Nerves of Steel

In 911 Call, Atlanta School Bookkeeper Calms Shooter With ‘Love’

Antoinette Tuff prevented a massacre with extraordinary empathy—all captured on tape. By Patricia Murphy.

David Goldman/AP

Antoinette Tuff, the Atlanta-area elementary-school bookkeeper who talked a mentally ill gunman into giving himself up to police this week, rightly became a national hero Thursday as the 911 recording of her role in the ordeal went viral.

Celebrities like Reggie Bush, Thandie Newton, and Mia Farrow tweeted about her courage in the terrifying situation as national and international news outlets replayed the 911 recording of Tuff relaying messages between the shooter, Michael Hill, and police, before she eventually persuaded him to lay down the AK-47 that he had loaded in front of her.

“Wow Antoinette Tuff is a true hero for saving everyone at that schools life in Decatur, Georgia,” Bush tweeted. Actress Martha Plimpton praised her empathy, grace, and kindness, “Not to mention nerves of freakin’ steel.”

Closer to home, parents and students showed up to McNair Learning Academy Thursday morning with baskets of gifts and flowers in hand to thank the woman they call “Miss Tuff.”

“She risked her life for our kids,” Valynda Evans told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution as her children carried a bouquet of daffodils and a card for Tuff. “I just wanted to show my sentiment.”

Other parents called her a hero and said they feared their children might have died on Tuesday were it not for Tuff’s bravery. Her boss, Dr. Brian Bolden, told CNN that Tuff’s name tells the world everything they need to know about her. “Tough,” he said. “She has always been that way, from the first time I met her.”

But as news spread of her role in stopping the potentially devastating event, it was Tuff’s compassion and kindness for the shooter, not her toughness, that caught so many people’s attention and seemed to make the difference between him going on a rampage through the school or staying in the office with her, as she urged him to do, eventually laying down on the floor and waiting for the SWAT team to come get him.

Throughout the 24-minute 911 call, Tuff can be heard giving the operator a play-by-play of the shooter leaving the office to fire rounds at police and coming back into the office. On the recording, Tuff also announces to students over the loudspeaker that they should stay in their classrooms. She gives police instructions about how and when to enter the school, and most importantly, calms the agitated shooter down and tells him she cares about him, at first calling him “sir” and then calling him “baby.”

“Don’t feel bad, baby,” she told him. “It’s going to be all right, baby.”

Relying on her pastor’s recent sermons about showing compassion to people in grief, Tuff told Hill about her own struggles to raise her two children, including her son, who is legally blind and hearing impaired, and struggling to deal with her divorce last year after 33 years of marriage.

“You know I tried to commit suicide last year after my husband left me? But look at me now,” Tuff told Hill. “I’m still working and everything is OK.”

When Hill agrees to surrender to police, Tuff tells him where to put his gun and ammunition, but reassures him that he will be OK.

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“I want you to know I love you and I’m proud of you,” she says. “It’s a good thing you’re just giving up. Don’t worry about it. We all go through something in life.”

Tuff later told WSB-TV that her mind raced with thoughts of her own two children and of the 800 young students and staff whose lives depended on her. She also said that at a certain point she realized that Hill was “a hurting young man” and felt sorry for him and began to pray for him.

“I knew that if he got out of the door that he was going to kill everybody. He said he had no reason to live and that nobody loved him and I explained to him that I loved him,” she said. “I didn’t know his name, but I love him.”

Tuff was not even supposed to be at work on Tuesday. Although she was scheduled to be out of the office for the week, she went in to fill in for the secretary who usually sits in the front office, where Michael Hill appeared with his rifle and 500 rounds of ammunition. Tuff is out for the rest of this week, as originally planned, but DeKalb County school officials said she’ll be back at her bookkeeping job on Monday.