For the first time since six people were shot and killed inside a Nashville private school, three of the police officers who made entry to the locked building and navigated through smoky hallways towards the active gunman are giving their firsthand account of that March 27 morning.
In a press briefing Tuesday, Metro Nashville Police Chief John Drake said Detective Sgt. Jeff Mathes, Officer Rex Engelbert, and Detective Michael Collazo “just wanted to save kids.” Some didn’t even bother dressing in ballistic gear before heading toward The Covenant School shooter.
Each took the podium to give reporters a minute-by-minute recount of what they experienced.
For Sgt. Mathes, it was all about purpose.
“I went through that door with purpose,” Mathes said. “I knew based on the call that came in that it was a serious incident.”
For four-year veteran Officer Rex Engelbert, it was more about fate. He said his morning had begun with many irregularities – and being in the area where the Code 9000 call came in was nothing short of it.
“You can call it fate or God or whatever you want, but I can’t count on both my hands the irregularities that put me in that position when a call for service came out for an active deadly aggression at a school,” Officer Engelbert said.
"I’ve been to – I don’t know how many – false active aggression calls. Something told me it was time to get to this one." -Officer Engelbert
Detective Michael Collazo had been taking care of administrative duties when he heard the call. His morning would become all about timing.
“We took off towards the location,” Det. Collazo said. “As we were on our way to the school, dispatch was doing a phenomenal job giving us as many details as they could.”
Officer Engelbert was the first to arrive. He’d been handed a key to the school building by a staff member who stayed on scene. He said he realized he was going to be the first person to make entry – and he needed a team.
“I parked in front, retrieved my shotgun, and heard Officer Rex Engelbert say ‘I need three,’” recalled Sgt. Mathes.
As officers made their way inside the school, their training kicked in and they began clearing rooms. They hadn’t heard the sound of gunshots yet – and they were moving through a building they’d never navigated before.
Finally, distinct sounds of rifle rounds being fired would let the responders know shooter Audrey Hale was on the second floor. They moved fast.
Det. Collazo recalled making his way up a flight of stairs and finding a locked door – which is seen on the body camera video released by Metro Police. Collazo would later come to appreciate the locked door: it meant school employees had done what they were trained to do in an active situation.
The officers linked up on the second floor where they were met with smoke from gunpowder. Putting emotions aside and listening to their prior training, they stepped over a victim and moved toward the shooter.
“We came on a T intersection,” said Det. Collazo. “Sgt. Mathes was on one side and me on the other. We didn’t know if shooter was on the left or right. Smoke was everywhere. The fire alarms were going off. Somewhere around that point we heard another shot, so that told us shooter was on our right.”
Callazo would be the one to make the call to push right. He saw Officer Engelbert had caught up to them and was carrying a rifle with an LPVO. Still not knowing exactly where the shooter was or the distance, Collazo asked Engelbert to push forward with the rifle.
“He did it without hesitation,” Collazo said.
Seconds later, Hale was shot and killed by police and the officers ran to victims to begin rendering aid.
Police would later learn Hale shot a total of 152 rounds from the time she shot her way into the school until the time she was killed. Officer Engelbert discharged a total of four 5.56 rounds from his rifle. Collazo discharged a total of four rounds from a nine millimeter pistol.
Chief Drake thanked everyone involved. First responders, fire department, dispatchers, officers, the church that hosted the reunification site for families, the civilian unit that was called to reconstruct the crime scene, and investigators that had to walk through the halls of the schools and “painstakingly” comb through video hour by hour.
He also thanked the teachers at The Covenant School, saying their efforts no doubt saved lives.
“I’ve renewed my faith,” Chief Drake told reporters. “I sat in a church [for one of the funerals] and watch students take flowers down to the altar. I’m in tears – we’re all in tears—I look at these kids and they look at us and say, ‘Thank you for your service.’ They believe their classmates are in heaven.”
Get reports like this and all the news of the day in Middle Tennessee delivered to your inbox each morning with the FOX 17 News Daily Newsletter.