Among the throngs of supporters lining Main Street to welcome home Riley Howell’s body, Shelby Tomassi’s UNC-Charlotte t-shirt stood out like a neon sign.
Tomassi knew Howell when they both lived in Haywood County, Howell spending his first year of high school at Tuscola, Tomassi at Pisgah. Their parents taught together, and Tomassi said she’d met Riley several times in passing as a teenager.
They both eventually enrolled at UNC-Charlotte, and both were in class when the gunman opened fire there on Tuesday night. Tomassi was in one of the engineering buildings and, tragically, Howell was in the classroom targeted by the shooter in the center of campus.
Tomassi said the reaction to news of the shooting was slow at first, as word spread from campus alerts and from student to student.
“When we got the notifications, I could tell nobody knew what to do,” she said. “We just kept working and going along with presentations, not in lockdown. You plan for it, but you don’t know what you’re going to do when it actually happens.”
Then, word began to spread that a shooter might be in Tomassi’s building. Tensions rose, as she learned one of her sorority sisters was in the room when the shooter opened fire.
“I was having a panic attack because we couldn’t get ahold of her,” Tomassi said. “I was on the phone with our president trying to figure out what to do, and someone pulled me into a room and told me someone might be in the building.”
From there, panic reigned. There was confusion over where the shooter was, and whether it was safe to remain in the classroom she was in. The room was silent, she said, except for a few students who called loved ones to keep them updated.
“I texted my parents and let them know I loved them, but they always said they would never call me in a situation like that,” Tomassi said. “We all went through and made a strategy for what to do if a shooter did come in the room.”
It was close to an hour before the students in Tomassi’s room received confirmation that the shooter was in another building and the threat had been neutralized.
“About 45 minutes later, a cop came in to escort us out,” she said. “They told us to leave everything in the room, and then escorted us out with our hands up and guns in our faces. It was one of the scariest things I’ve ever been involved in.”