PARKLAND, Fla. — The sound of gunfire still ringing in his ears after his mad half-mile sprint, Jack Ciaramello was standing with friends in a grocery store parking lot when a sheriff’s deputy approached. He asked the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High senior if he knew a former student named Nikolas Cruz.
Of course he did: Cruz had been one of Ciaramello’s cadets in the school’s tight-knit Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps.
Ciaramello’s head reeled. He’d escaped, but his 14-year-old brother — also a cadet — was still in the school. Why was the deputy asking about Cruz?
“And then it clicked,” the 17-year-old senior said.
Officials have accused Cruz in the Wednesday shooting rampage that left 17 students and staff dead. In the days since, reports of Cruz’s violent, threatening behavior have flooded traditional and social media. Some students said they weren’t surprised, but Ciaramello was. He knew Cruz was troubled and had a thing about guns. But he’d never suspected Cruz was capable of this kind of savagery.
As Cruz’s leader in Company E — “Echo Company” — Ciaramello tried to instill discipline, pride and a sense of camaraderie in Cruz.
The 350 or so cadets at Douglas are issued uniforms and T-shirts — with the motto “WHATEVER IT TAKES” over the heart — and they’re required to show the colors as much as possible, or risk demerits. But last year, Cruz stopped wearing his JROTC gear. As leader, Ciaramello took notice.
He said Cruz always had an excuse for being out of uniform. Worried Cruz would get kicked out of the corps, Ciaramello asked what it would take to get him to wear his gear.
His request: a Snickers candy bar.
“So I went out to the store, I bought him it, and the next day, there on after, he came in with the uniform every day — T-shirt, uniform, everything,” Ciaramello said.
Ciaramello found Cruz a bit odd but didn’t consider his cadet dangerous.
“He liked hunting. He liked fishing. And me, being a guy and liking that kind of thing, you know, military, ROTC ... it seemed normal,” he said. “Obviously, it wasn’t.”
When the fire alarms rang out for the second time Wednesday, Ciaramello was on the drill field behind the school when he heard the unmistakable sound of gunfire. Teachers screamed at him and other kids to get back inside to the classrooms.
“Nope,” he said to himself. “I don’t want to be stuck in a classroom if there’s an armed shooter on the campus.”
As he hopped the fence and began sprinting down the road, he thought about his younger brother, James — a sergeant, the highest rank he could attain as a freshman. Ciaramello fought the urge to go back and find him.
“Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t do anything. So I knew I had to run.”
The family had previously lived in Newtown, Connecticut — they left about three months before a former student shot and killed 26 students and teachers there.
This time, the boys were both there, in Parkland, for the rampage.
James Ciaramello was in geography class when the alarm sounded. Then came the pops. Having fired both an AR-15 rifle and 9 mm pistol, he knew the sound.
The teacher rushed the kids back into the classroom. After 40 agonizing minutes huddled against a wall, there came a pounding on the door.
“We didn’t know if it was just a ploy to get us out of the rooms, so we could be shot,” he said. “But my teacher went over and checked and, thankfully, it was the police, and they opened the door.”
He made it out of the building - but not all his JROTC comrades did.
Cadet Carlos Gutierrez, 14, was in a study hall when police came to rescue them. On his way out of the building, he saw several bodies — including one with the blue pants and distinctive shiny shoes of a JROTC member protruding from a covering.
They’d soon learn that of the 14 students killed, three — Peter Wang, Martin Duque and Alaina Petty — were JROTC members. Witnesses told Wang’s family that the 15-year-old was last seen in his uniform, holding open a door for others to escape.
And when Cruz was arrested, he, too, wore ROTC gear: a maroon polo shirt emblazoned with the corps’ crest.