The tipping point

NIU shooting victim Patrick Korellis says that, as survivors unite in ever greater numbers, they may finally compel change on gun control

By Ted Cox

On Feb. 14 of this year, Patrick Korellis joined other survivors to mark the 10th anniversary of the mass shooting at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb.

"I was with a lot of the victims' family members who were affected by that mass shooting," he recalled, "and we were in there just getting ready to lay our memorial wreaths on our classmates' memorials when all of a sudden news broke out about a shooting having been done in Florida, and that was the Parkland shooting in Douglas High School. And the looks on people's faces when that happened. We were just in awe of a shooting happening on the anniversary of another shooting. We just couldn't believe it. Just, just terrible."

Five people were killed in the Valentine's Day 2008 attack on a lecture hall at NIU. Korellis was one of 20 who were shot and survived. Now a data researcher at Walgreens with a specialty in maps and a resident of Chicago's Ravenswood area, he recently reached out to Alderman Ameya Pawar, his City Council representative, in a bid to advance gun reforms. He agreed to sit down for an interview with Pawar for One Illinois, the nonprofit news outlet Pawar founded, as part of that campaign.

They agreed that the increasing frequency of mass shootings — incident falling on the anniversary of another incident — had to be addressed. Yet Korellis also spoke of some curious and somehow encouraging developments that grew out of that.

Korellis said he found after the DeKalb shooting that a network soon formed of fellow survivors — as if only someone who shared the same experience of suddenly confronting an armed attacker in a seemingly safe setting, such as a school or university, could counsel and truly comfort someone who'd been through the same.

In his experience, shortly after the NIU shooting, survivors were invited to Virginia Tech University, which had experienced its own mass shooting the year before. "That's what helped me the most," Korellis said, "was speaking to them of what happened at Virginia Tech and them speaking to us."

Korellis said he not only met Virginia Tech survivors there, but also one from Columbine High School in Aurora, Colo., from the 1999 shooting there, and a network began to form. After the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in New Jersey in 2012, two women he'd met at Virginia Tech formed a private Facebook page for survivors of mass shootings. Korellis, meanwhile, was leading a Facebook page for NIU survivors.

The tragedy is that the number of those who've experienced mass shootings is growing, seemingly exponentially, but at the same time they're finding strength in those numbers on social media. "Shortly after Sandy Hook, there were about 200 members" of that private Facebook page, Korellis said. "Now, there's close to a thousand. And I would say 200 to 300 of those members have just been from the last two years, from Vegas, from Santa Fe, from Parkland. ... And the number keeps growing as more of the victims are starting to learn about this group."

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"I'm not here to go against the Second Amendment. I'm just here to make a change, to do something. I don't want what happened to me to happen to anyone else."

Patrick Korellis (One Illinois/Zachary Sigelko)

The Douglas High School survivors from Parkland, Fla., of course, have been particularly galvanizing. For a while, Korellis said, survivors of each new shooting believed that things had finally shown themselves to be so horrific something would have to be done to stop the carnage. Columbine survivors thought it would be the last mass shooting, Virginia Tech the same, NIU, Sandy Hook, and on. But things really seemed to change with the eloquence and ferocity of the teenagers who survived the Parkland attack.

Emma Gonzales will join other Parkland survivors in Chicago at 7 p.m. Friday for an End of the School Year Peace March and Rally at St. Sabina Catholic Church, 1210 W. 78th Place, along with former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, survivor of a 2011 mass shooting in Tuscon, Ariz., as well as Chance the Rapper. The 22 March for Our Lives Parkland kids will return to St. Sabina on Saturday for a teen summit with 50 locals from Chicago's South and West Side to kick off a 20-city nationwide Road to Change tour that will take them to suburban Naperville later Saturday for a sold-out event slated to start at 6 p.m. at DuPage Unitarian Universalist Church, 1828 Old Naperville Road.

All the Road to Change events are not just discussions on shootings and gun control, but voter-registration drives. Korellis said it seems that this time there really is a different attitude about getting something done in response, and that U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin shared the same thoughts in a recent conversation they had.

"He said, 'I am starting to see, you know, a slight change. I think something may happen this time,'" Korellis said. Durbin urged him and other survivors to keep up the pressure, as their voices exert the most power.

Korellis immediately backed two simple reforms: background checks to buy a gun and a ban on assault weapons. Both grew directly out of his own experience. The NIU attack was conducted by Steven Kazmierczak, an NIU grad who'd previously been discharged from the Army before completing basic training for lying about a history of mental illness on his application.

Yet Korellis also pointed out that, for all the damage he did, Kazmierczak wasn't armed with an assault rifle. "I always tell people that, in my classroom of 150, there were only five deaths because you only had a shotgun and several handguns," he said. "If he had the type of gun that was used in Sandy Hook or used in Vegas, where 500 people were shot, he could just keep shooting and shooting. I don't think I would be here today. I think many more of my classmates would have been killed. And it just scares me to think about that."

Korellis insisted these proposals were a bare minimum — gun reforms even most gun owners consider common sense. He rejected those who suggest that teachers be armed instead.

"My mom's a teacher," he added. "She said they just had an active-shooter drill a couple of weeks ago, and she said it was scary and she told me, 'Patrick, this is not the solution. What are these girls going to do when a gunman comes in? They tell us to close our doors and hide or hide our students, but I don't think that's the solution.' And I said I don't think so either."

 Patrick Korellis looks at an X-ray of the shotgun pellets he still carries. (One Illinois/Zachary Sigelko)

Patrick Korellis looks at an X-ray of the shotgun pellets he still carries. (One Illinois/Zachary Sigelko)

It brought back twinges of memory from his original experience, when he was slow to recognize just what was happening as the armed man came through a side door to the lecture-hall stage and began shooting. Korellis hid, then tried to run when the shooting briefly stopped and someone shouted out that the gunman was reloading — only to be hit in the back with a shotgun blast as he neared the door.

After recovering, Korellis insisted on returning to school, as he was about to graduate, and he earned his degree that spring. But the memories lingered. Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, he said he typically checks for the nearest exit when he finds himself in a new setting like a theater. Loud noises startle him. He still has buckshot in his neck, back, and arm, and the piece in the nape of his skull — which could easily have left him paralyzed or even dead if it had hit just inches over — still causes pain and generates a sharp sting in cold weather. He relives the shooting each time a new one makes the news.

"I'm not here to go against the Second Amendment," Korellis added. "I'm just here to make a change, to do something. I don't want what happened to me to happen to anyone else. I don't want anyone else to go through that. Ten years later, I'm still having effects. Talking to students from Columbine, 20 years later, they're still having effects. None of us want what happened to us to happen to anyone else."