But what happens when you’re the one in danger instead of your child?
“If this was a movie,” I kept thinking, “nobody would believe it.” And I should know – I actually make movies for a living.
We had a wonderful Family Weekend celebrating our daughter’s junior year at Cornell University. After a year of online classes and more nasal swabs than humanly possible, it was a relief for her (and us) to return to some normalcy. Our family experiencedIthaca and its environs in all its glory. Stunning fall foliage, a festive sorority dinner, delicious local ice cream, an incredible hike and waterfall – everything we’ve come to associate with the University and upstate New York in our years as Cornell parents (our oldest daughter graduated from Cornell as well).
It all culminated with a Sunday breakfast at the elegant Statler Hotel.Afterward we said our goodbyes, with my ex and her husband driving off to Long Island, and our daughter getting a ride back to her off campus apartment. It was then that I started to feel a bit queasy.
I was supposed to drive back to Manhattan with our oldest daughter, but before we could even make it off campus, I pulled over and got sick. I stayed hunched over for a while, unable to feel the relief that usually accompanies throwing up. My daughter sat nervously waiting, knowing she had to get back to her new job. I began to sweat; as it was an unseasonably warm fall day.
The thought of sitting in a car for the next four hours made me gag, so I asked my daughter if she’d mind driving by herself. We agreed that she would take my stuff back to the hotel and check me in for another night, and I would take the Cornell bus to Manhattan the next day when I felt better. She headed off, and this is where the story should end.
But not on this day.
I wandered North Campus, trying to keep my spirits up and my breakfast down. As many times as I’d been there, I never tired of its splendor and this day was no exception. Despite it being Sunday, students were everywhere, enjoying the beautiful warm weather. I watched as the Cornell baseball team ran drills on the manicured field, and people assembled happily on every quad.
Suddenly, everything changed. One of the coaches motioned frantically and all the players disappeared off the field. Buildings started to empty out quickly. People were scattering in every direction, as if they were participants in a mysterious race. The campus went from packed to nearly deserted in the span of just a few minutes.
Despite feeling nauseous and dehydrated, I knew that something strange was happening. Confused, I reached for my phone, remembering that I’d turned it off because the battery was low. The minute I turned it back on I heard my daughter’s panicked voice. Apparently, an alert had gone out that something bad was happening on campus and everyone was to evacuate immediately. I heard her say the words that every parent dreads – “possible active shooter”.
Those of us who were in Manhattan on 9/11 know that even if the odds of something terrible actually happening are remote, you never really know. And there have been way too many school shootings in recent years to not take these threats seriously.
I wasn’t sure where to go or what to do. My daughter told me that her roommate’s parents had turned their car around and picked them up, taking them to a safe location further upstate. Both my girls were safe, as was my ex-wife and her husband – that was the good news.
I checked Twitter and saw that the police had now confirmed a possible bomb threat, specifying several buildings on campus including Upson Hall. I looked up and saw that I was standing right in front of Upson Hall. That was the bad news.
Unbeknownst to me, my situation had the rest of my family in a total panic. In different places, they were all frantically trying to reach me or someone who could help.
There were lots of tears, questions about what to do, even guilt that I’d been left behind in this terrible situation. In a reverse of normal life, my two daughters ended up worrying for hours about their father in a school lockdown. That time they spent not knowing what to do would truly be the worst of this situation, and it was only later that I found out how emotionally exhausting it was for all of them. For me, I would much rather have been there by myself knowing that the rest of them were safe.
I was relieved but scared. As I hesitantly made my way across the desolate grounds, I found that every building was locked. There wasn’t a soul anywhere, except for the police cars racing on the roads. Otherwise it was total silence.
I headed back to the Statler. Through the glass window, the manager explained that they couldn’t unlock the door until the police permitted it; they were going from building to building to clear each one and hadn’t yet been to the hotel. I saw the conflict in his face but respected the situation in which he found himself. He handed me a bottle of water and I wandered off.
My thoughts were scrambled. Cornell had a reputation as the one of the most stressful colleges in America, and the recent Covid stuff couldn’t possibly help. Did a student feel helpless, lost, angry? Could a Cornell employee be so furious that they wanted to cause destruction? Do we ever really find out afterwards what causes these situations; does it even matter?
My phone died. The only thing I could think of was to go to the on-campus police station. Somehow it seemed like the safest place to be in a situation like this, and I sat outside the building for an hour, watching the police come and go. I didn’t want to bother anyone but seeing their professionalism and serious demeanor somehow calmed my worst fears.
The sun started to set, and I was shivering in my t-shirt. I realized that I had no choice but to make my way to the hotel, which was roughly a 40-minute walk under normal circumstances. Needing to bypass the campus, I walked through a vast gorge and winding paths that ultimately let me out somewhere in downtown Ithaca. The irony wasn’t lost on me – surrounded by so much natural beauty yet wondering – who would do such a thing? Terrify so many innocent people?
I arrived, depleted, at the hotel. The staff told me that an alert had just gone out that the campus was back open; the police cleared every building individually. Campus police and the FBI were currently investigating the source of the threats. I checked into the room and collapsed on the bed, finally able to reconnect with my relieved family.
As for us, we remain shaken but undeterred – a familiar feeling for many families after the events of the last couple of years. Personally, I will never forget my hours spent wandering that idyllic campus, as proud as a parent can be. Grateful for all that life has given me and those I love.
Bracing for gunfire or an explosion that, thankfully, never came.
Rick Schwartz is a film and tv producer whose credits include Black Swan, The Departed and Lip Sync Battle.