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A student and a professor remember the UNC Charlotte mass shooting three years later

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David Boraks
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In the days after the shooting, students gathered outside the Kennedy building to place flowers and handmade memorials.

Sometimes our bodies remember the anniversary of trauma before our brains do. That’s the case for 22-year-old Drew Pescaro, who was shot three years ago in his anthropology class at UNC Charlotte. On April 30, 2019, a gunman opened fire in the classroom, killing two students and wounding four others.

Pescaro noted the shift in how he was feeling this week before his mind completely caught up.

"I would say mentally exhausted," Pescaro said. "Disbelief, like, that actually happened, and it's been three years since that actually happened."

This year has been better than years past, he points out. Since the shooting, he graduated from UNC Charlotte, got married, moved to Raleigh, and works in the corporate sponsorship department for the Carolina Hurricanes. But there will always be reminders of what happened that day in 2019. For one, there are the physical scars: He has an entry and exit scar on his back and lower right stomach and then a long scar on his abdomen from the surgery he had to have. And then there are the emotional ones — the memories of the moments after he was shot.

"People that I sat with offered to help me out, and I was not in a condition to get up and didn't want to slow them down because who knew what was going to happen next?" he said. "So I told them, like, 'You've got two other people that are hurt. Just go.' And so for what felt like an eternity, but probably five minutes, I was alone in that room — me, Riley and Reid and then the person that did it."

Pescaro says it’s been a balance reestablishing his own identity of who he is outside of the shooting — a balance, albeit an imperfect one he says, that he’s finally been able to make this year. Therapy helped. So has his family. Doing interviews is therapeutic in a way. And keeping in touch with people who were in the classroom, like his former professor Adam Johnson, helps as well.

"Especially this time of year, it's important to touch base, the people I guess, supported by the other people who experienced it firsthand," Pescaro said.

"I see, you know, the students, a lot of the students that are in the class that I stay in touch with are also being successful," Johnson said. "And that helps a lot."

Shortly after the shooting, Johnson moved to Texas, where he still teaches college classes and is currently a doctorial candidate at the University of Texas at San Antonio. This year, his headspace is a little clearer. Breathing through this anniversary, especially at a distance, is a little easier. Johnson is not big on memorial events this time of year. What happened three years ago is now an ingrained part of who he is as a person and as an instructor, he says; he doesn’t need the reminder.

"I remember it every day and live it every day, and it's something that I think about every day," Johnson said. "Some days those thoughts are easier to deal with and other days, not so much. And that's OK because I know I can handle it."

Johnson does few interviews. In fact, he says this is only the fourth one he’s done since the shooting happened. He says the focus needs to be on the students and the families of the victims.

He remembers Riley Howell and Reed Parlier, who sat at the same table in class. He would talk with Howell about "Star Wars." He’d discuss with Parlier how he could apply what he was currently learning in anthropology to his desired career in computer science. He remembers trying to reach out to their parents after the shooting. He wanted to give them whatever he could of theirs like completed assignments, anecdotal stories about what they said or did in class — any pieces of their sons' lives he could give back.

Like Pescaro, Johnson has also experienced personal and professional success over the last three years. Time has helped mend memories of the violence. So did relocating. But then there are certain parts of what happened that still clearly haunt Johnson. Every time he steps onto a campus, he worries it might happen again.

"I just assume everybody has a gun," Johnson said. "And like at any moment, somebody gets a bad grade in one of their classes and then they just, you know, snap or whatever."

And there are the impossible questions he asks himself about that day three years ago.

"There's always the kind of persistent, quiet voice that's like, you know what, what else could you have done differently or whatever? But then you know, how productive is that? I don't know if I bear responsibility for it, but at the same time, like, I love my students and I love teaching, and I want them all to be successful and to go on to live long, happy, successful lives. And that didn't happen in the most egregious, horrible way possible. That's rough."

That complex feeling of guilt is something Pescaro can relate to.

"How do I explain it? I don't feel guilty for being alive," Pescaro said. "It's not that. It's more so just like, why? You know, why couldn't the two of them be?"

A few weeks ago, Pescaro and his family attended a 4-mile run that was a fundraiser for the Riley Howell Foundation Fund. At the end of the day, Pescaro and his family spent time with Howell’s family at their home.

"I had not met Riley's mother yet, and that was a tough experience in a way," Pescaro said. "Just, you know, I'm standing there next to my mom, and then she's standing there, and it's, you know, getting to see the opposite. My mom seeing what could have been her situation versus she is seeing what could have been their situation."

And then the Howells showed Pescaro and his family Riley’s room — full of sports and "Star Wars" items. It made an impression on him. He felt like he got to know Riley better standing in his room; the two had more in common than he realized.

That day, he also saw Reed Parlier’s parents. It felt good to catch up with them. What happened on campus is never going to be OK. But for the first time, Pescaro says, he saw people doing better. It’s still not perfect; it may never be. But breathing did get a little bit easier this year, both for Pescaro and Johnson.

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