Antoinette Tuff doesn't see herself as a hero, but plenty of other people do.
Tuff was at the center of a tragedy in the making on Tuesday at a Decatur, Ga., elementary school, after a young man armed with an assault rifle and other weapons managed to slip through a door without being buzzed in, as more than 800 students were starting the second week of the school year. The man took Tuff, who is a bookkeeper at the school, and another staff member hostage.
The man — whom police identified as Michael Brandon Hill, a 20-year-old with a history of mental health problems — allegedly shot at police through a window a half-dozen times, and they returned fire. He told Tuff he was prepared to die. Parents rushed to the school, Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy, fearing another massacre like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Tuff resolved to do what she could to ensure that wouldn't happen.
"He had a look on him that he was willing to kill — matter of fact he said it. He said that he didn't have any reason to live and that he knew he was going to die today," Tuff told local station WSB-TV. "I knew that if he got outside, he was unstable enough to start shooting at everybody."
So she talked to him, trying to calm him. She told him she understood how he felt, and related hardships she had been through herself, including the collapse of her marriage after 33 years. "I told him, 'Okay, we all have situations in our lives,'" she said. "'It was going to be okay. If I could recover, he could, too.'"
At first, he dismissed what she was saying, telling her he was ready to die. Eventually, though, she reached him. She told him to put down the rifle, empty his pockets, lie down, and surrender to the police. He did — and even said he was sorry.
She later said God had answered her prayers, and took no credit for herself. But there's no telling how many lives she saved.