Margaret Balich woke up last Wednesday morning to a barrage of text messages from family, friends, and University of Pittsburgh classmates asking if she was okay. Moments later, she learned there was an unconfirmed active shooter at Central Catholic High School, where her brother George goes to school.
“I was texting my roommates, my parents, my siblings, just like, what's going on? You know, is this real? Is George gonna die? Someone made up a rumor that six people had gotten shot, which obviously turned out to be false,” Balich tells Pittsburgh City Paper.
Police and ambulances soon surrounded the high school on Fifth Avenue. Pitt students refreshed their Twitter feeds and blasted group chats as they were instructed to stay indoors. At 11:50 a.m., everyone got the alert — it had been a hoax. Other fake calls had also been placed across the country.
Margaret’s mom came to Oakland as soon as the news broke. Then, after a morning of panic and terror — after her brother had texted their family “I love you” — Balich had to go to class. “My mom drove me,” she says. “It was kind of weird just being in there, like, door open, in the cathedral while there's still officers roaming around Oakland with huge guns and helicopters flying over.”
Watching campus try to return to normal, Balich wished classes had been canceled that afternoon. She spent the coming days processing what she experienced as a very traumatic morning.
“We expect shootings to happen, and yet, there's kind of a cognitive dissonance," Balich says. "You never think it will happen to your community or your family."
Dalia Maeroff grew up in the city and went to Pittsburgh Public Schools. She says her generation has become desensitized to gun violence, with shooting threats, drills, and metal detectors a part of everyday life.
“The drills were a pretty common occurrence,” Maeroff tells City Paper. “It was something you kind of got used to — you'd be standing in the back of the class or on the floor of the class underneath the desk, like joking, and texting your friends, you know, something we all kind of took pretty lightly. Until it happened here.”
The year before she enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh, a gunman opened fire in the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill. She says a lot of that day was a blur. “Just waking up, checking your phone and being, you know, shocked,” Maeroff shares. “I immediately went to the TV, turned on the news and sat with my family and I watched what was happening.”
Maeroff’s family knew everyone who had been killed in the shooting. She witnessed the aftermath across the city. “There were people who knew everyone and there were people who didn't know anybody at all, but you still grieve because it's something that’s happened in your community.”
She was at home in Squirrel Hill when Pitt went into lockdown on Wednesday and the texts began streaming in. Her first thought — it's happening again. “Immediately alarms were going off in my head, like, what was happening? And I didn't know yet. I was Googling ‘Pittsburgh news,’” she shares.
After the shooting at Tree of Life, Maeroff and other young people rallied, petitioned, and advocated for reform, she says.
But she doesn’t think the burden of gun violence should rest on young people. “I think that it was a very difficult time in which you're expected to organize, to help heal when all you want to do is grieve."