For the September GSL meeting in Charleston, we welcomed local hero Angela McQueen as our main speaker.   Back in 2017, she thwarted a massacre at the Mattoon High School by wresting a .40 S&W pistol from a deranged student.

She initially shunned the spotlight, but word of her heroic response to a bad situation quickly spread through town and she still receives heart-felt thanks and well-wishes from parents of students past and present.

One might think doing something heroic might lead to “happily ever after.” In reality, as McQueen told the audience, it has been anything but.

Today, she speaks mostly about aftermath as part of her coping with the trauma of that day.

In a presentation that proved emotional at times, she briefly described what happened before moving on to how it’s negatively impacted her life.

At lunch time in the cafeteria on that day, McQueen got word that someone might have a gun only moments before things went sideways. Indeed, a loser brought a pistol to school intent on killing a people who he felt wronged him. 

Angela McQueen.

Recalling that day, she said she looked around the cafeteria and didn’t see any supervisory staff or the school resource officer.  Clearly, she knew she had to take action, but she didn’t know exactly what or how.

McQueen said she didn’t want to leave a potential bad situation to get a supervisor, so she instead opted to approach the potential gun-toting teen.  As she closed the distance and started to call for help on her phone, she recalled how she could tell by the body language and facial expressions of the students at the table that something was terribly wrong.  She moved faster.

Sure enough, the kid produced the gun just as she reached him from behind.  She saw the pistol and lunged for it.  Angie said she managed to pull his gun arm away from the direction of the girl first targeted.  The shot broke an instant after she made contact.

Standing over 6’ tall, she lifted the seated gunman’s arm towards the ceiling. They struggled for what seemed like forever for control of the gun.   As they fought, the young man fired seven more times, with the gun discharging close to her face.  Fortunately, the rounds went high, mostly into the ceiling.

Finally, the shots stopped.  She recognized the gun was at slide lock and then “took him down” until the school resource officer could arrive to the cafeteria and handcuff the teen.

The first round fired missed the intended victim thanks to McQueen’s actions, but it inadvertently struck another young man. That round went through his phone and his hand, and ultimately through his shoulder as well. He survived, although he still has some minor problems with feeling in that hand after a whole lot of reconstructive surgeries, along with some mobility issues.

The would-be mass murderer? Illinois let him out of custody less than a year later.  Unbelievably, when the state wanted to return him to the community, locals objected. He has since been placed elsewhere.

Plenty of folks came up following the meeting to personally thank Angela McQueen for her actions that fateful day in 2017.

To this day McQueen struggles in the aftermath. She’s troubled by the would-be killer’s lack of remorse.  What’s more, McQueen says she feels a lot of anger as well. “I didn’t sign up for this,” she said at least three times.

She described the immediate aftermath as utterly overwhelming. Her mind simply couldn’t process all that happened after the near-death experience. 

While she escaped obvious physical injury, she does have hearing loss and tinnitus from the gunshots near her face and head.  “I’ve simply had to get used to it,” she noted.

Mentally she didn’t fare much better.  She has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

To this day, she describes it as impacting her thinking and her ability to concentrate. “My brain feels different, almost foggy,” she said.

She doesn’t like the COVID mask mandates because she can’t read people’s faces.  Clearly she recognizes that reading those students faces that day allowed her to recognize something terrible was about to happen.

In coping with her PTSD, she credits her faith in God, a journal, counseling, some private groups of fellow survivors of violence along with her dogs.  Recognizing that life’s energy has a priceless value all of its own, she says she has re-tooled her spare time.  She stepped away from her work in the teachers’ union leadership and as the golf coach position. 

Today, she now concentrates on things that she feels make a true difference in other people’s lives. One of those involves doing what she can to help other survivors cope with the aftermath of tragedy and return to some semblance of normalcy.

She also said that talking to supportive folks helps, too. In fact, she said that was the biggest takeaway from the initial counselors that police and the school provided for those closest to the near-disaster.

“Don’t keep it bottled up inside,” they told her.  It was one of the few messages that actually made it through the crazy hours and days in the immediate aftermath.

Our own Justin Bawcum, the Charleston Regional Co-Director, chimed in as well with some of his own coping techniques.  Bawcum, himself a survivor of some harrowing combat experiences in Afghanistan, and then later as a survivor of the Ft. Hood Islamist terror attack in 2009.

Bawcum advised Angie (and any other survivors of violence) not to second guess your actions and not to “overthink” what happened.

“You did what you needed to do and you knew it might not end well,” he said in front of the crowd.  “You did well and parents around here are very grateful you were there that day.”

McQueen admitted that she feels really badly for the young man who got shot.  To some degree she blames her own actions for his injury – after all, he wasn’t the intended first target and only got shot because of her intervention. At the same time, that young man’s parents (and the young man himself) have thanked her profusely for what she did that day, noting that there could have been untold numbers of fatalities, including the injured young man, if McQueen had not acted in the manner she did.

McQueen noted how people will recognize her out in public and walk up and thank her out of the blue. “Sometimes it takes me an instant or two to remember why they’re saying ‘thank you,’” she explained.  Other people just look at her and talk among themselves, likely afraid to approach her.

Asked “How do you reach out to someone in the aftermath of something like this?” she said just talk to them and watch the body language. “If they seem okay, just keep it simple.” Simple as in “Hi. We’re so glad you survived. Thank you. Is there anything I/we can do to help you?”

“And if they’re uneasy, just back away,” she said.

In the end, the audience – some wiping away tears – gave her a lengthy standing ovation.