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Georgia school shooting: A hero emerges

Antoinette Tuff, the Georgia elementary school's bookkeeper, persuaded the gunman to surrender. "I told the police he was giving himself up. I just talked him through it," Tuff said.

By Bill Barrow and Kate BrumbackAssociated Press / August 21, 2013


Decatur, Ga.

A man with an assault rifle and other weapons exchanged gunfire with officers Tuesday at an Atlanta-area elementary school before surrendering, a police chief said. Dramatic overhead television footage captured the young students racing out of the building, being escorted by teachers and police to safety. No one was injured.

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Just a week into the new school year, more than 800 students in pre-kindergarten to fifth grade were evacuated from Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy in Decatur, a few miles east of Atlanta. They sat outside along a fence in a field for a time until school buses came to take them to their waiting parents and other relatives at a nearby Wal-Mart.

And today, Antoinette Tuff is being hailed as a hero. 

While students were escaping, inside the school, Tuff, the school's bookkeeper, called WSB-TV in Atlanta to say the gunman asked her to contact local media outlets. WSB said during the call, shots were heard in the background. Assignment editor Lacey Lecroy said she spoke with Tuff, who said she was alone with the man and his gun was visible.

"It didn't take long to know that this woman was serious," Lecroy said. "Shots were one of the last things I heard. I was so worried for her."

In an interview on ABC's "World News with Diane Sawyer" Tuff said she worked to convince the gunman to put down his weapons and ammunition.

"He told me he was sorry for what he was doing. He was willing to die," Tuff told ABC.

She told him her life story, about how her marriage fell apart after 33 years and the "roller coaster" of opening her own business.

"I told him, 'OK, we all have situations in our lives," she said. "It was going to be OK. If I could recover, he could, too."

Then Tuff said she asked the suspect to put his weapons down, empty his pockets and backpack on the floor.

"I told the police he was giving himself up. I just talked him through it," she said.

In an interview with WSB, an ABC affiliate, Tuff said she tried to keep Hill talking to prevent him from walking into the hallway or through the school building.

"He had a look on him that he was willing to kill — matter of fact he said it. He said that he didn't have any reason to live and that he knew he was going to die today," Tuff said, adding that Hill told her he was sure he'd be killed because he'd shot at police officers. "I knew that if he got out that door he was gonna kill everybody," she said.

DeKalb County Schools Superintendent Michael Thurmond praised faculty and authorities who got the young students to safety, staying calm and following plans in place. All teachers and students made it out of the school unharmed.

"It's a blessed day, all of our children are safe," Thurmond said at the news conference. "This was a highly professional response on the ground by DeKalb County employees assisted by law enforcement."

The suspect, identified later as 20-year-old Michael Brandon Hill, fired at least a half-dozen shots from the rifle from inside McNair at officers who were swarming the campus outside, the chief said. Officers returned fire when the man was alone and they had a clear shot, DeKalb County Police Chief Cedric L. Alexander said at a news conference. Hill surrendered shortly after and several weapons were found, though it wasn't clear how many, Alexander said. Police were unsure of Hill's motive.

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