Our unsung heroes

Story by Scott Jared and Ethan Quinn, University Communications. Photos by Jon Gardiner, University Communications

When Carolina locked down twice early in the fall semester, a common theme of the experiences was the human reaction to care for each other in times of trouble.

Beyond the University’s efforts to provide resources and support, faculty, staff and students helped each other in a variety of meaningful ways.

Here are some of the people who made a difference for others.

The first lockdown: Aug. 28

Susan Farrell

Susan Farrell, one of 16 telecommunicators with UNC Police, took the first 911 call about the shooting at Caudill Labs.

From the caller’s panicked voice, Farrell knew the situation was serious. Then the control board lit up with calls. Fellow telecommunicator Corey Bodey did an about-face on his way to take a one-minute break and started answering calls.

Farrell immediately set off a special tone to dispatch all police units. UNC Police Chief Brian James authorized her to tell ITS Communications Control Center on a direct line to activate sirens and messaging. Then she contacted Orange County EMS.

She focused on getting the suspect’s description and movement to aid responding officers. “They are going into danger just like the people already in danger. We need as much information as we can give to them,” Farrell said. “They’re responding regardless because their job is to stand between people and danger, but we want them to know who might have a gun so they don’t walk up to them and not be prepared.”

Over the next three hours, she and Bodey fielded 1,000 calls. She worked 15 hours that day, fueled by adrenaline and a bag of Fritos.

“We’re the first ‘first responders’ and sometimes we’re forgotten, but we’re actually the first ones on scene because the other first responders wouldn’t have anywhere to go if we didn’t take the call.”

Joe Fearrington

Joe Fearrington, an environmental services technician in Housekeeping Services, jumped into action between Phillips Hall and the Campus Y. When the initial siren sounded, he kept students from walking toward Caudill Labs. “I told them to step into the building and not go toward the ‘accident,’ and I called it an ‘accident’ so as not to alarm them,” Fearrington said.

Around 20 students came inside Phillips. He directed them to the innermost hallway away from windows. He then went to the Campus Y and secured the lower door to the Blue Ram Market. “I was hustling to keep myself safe but more so to keep the students safe.”

Three weeks later, the local State Employees Association of North Carolina decided to recognize his heroic actions with a check for $200. When other SEANC chapters statewide learned of his efforts, they chipped in to increase the check to $10,200.

In ITS Manning Hall, Carol Durham was directing a School of Nursing class on clinical skills and health assessment meeting in a simulation lab. Because the class was practicing for one-to-one evaluation sessions, the 18 faculty and staff outnumbered the 12 students. The faculty and staff moved students to a corridor more than 20 feet away from windows in the locked suite. “While bewildered and uncertain about what was happening, we sheltered in place with respect and regard for each other while dealing with our own concerns and fears, sharing compassion and care for each other as we waited for additional information,” said Durham, professor and education-innovation-simulation learning environment director.

After the death of Associate Professor Zijie Yan, University leaders, staff and faculty worked to help Yan’s family in the early hours and days after the tragedy. Alison Friedman, director of Carolina Performing Arts, and Dr. Xiaoming Zeng, a research faculty member in the psychiatry department, volunteered to translate for Yan’s mother. They also assisted her by gathering materials from a local Chinese market to assemble a shrine and conduct a traditional paper-burning ceremony.

“In the face of such tragedy, it’s normal to feel helpless,” Friedman said, “so I was grateful to have something to contribute in a moment like this.”

“I think to live in this world, we need to not just care for ourselves, we need to care for others,” said Zeng. “I believe helping each other to ease mental pain is important for us as a human society and as a community, like UNC.”

Rachel Pittman and Carolina Performing Arts staff members set up space in the CURRENT ArtSpace + Studio and supplied coffee, tea and doughnuts the morning after the incident for faculty, staff and students in Yan’s department, applied physical sciences. “It was a simple thing to do, but it was so meaningful,” said Pittman. “Campus departments are families, and that family had experienced the unthinkable. I was grateful that CPA was able to play a small part in helping them reconnect, check in and just be together.”

Susan Chung

Susan Chung, a clinical social worker in Counseling and Psychological Services in Student Affairs, supported Yan’s family, sitting with them at the vigil and accompanying them to a private ceremony near Caudill Labs. “Being able to stay after the vigil and advocate for Dr. Yan’s family to host a private ceremony was one of the most meaningful moments for me during this tragic time,” Chung said.

Chung also conducted outreach events to international and Asian American students by partnering with the Asian American Center, Carolina Asia Center and International Student and Scholar Services office after the shooting incident.

CAPS therapists cared for dozens of students and worked overtime when CAPS extended its hours the evenings of both lockdowns. Therapists also provided space and support to classes and student groups who were particularly affected, allowing them to process the incidents. From Aug. 29 to Sept. 1, CAPS provided walk-in services to dozens of students.

At the School of Social Work, Dean Ramona Denby-Brinson hosted virtual check-ins with faculty, staff and students. The check-ins included information about CAPS and other resources and gave people a chance to process their feelings and experiences. Hosting four drop-in sessions to provide support for the Carolina community were Robin Sansing, director of wellness; Alicia Freeman, mental health first aid coordinator; Sarah Reives-Houston, behavioral health springboard director; and trained staff and faculty. The sessions offered fellowship, refreshments, supportive activities and information about the University’s mental health support services and resource referrals.

The second lockdown: Sept. 13

In the wake of the Sept. 13 incident at the Student Union, Victoria Boykin, associate director for event services, and Jacob Womack, assistant director of facilities, heard about “a commotion” in the west lounge on their walkie-talkies.

Separately, they hurried from their offices toward the lounge. As students ran past them in the opposite direction, they told their staff to begin lockdown procedures and guide people into secure rooms. Not knowing what they’d find, they entered the lounge shortly before UNC Police officers arrived.

It was a strange scene, Womack said, with items like cell phones and backpacks abandoned. “Things that a normal 20-year-old wouldn’t dare leave alone were just strewn about.”

“It was eerie,” Boykin said. “There were empty tables, chairs on the ground and spilled drinks.”

Boykin locked exterior doors on the building’s north side before accompanying a police officer to escort people from the restrooms. Meanwhile, trained student staff made sure all of the building’s remaining 33 doors were locked.

“They stayed level-headed and did an excellent job,” Womack said. “I make a decent salary, trying to handle a building. I’m going to try to take care of the kids. But when students step up in that way, they’ve got more to risk with so much future ahead of them.”

With his access to security video, Womack helped police get a description of the suspect and confirm that he had left the building.

Boykin said that perhaps the most important work they did that day was to move people into secure rooms and lock the doors.

Minutes before the alert sounded, three students – two of whom knew each other – ran to the Owl Building office of Elizabeth Poindexter, executive director of communications and special projects in Student Affairs. One had tripped and gashed her knee. Poindexter called some University officials to inform them of what the students relayed. She and the students talked about life on campus and stayed calm.

“I gave them my cell number just in case they needed it and made sure they knew about the Heels Care Network and CAPS extended services,” Poindexter said. “They are accomplished, inquisitive, thoughtful students, undoubtedly shining stars in our Carolina community.” When the all-clear message came, Poindexter confirmed that they had rides home. The next day, she checked on the students.

Brent Wishart

During both events, Brent Wishart, facilities manager for the Gillings School of Global Public Health, tried to make co-workers feel secure. “His rapid and thorough response on both days reflected many years of preparation and as such we were secured, as best we could be, in just a few minutes,” Vice Dean Robert Smith said.

“Those are kind words and sound like I was a one-man-show,” Wishart said. “I was proud of the actions taken by the Gillings community, especially our well-trained and experienced facilities team, on-site security guards and human resources staff. Our faculty, staff and students took the correct immediate steps to secure in place.”