Three Panama City, Fla., school representatives are being lauded after facing a gunman threatening them with death on Tuesday. During their appearance on TODAY Wednesday, Jerry Register, Bill Husfelt and Ginger Littleton said they fully believed they were going to meet their maker.
“We’re so happy to be alive — life means a lot more today than yesterday,” Register, a member of the Bay County School Board, told Meredith Vieira. “I have never been afraid in my life as I was yesterday.”
Shortly after 2 p.m. Eastern time Tuesday, 56-year-old Clay Duke stood up during a meeting of the school board while school superintendent Husfelt and board members discussed seemingly banal matters. He spray-painted a large V — similar to the title symbol in the 2006 thriller film “V for Vendetta” — and produced a semi-automatic handgun as he approached the board.
What happened next was graphically caught on camera — an NBC affiliate was taping the meeting, and the school broadcasting system was also streaming the meeting live. Duke told the board his wife had been fired from the school, and that he intended to kill himself and the board along with him.
But what emerged wasn’t a tale of tragedy; instead, the video shows remarkable poise and heroism on the part of Husfelt, Register and school board member Littleton.
After Duke ordered the audience to clear out and released the female school board members, Register calmly told Duke he would do anything to help his wife find another job. Husfelt told Duke he had no idea who his wife was (and later no record showed Duke to actually be married to a school employee), but asked Duke to release the school board members since it was he, as superintendent, who would have signed any termination papers.
The video also captured a dramatic act of courage by Littleton as she sneaked up behind Clay as his back was turned. “I whacked him with [my] purse, hoping I could get him to drop the gun. Obviously that did not work. I did not have a plan B,” Littleton told Vieira live via satellite.
‘That look in his eyes’
Husfelt, speaking live via satellite from Florida Wednesday with Register and Littleton, told Vieira he believed Duke fully planned to carry through his threat to kill those he held captive.
“He had that look in his eyes,” Husfelt said. “I’ve seen anger before, and he almost had like a grimace, a smile. He had planned to do this and it wasn’t going to end well.”
Husfelt said he quickly came to terms with facing his own death, but tried to talk Duke into releasing the male school board members from the room. “I don’t mean to say this facetiously, [but] I mean this: If I was going to die, I knew where I was going to go and I was very comfortable knowing that; not wanting that to happen, but I know I would go to heaven. I just didn’t want to see all of us [die].”
Register told Vieira he knew he “was talking for my life” in trying to convince Duke he would help him. “I asked him, ‘What are you doing, what’s the problem?’
“He began to tell me about his wife and I said, ‘Look here, man, I’m a pretty good guy, I’ve been married to my wife 40 years,’ ” Husfelt continued. “I was really sincere when I said, ‘I’ve got two great kids. I don’t really want to die at this time.’ Bill and I continued to talk with him, just for time’s sake, for time’s sake. But as time grew closer, we knew he knew the authorities were coming and that’s when he came closer to the desk.”
As the video of the gripping facedown shows, Duke stepped on the dais where Husfelt and the board members were sitting. Littleton is shown re-entering the room behind Duke. With a determined look on her face, she takes her purse and smacks the gunman in the arm.
It was all for naught; Duke quickly pushed Littleton to the ground as she screamed in terror. But Littleton told Vieira she felt like she had no choice other than to try to save the lives of Husfelt and her fellow school board members.
“He had moved up onto the dais where the board members were sitting, and my guys were lined up like ducks in a pond,” Littleton said. “So I could either walk away and try to live with myself because I knew something bad was going to happen, [or] I could try to defend, delay somehow or another, divert, hoping the cavalry would come soon.
After Littleton’s attempt to disarm Clay failed, “He said, ‘You stupid blank,’ ” Littleton recounted. “I thought at that point, ‘Probably you’re right.’ I was really stupid.”
Littleton fully believed Duke would shoot her dead after he pushed her to the ground — Husfelt and Register thought so as well. “I was already committed — I probably should have been committed,” she told Vieira ruefully. “So it wasn’t terror or anything like that. It was ‘Oh well, here we are.’ ”
Ducking for cover
Duke then indeed opened fire on the school board, but somehow managed to not connect with any of his shots as the members ducked under the board desk for cover. As the shooting began, school security officer Mike Jones entered the room and began trading shots with Duke. While an estimated 15 to 20 shots were fired, Duke eventually shot himself during his shoot-out with Jones.
Husfelt credited Jones, a retired police detective, for being the true hero in the horrifying ordeal. “He literally saved our lives,” he told Vieira. “If he hadn’t come in when he did, we wouldn’t be here with each other this morning.”
While the standoff ended with no one other than Duke being shot, Vieira told the trio she still wonders how Husfelt and the school board members managed to avoid being shot as Duke fired on them point-blank.
“You’ve got to wonder whether the gunman was just a lousy shot or if he didn’t really intend to kill you, that the whole idea was that he was going to be killed by whoever came in,” Vieira said.
Husfelt replied, “I will go to my grave believing that those bullets were blocked by a greater power. It is just obvious to me.”