’s airport security checkpoint.
Herzfeld was on her way there to present a student with a scholarship when the concerned TSA agent said, “There’s something in your bag.”
Herzfeld thought a moment. “Oh, it must be a little bit of perfume.”
“No, it’s shaped like a ball.”
“Ohhhhh,” Herzfeld said, her voice dropping to a whisper. “That’s my Tony.”
The TSA agent gave her a post-9/11 scowl. “Excuse me?”
“Is it shaped like an apple?”
“Yes. That’s exactly what we’re looking for,” said the TSA agent.
“It’s the Tony Award I was given a week ago at Radio City,” said Herzfeld.
Herzfeld rummaged through the personal items in her carry-on bag and removed the apple-shaped Tony Award that reads: “Excellence in Theater Education Award Presented by The Tony Awards to Melody Herzfeld, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School 2018.”
The smiling TSA agent didn’t ask for the rest of her story, but if she had, Herzfeld, who grew up in Forest Hills, Queens, dreaming of a Broadway career and who has spent every summer in the family home in Jamesport on the North Fork, could have told her that February 14, Valentine’s Day, in Parkland, FL, started as a beautiful, peaceful, day of love.
“It started out as more than a beautiful day,” said Herzfeld, sitting in her spacious backyard overlooking shimmering Peconic Bay wearing a black T-shirt bearing the legend: MAKE ART NOT WAR — #MSDStrong. “February 14 was a perfect day in Parkland — dry, breezy, sunny, and warm, with no humidity — which is very important to girls because none of us was going to have a bad frizzy hair day on Valentine’s Day. The girls at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High were all looking pretty that Valentine’s Day. The boys were carrying flowers, chocolates, and teddy bears for their girls. One guy carried a six-foot teddy bear for hours because he still hadn’t seen his girlfriend. All day, your classes were being interrupted by kids handing out carnation-grams or candy-grams delivered to sweethearts. I even got a candy gram from the Multi Cultural Club.”
During the last period of the day, Herzfeld was sitting in her spacious first-floor drama classroom right across a grassy lawn from the now storied 1200 Building. Her classroom boasts a baby grand piano, wall closets, an inner office, and a big theatrical closet/storage room.
“I had full attendance that day, 72 students, and we were rehearsing our production of The Viking,” Herzfeld said. “We’d cleared out the dozen 16-foot-long tables that sit six students each. We were doing a run-through from the beginning of the show. We started the music, which was very loud. Everyone was in their place. I had just sent five students over to the theater to hang some color gels and lights. And then we started the rehearsal.”
Herzfeld said they were in the fourth hour of rehearsal when the fire alarm went off at about 2:10 PM.
“We’d just had a fire drill that morning,” she said. “So, I’m like, whoa, whoa, whoa, what’s this about? It just seemed really odd. The kids were saying, Herzfeld — they all call me just by my last name — ‘We gotta go.’ I said, ‘No, you gotta give me 30 more seconds. I wanna finish this scene.’ It was right at the end of an act. So, they continued the scene because I knew we were okay. There was nothing burning in our room. Then one of the kids insisted that we had to go.”
Herzfeld relented, leading the students out the door, grabbing the emergency packet containing a class roster, evacuation codes, and emergency instructions.
“I’m still trying to get kids out because they’re lazy,” she said. “Then I hear on the loudspeaker, ‘CODE RED! CODE RED!’ And I hear commotion in the background of the PA system. And I’m like, ‘Whaaaat?’”
Herzfeld said she assumed this was the big emergency drill the teachers were all told was coming at a live-shooter safety forum a month earlier where a prop plastic handgun was passed around and teachers listened to the actual 911 calls following the Sandy Hook school shootings of 2012.
Herzfeld figured this Valentine’s Day alarm was that big active shooter drill they’d all been anticipating at Marjory Stoneman Douglas.
“Then, outside, I hear fireworks,” she said. “Fireworks cracking from the football field, which is many yards away in the other direction. I’m thinking, they are trying to make this drill really realistic and scary. And then I see my kids duck. And start running back toward the classroom. And I’m really matter of fact and telling the others we gotta go back in. Still thinking this is a drill and I just have to do my job now.”
So, she herded all the kids in front of her into the classroom until the whole grassy area outside the now notorious 1200 Building was cleared.
“Then the police alarm sounded from the football field,” recalled Herzfeld now in early July, staring out at the sun dappled Peconic, the sights and sounds of Parkland still vivid in her head. “And I’m still thinking, ‘My God, they are really making this drill realistic.’”
Herzfeld might not have thought it was real, but her students who have grown up on American school shooting as part of their culture certainly did.
Herzfeld closed and locked the classroom door.
“When I turned around my classroom is empty,” she said. “Everyone is gone.”
The kids had instinctively retreated to the rear storage room/closet. Then Herzfeld saw the door of a smaller wall closet close and the students inside wouldn’t open the door when their teacher knocked. “So, I unlocked it with my key and two girls had barricaded the door. So, I made them come out and we started walking to join all the others in the rear closet/storage room. At this point, the kids are convinced this is a real emergency and I’m still thinking it’s a drill. And as we hightail it to the rear storage room, I see 20 kids lying on the floor of the inner-office. I made them get up and come with us. To this day, I have no idea how all 66 kids and I fit in that room but we squished ourselves in there.”
Herzfeld shut and locked the door and turned off the lights and waited. “And I’m still thinking this is a good one, they really made this drill realistic,” she said.
Forty minutes later, Herzfeld received a text from a former student whose father-in-law works for the Broward Sherriff’s Office informing her that there was indeed a live shooter on campus.
“Now I knew this was real,” said Herzfeld, her face still stunned four months and 1332.6 miles later on the grassy lawn of Peconic Bay as a boat sailed past and she prepared for the Fourth of July with her husband and her own sons.
“I told my students in the closet to take out their phones and text their parents where you are and that you’re okay,” she said. “The kids were all shushing me not to talk. I whispered, ‘I gotta take attendance. To make sure no one’s missing.’”
Herzfeld took a hushed attendance.
“There were eight kids missing,” she said. “Five I sent to the theater. One named Cameron went looking for his special needs brother in another class. Two were missing. I told one student to text the five students in the theater. They were okay. Cameron was now with his brother. But Christopher and Kirsten were missing. Finally, we found out by text that they were in the classroom and had pulled the piano on top of them. I told them to stay put.”
Herzfeld said they all fell silent. No one cried. The drama students just sat in the spooky dark like a scene out of A Quiet Place. Except that this was a real-life drama where a real-life monster with a real AR-15 had murdered 17 of their schoolmates, teachers, coaches and security guards in an American schoolhouse in a 21st Century St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
While she waited in the dark with her kids, Herzfeld received a text from a “Good Morning America” reporter.
“This made the situation more real,” Herzfeld said. “How this reporter knew who I was and how she got my cell number I still don’t know. I texted her back that we were fine and in a closet. Then she texted me again saying the parents wanted more details. Could I get on the phone with her for a few seconds? I texted back, ‘no.’ I understand the reporter was doing her job. But my job was taking care of these kids.”
Herzfeld and her 66 students remained hidden in that dark closet for a few more hours. “I texted my husband to let him know that we were okay. Then my phone died. But the kids started getting information via Snap Chat, finding out that their friends had been killed. And then they started to cry. Little girls whimpering. One boy was having a panic attack and I was trying to keep him calm. He wanted to leave. He kept saying, ‘I can’t do this Herzfeld. I gotta get out.’ He tried to get by me. I said, ‘You’re not going anywhere. We got this.’”
The air conditioning had gone off. There was no water. Herzfeld whispered that she’d seen a full bottle of Coke in the closet. A student found it and passed it around. There was also a bucket for anyone who couldn’t hold their pee in the pitch dark. No one used it.
Herzfeld spoke very little.
“It’s better to listen and deal with one problem at a time. The blinds on the windows had teeny, tiny holes by the strings where I could look out. But I could not see anything happening. I kept close to the door thinking about what to do if anyone tried to come through it. I decided that if someone bad did come through, we were going to fight. I wasn’t going to tell the kids that until someone came. But we were going to fight.”
She said that a teacher in an active shooter situation becomes very practical.
“Number one, stay very calm,” she said. “I knew from years of taking 50 and 60 kids on school trips on trains and planes, if you don’t maintain control, the whole situation falls apart. So, I’m not that emotional in a situation like that. It’s strictly business time.”
She didn’t know if the siege was over until she heard banging on the classroom door.
“I could hear police officers,” Herzfeld said. “The kids were asking how the cops would know they were in the closet. I said they’re gonna know because that’s what they do. They are gonna check every single door and room in the building. Every closet, every bathroom, they will check and come through.
“I said, ‘And when they come through here they might break the door open and they’re gonna have guns and they’re gonna be pointing them right at you. So, don’t be scared. You’re gonna be fine. You’re not gonna cry. You’re not gonna fall down. There’s no dramatics on the way out of here. And you’re probably gonna have to run with your hands up. So, get ready.’ So, they were quiet like mice in that closet. They didn’t make a sound.”
Then, Herzfeld said she could hear the police break open the outside classroom door. “I heard one cop shouting, ‘We got three doors here! Three doors here!’ But we kept quiet. Because I knew they were gonna open that closet door. And sure enough, they broke open our door with a crowbar kind of tool. Not ordinary cops, but cops dressed like army soldiers. Aiming automatic rifles. Holding dogs. Shining flashlights at us. They asked if anyone was hurt. I said no.”
They made everyone leave the closet with their hands up and run from the building.
“Outside I knew we were safe,” she said. “The kids were not crying. Once we were on the grass, the kids started to react. One girl started falling apart. I told her she would be okay. You’re here. You’re safe. You’re good. But she was 14 years old. She couldn’t control herself. They’re kids. They’re babies. They just want their mommies. All of them. Even the biggest ones wanted their mommies.”
Herzfeld said the police ushered her class from one part of the campus to another to another and then they just told her that they were all free to go.
“It was like a war zone,” she said. “Like Afghanistan. I never saw so many cops in my life. With dozens of these army-type Land Rovers with canons. I looked at the police officer who was escorting us and asked if I was supposed to just release all these children. I asked if there wasn’t a gathering place where we have to go. He said, ‘No.’ I asked who was in charge here. And this one police officer from Hallandale, 27 miles away, said, ‘I don’t know. I don’t know who’s in charge.’”
Police had put a law enforcement perimeter around the school and so parents had walked up to try to find their kids. “Now parents started rushing up to grab their kids,” said Herzfeld. The first fatality Herzfeld heard about was Aaron Feis. “I knew Aaron well, a football coach, a really nice man. I didn’t believe it at first. And I didn’t want to leave the school because I wanted to see who was coming out after us.”
Finally, she started seeing other teachers and they began hugging, happy they were okay. “I was eyeballing all the kids, seeing who was who,” she said. “We started congregating, telling the boys to take care of the girls. I told one boy named Christopher to take a bunch of girls who were falling apart with emotions in the heat to the library. “
Finally, everyone made their way from the school to the nearby hotel command center, where trauma teams performed emotional triage as reunification took place.
“Then, through the crowd, I saw a teacher friend named Ronit from the 1200 Building where the shooting had occurred, a really tough cookie, but she was in shock, denial, lost in a where-am-I daze, surrounded by cops. She had on a pink Valentine’s Day outfit. Covered in someone else’s blood. It was like being in a movie. I thought this can’t be happening. They took her into a room alone. Then we knew that others had died.”
Herzfeld walked halfway home through the police perimeter until her husband picked her up.
At home, she had the surreal experience of finding out on the national TV news the details of what had happened at the school shooting where she had hidden with 66 kids. Melody Herzfeld began to learn the names of the dead, fellow teachers, security guards, coaches, a former student, and siblings of former students.
“I went to funerals for kids I didn’t know,” she said. “They were all part of the school family.”
Herzfeld said she found out later that those extra 30 seconds, maybe a minute that she’d “selfishly” made her students stay to finish a drama scene had probably saved some of their lives. “Because it was in that exact time frame when the bullets were flying from and all over the 1200 Building that we would have passed. We just missed that most violent period of time when the bullets flew across the grassy area when the music was blaring in our rehearsal room.”
What does she think needs to be done to help end school shootings?
“I do not believe in arming teachers,” she said. “I want to do my job. I expect others to do their jobs of securing the school. We can secure planes, Federal buildings, the White House. You can’t get into a Marlins game or a Beyoncé concert without a pat down. Why can’t we figure out how to secure schoolhouses in 2018? Where is that guy? Why are we not protecting the most important things in our lives — our children? I’m okay with a metal detector. I had them in high school in Queens. If it makes kids safer, why not? Start there.”
Has the tranquility of the North Fork been a healing respite from the horrors of the Parkland shootings?
“After the shootings, I marched with the students in Washington, DC,” she said. “The next day, I came here to Jamesport where I’ve been coming my whole life. It’s the perfect place to reflect and find peace — from the shootings, the phone, the text messages, the funerals, and the media — here by Peconic Bay. It’s like therapy for me here. It’s safe. It’s quiet. It’s beautiful. When school ended for the year on a Thursday, I was here in Jamesport on Friday.”
After the shootings, unbeknownst to Herzfeld, some of her students from her first year at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High 14 years ago wrote letters to the Broadway League nominating her for the Excellence in Theater Education Tony Award of 2018.
“I was in class doing a rehearsal, giving out bathroom passes, taking attendance, giving extensions on scene rehearsals when my cell phone rang and it was a woman asking if I would accept a Tony Award. I just fell silent. I’m usually a big mouth, but I was just speechless because this wasn’t about me. This Tony Award was about the amazing Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, about our terrific students, especially about those who died and those of us who will never forget them.”
Then Melody Herzfeld started preparing for the July 4 weekend at her home on the banks of Peconic Bay in Jamesport. In late August she will be back in Parkland, FL, teaching her students drama.
“I’m bringing the Tony with me,” she said.