How we live after UCF scare, Boston bombings

UCF scene after suicide

Students relax outside of the UCF arena Monday, March 18, 2013 after a person was found dead on campus and explosives and guns were found. (Red Huber, Orlando Sentinel / March 18, 2013)

On a recent morning Tower I at the University of Central Florida looked like almost any other college dormitory, with groggy students clutching Starbucks cups and backpacks as they hurried off to final exams.

The scene would have been completely unremarkable if not for a half-dozen signs in the windows that read, "Thank you UCF PD, RA's and BK for saving our lives" and "We ♥ UCF PD."

The handmade tributes to campus police, dorm staff and a fast-acting student known as "BK" are the only hint of what happened last month. Or what could have happened.

Students here are intensely aware of how their lives could have changed or ended that chaotic night when a well-armed fellow student pulled a fire alarm and threatened his roommate. The student then abruptly shot and killed himself instead of going through with what was apparently a plan to commit mass murder in Tower I.

"I feel like I am lucky to be alive," said Erika Fox, a 19-year-old freshman who lived just below the would-be shooter. "When Boston happened, it affected me so much more. I'm so cautious now in crowds of people. It really solidified everything."

Students like Fox illustrate the edginess we live with today.

We may not feel it all the time. But a good many of us feel it at least some of the time.

That's why much of Waterford Lakes Town Center was shut down for four hours earlier this week as police inspected four suspicious packages that turned out to be harmless.

That's why a UCF professor was placed on paid administrative leave also this week after a student complained about a remark that last year would have been forgotten as quickly as any other bad joke.

And it's why Fox and 44 other students who lived in Tower I decided they just couldn't stay there after the failed shooting plot was uncovered. They moved out mid-semester. University administration understood and even refunded part of their rent.

"I knew I needed to go home and clear my head," said Fox's former roommate, Caitlin Calhoun, 19, who moved from campus to downtown Orlando. "Not being there makes it easier to forget."

Fox left Tower I and began commuting to campus from her parents' home in Winter Haven. She said the 60-mile drive was better than staying in a place where she could no longer sleep at night.

"The three of us slept in one room for the first three nights after it happened," Fox said of her roommates.

That may seem like an overreaction to some. The armed student killed himself, but nobody else was hurt in the early-morning hours of March 18 when the fire alarm went off.

"It bothered me for a couple of days, but my roommates and I are doing pretty well," said Lisa Peters, a junior studying elementary education, as she returned to Tower I after an exam.

Many students simply went back to their lives after the crime tape came down and the media attention fell away.

But a heightened sensitivity remains.

"Out of the blue something like that happened, and it could happen again," said Lynn Pierre, as she left the front entrance of the towers for a final exam in one of her pre-med courses.

That should be the take-away for most of us. Not perpetual fear. But a sharp awareness. And comfort in the solidarity that can follow the agony, like what we saw in Boston in the weeks after the marathon bombings.

Tower I felt some of that too. Posted near the front elevators is a handwritten note on a poster board.

"Keep on and don't give up," it read, in part, and was signed "a friend in Tower II."

bkassab@tribune.com

CHICAGO

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