It was the final period of the day at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High and Jonathan Blank was in history class, learning about the Holocaust. Across campus, five of his friends, pals since grade school, sat in different classrooms watching the clock. In 19 minutes, school would be out and the buddies had plans this Valentine's Day: a little basketball and boys' time.
Inside classroom 1214, the clock hit 2:21 p.m. Then: Pop! Pop! Pop!
Instinctively, Jonathan hit the ground, taking cover under his desk. He smelled the chemical stench of gunpowder, noticed sawdust particles floating in the air: pieces of the classroom door that had been splintered by shots. Around the room, his schoolmates covered themselves with textbooks and took shelter behind filing cabinets.
One girl's face was covered in blood. Nearby, a boy wasn't moving. Jonathan realized he was probably dead.
Beyond the pockmarked door, gunfire sounded up and down the hallway, seesawing eerily between shots, then silence, shots, then silence. All that broke through the moments of quiet were horrifying shrieks – along with the groans of Jonathan's wounded classmates.
The teen thought about texting his parents and of course his best friends, but he'd left his phone atop his desk and was too frozen with fear to reach up and grab it. Joey, Noah, John, Sam, Ethan – his band of brothers that had bonded over soccer, basketball, and bar mitzvahs – he had no way of knowing if they were OK or if they, too, lay dying somewhere, in yet another deadly rampage inside yet another United States school.
They cheekily called themselves the "Jew Crew," these six friends who met playing sports in elementary school and who, at 13, had planned back-to-back bar mitzvahs so the parties would stretch on for weeks. Along with Jonathan there was Joey Cordover, Noah Kaufman, John Greenberg, Sam Resnick, and Ethan Rocha, who wasn't Jewish but became an honorary "crew" member anyway.
The six jelled quickly and had been inseparable ever since, spending hours playing Xbox or just hanging out at Jonathan's "the door-is-always-open" house in affluent Parkland, a suburb of gated developments and strip malls about an hour north of Miami. They'd even begun plotting to go to college together at the University of Florida. As juniors, they had to get through high school first.
As bullets tore through Jonathan's classroom on Wednesday, Joey Cordover was in study hall, on the opposite side of the school. Suddenly, the fire alarm sounded – the second of the day. The students sitting around him looked at each other, confused. At first they shrugged it off as a false alarm. Then Joey and the others looked outside and saw students walking to the designated meeting spot for drills. They decided to go, too.
Sam and Noah were in history class together. They, too, figured it was a false alarm, but as their class started heading outside someone screamed, "It's a Code Red!" Translation: Shooting on campus. Seconds later, they heard gunfire. The two took off running for the street as heavily armed police darted past them back toward the school.
Joey also managed to make it out, leaving his backpack in a growing pile in the middle of the road, as instructed by police, but holding tight to his cell. At 2:33 p.m., his dad texted to check that he was OK. He said he was, but all around him kids were talking about students getting killed.
"At least 1 dead," Joey texted his father. "Unreal."
John Greenberg fled from a portable classroom and stood outside among throngs of terrified students. When someone said the shooter had possibly escaped, he decided to head home. Separately, Ethan Rocha also managed to make it out.
That left just Jonathan.
Outside on the street, where Sam and Noah stood together, rumors were spreading. They heard there may have been deaths in a history class, the one focused on the Holocaust. They knew Jonathan had that class during last period. Noah tried Jonathan's number, but the call wouldn't go through. Cell service was too jammed as everyone tried to reach loved ones.
Back in classroom 1214, in the building where 12 of the 17 victims would be found, armor-clad officers burst in, shouting, "Everyone put your hands up!" Jonathan raised his hands, sat up, looked around, and saw ruin.
After about 10 minutes, the police told the students to get out. Jonathan walked past his fallen classmates. In the hallway, two more bodies lay between him and the exit. He told himself not to look.
Outside, now surrounded by sirens and helicopters and sobbing children and parents, Jonathan texted his mother, who had already rattled off four urgent texts asking if he was OK. "They shot in my class," he responded. "3 people shot in my class." He would later learn it was four.
Then he turned to the group chat he'd set up for his "crew." There was a message waiting from Noah.
"R u ok. Bro. R u ok."
"Tell me ur ok," Noah pressed.
"Im ok, 3 people shot in my class. Im ok tho."
Ethan chimed in next. Then, within minutes, texts arrived from the other four.
The next morning, all six went together to a counseling session for students at the local YMCA. Then, like so many times before, they gathered at Jonathan's place. This time, they hugged each other tight, saying "I love you, man," with no hint of irony or embarrassment.
"We don't know what to do. It's confusing," Sam Resnick said, sitting on a sofa between Jonathan and Ethan.
"When we're older and someone asks us where we went to high school and we say Marjory Stoneman Douglas, they're going to say: 'Hey, that's where the mass shooting was,' " Noah added. "They'll put us in the same category as Columbine or Sandy Hook. It doesn't feel real, honestly."
Hours later, still together, the crew headed to Pine Trails Park for a community vigil and a chance to begin coming to terms with it all.
Jonathan walked through the crowd, his mother following. His dark eyes were red. He saw his history teacher, Ivy Schamis, and they spoke briefly. He gave his buddy John a hug, and then he started to sob.
The friends know this was only the first hard day of many to come. Their connection, they said, is their key to finding a way to move on.
"We've created a bond you can't break," Jonathan said. "Going through a situation like this has brought us even closer together."
This story was reported by The Associated Press.