NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — The Metro Nashville officers who stopped a mass shooting at The Covenant School spoke publicly for the first time on Tuesday, recalling every moment before and after they took down the shooter.
Sgt. Jeff Mathes, Detective Michael Collazo, and Officer Rex Engelbert each volunteered to speak with reporters at police headquarters Tuesday afternoon. They were joined by Nashville Police Chief John Drake and Cmdr. Dayton Wheeler, who also said a few words.
Drake said Monday, March 27 was a day they all hoped they “would never see anywhere, especially here in Nashville.”
Mathes, Collazo, and Engelbert were among some of the first officers to arrive at the school that day. Most of them had been performing administrative duties when just after 10 a.m., an active shooter call came over their radios.
“Immediately my stomach dropped when I realized it was a school,” said Wheeler, who oversees the MNPD’s midtown precinct, where the Covenant School is located.
As soon as the call came in, each officer immediately stopped what they were doing and began heading to 33 Burton Hills Boulevard. Drake said some officers didn’t even think to put ballistic vests or helmets on as they were rushing out the door.
“The first responders that responded…did what we’re trained to do,” Drake said. “They formed together, they got prepared and went right in knowing that every second, every moment wasted could cost lives.”
Engelbert, who has been with the police department for four years, said he still hadn’t finished his morning coffee when he got the call. He was driving to the MNPD’s policing academy at the time and was outside of his normal precinct.
“I think you could call it fate, or God, or whatever you want, but I can’t count on both my hands the irregularities that put me in that position,” he said. “I’ve been to I don’t know how many false deadly aggression calls, but something told me it was time to really get to this one.”
When they arrived, the officers recalled seeing school staff members waiting outside. Multiple employees gave them calm, clear information.
Collazo, a nine-year veteran on the force, said an employee ran to show him the door where the shooter had entered the school. There he saw shell casings on the ground, bullet holes on the door, and the custodian on the ground not moving.
After entering the building, the officers met up and immediately began clearing the rooms one by one looking for the shooter. They had cleared several rooms on the first floor when they suddenly heard gunshots above them.
“Once we started hearing the first shots that’s when everything kicked into overdrive for us,” Collazo said.
Mathes said he could clearly tell the gunshots were from a rifle based on his years of training and experiences. He also recalled smelling gunpowder as he got to the second floor.
“We didn’t know if the shooter was to the left or the right,” Collazo said. “Smoke was everywhere and the fire alarm was going off.”
The sound of gunshots was their only indication of where the shooter was. As they moved toward the shots, they encountered a second victim in the hallway. Mathes said he vividly remembers stepping over the person.
“All of us stepped over a victim,” he said. “I to this day don’t know how I did that morally, but training is what kicked in.”
Once they found the shooter, Englebert shot a total of four rounds from his rifle while Collazo fired four rounds from his nine-millimeter pistol. After the shooter was killed, officers shifted focus to helping the victims and evacuating the school.
When it was all over, the first thing Collazo did was call his wife to tell her he was okay.
All of the responding officers offered their deepest condolences to the families of the six victims, who were identified as Evelyn Dieckhaus, Hallie Scruggs, William Kinney, all 9 years old, Cynthia Peak, 61, Dr. Katherine Koonce, 60, and Mike Hill, 61.
Mathes, who has an 11-year-old child, said he and the other responding officers have all experienced many sleepless nights and have been hugging their children closer than normal, but support from the police department and community has helped.
“I’ve received emails from people outside the country, all over the nation that are sending support,” Wheeler said. “We’ve had students from the school that day who’ve come to the precinct to visit with these officers. The community as a whole has been tremendous during this entire ordeal.”
In addition to the quick actions of officers, Drake said the efforts of school staff, who had just recently undergone an active shooter training, “also saved lives” that day. He also commended dispatchers for their clear communication, and the other agencies that assisted.
“This has not been an easy time,” he said. “I’m totally proud of our men for what they did.”