NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Nashville police officers who stopped the Covenant School shooting last week spoke out publicly for the first time on Tuesday, detailing the shock and horror of the incident.
They described the smell of gun power and stepping over bodies before firing the bullets that stopped the shooter.
“Last Monday was a day that we all hope we’d never see anywhere, and especially here in Nashville,” Police Chief John Drake said.
The shooting March 27 left three children and three adult staff members dead. The incident was one of Tennessee’s deadliest school shootings.
The shooter, identified by police as 28-year-old Audrey Hale, broke into the private elementary school around 10:11 a.m. and was armed with a rifle. Officers who responded to the scene killed Hale about 14 minutes later.
Det. Michael Collazo and Officer Rex Engelbertfired the fatal shots , according to Nashville police. They were joined by Det. Sergeant Jeff Mathes Tuesday afternoon at a news conference held at the Metro Nashville Police Department headquarters.
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Mathes, who first entered the school with Engelbert, retold the series of events from his point of view. They began to sweep the first floor, following training protocols. When they heard gunfire, they quickly went to the second floor.
“The smell of gunpowder was in the air,” Mathes said.
They began to move through a second floor hallway as they heard more shots.
“All of us stepped over a victim,” Mathes said. “I, to this day, do not know how I did that morally. But training is what kicked in.”
Engelbert detailed the moment he got the call – a “code 9000” – that indicated an active deadly aggressor. He’d heard calls like that before, which were false alarms. Something told him this was different.
“I couldn’t get to it fast enough,” Engelbert said.
He quickly teamed up with Mathes and others when he arrived on the scene and heard gunshots. Later in the day, when Engelbert was relieved from duty, he was told to sit in his car.
“That was pretty difficult to do, because I could tell there was more work to be done,” Engelbert said.
Collazo then described how he saw custodian Mike Hill, who was killed in the shooting, laying on the floor as he first entered the school through shot-out glass doors. He relayed the information about Hill over the radio, but knew he had to keep moving.
Collazo worked with other officers to clear rooms on the first floor when they started hearing gunshots.
“That’s when everything kinda kicked into overdrive for us,” Collazo said.
After rerouting around a locked door, Collazo and those with him were able to make it to the second floor. They pushed past another victim as they ran toward the gunfire, he said. Engelbert went ahead of them “without hesitation” as they approached the shooter, Collazo said.
After the shooter was down, their efforts shifted.
“It clicked for every officer that was on scene that it was time to start trying to render aid to the victims and trying to evacuate the school,” Collazo said.
Drake spoke again after Collazo finished, saying some officers responded so quickly that they didn’t bother to put on ballistic gear to keep themselves safe.
“Those officers immediately went in,” Drake said. “They just wanted to save kids.”
The Covenant School staff training ‘saved lives’
Nashville police also praised Covenant School staff for their courage and adherence to training.
“The teachers had gone through active aggressor, active shooter training recently,” Drake said. “Their efforts also saved lives. They knew how to have kids on the wall away from the windows, out of the hallways, where we could have had a lot more casualties, they were able to protect these kids as well.”
Engelbert noted the bravery of two school staff members who remained on the scene, even sharing concise information, directions and a key.
Collazo also spoke on the individual efforts of staff members. One employee saw Collazo and took off running to show the officer the door where shooter made entry.
Midtown Hills Precinct Commander Dayton Wheeler encountered an administrator who relayed helpful information upon arrival.
“The preparation that the school did (for) that day,” Wheeler said. “The training they went through, that mirrored with the response of the police department saved countless lives.”