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'I held that door shut': MSU professor reflects on campus shooting

Marco Diaz-Muñoz stands in his home office. He's wearing glasses with a dark rim and a black collard shirt.
Wali Khan
Marco Diaz-Muñoz

It’s been one year since a gunman entered Michigan State University’s campus, shooting and killing three students and injuring five others.

That night, like every Monday before, Michigan State University professor Marco Diaz-Muñoz was teaching a class on Cuban cultural identity on the first floor of Berkey Hall when it was interrupted by a steam of gunshots and panicked screams.

"In one second, you're having this positive and opening minds," Diaz-Muñoz told WKAR. "And the next, lives are gone."

Diaz-Muñoz says the moments after the first shots were fired, killing freshmen Alexandria Verner and Arielle Anderson and injuring others in the classroom, feel both distant and like it was just yesterday.

He recalls how his body felt when he held the door shut to try and keep the gunman from coming back inside that night, as he waited for police and paramedics to arrive.

"I held that door shut for maybe ten to twelve minutes," Diaz-Muñoz said. "To the point that if they hadn't arrived, I wouldn't have had the strength to hold it shut anymore."

Diaz-Muñoz says not a day goes by where he doesn't think back to events of that night. He says he's spent a lot of time processing pain, grief and trauma, feeling as though he has lived several different lives since the night of Feb. 13.

Over the last year, Diaz-Muñoz has taken a semester long sabbatical and travelled to Europe and back. Today, he's back to teaching on campus and says he tries to keep a distance from Berkey Hall, where he watched two of his students die.

"I would, semester after semester, request to teach in that classroom," Diaz-Muñoz said. "But that night marked it as a space now I associate with violence. Extreme violence."

Diaz-Muñoz's wife, Claudia, was nearby that evening. At the time, she would drive him to campus and wait for him outside the classroom until he was done for the day.

"That night, she was right there in the hallway and when she heard the shots, she hid under the bench she was sitting on and called 911," he said. "I believe she was the first person to call 911 because the rest of us were in the chaos of the classroom."

The trauma from that night has felt different for the two of them, Diaz-Muñoz explains, because his wife couldn't see what was happening but could only hear the screams and sound of gunfire.

"She couldn't tell who was being shot at," he said. "All she was hearing were the screams and the chaos."

Diaz-Muñoz says later that night the two were reunited at the Eli Broad Museum and they both embraced with an overwhelming sense of relief.

"I don't know if there's a difference between living it very close or hearing and imagining it," he said. "I suppressed it completely and dissociated from the events, but she didn't. It affected her in a way that she couldn't suppress it."

Since the shooting, Diaz-Muñoz has struggled to feel safe outside of his home. To try and bring him a greater sense of safety, he says his colleagues have been by his side.

For over a month following the shooting, they brought him meals so he wouldn't have to worry about making food for himself. They also took turns walking him from his home to his classroom and back.

When the memories of that night have been the most haunting, Diaz-Muñoz has taken refuge in his loving memories from childhood growing up in Costa Rica.

“I grew up in a big family of six kids," he said. "I was always surrounded by people, and the siblings and cousins and aunts, and people that hugged me, that kissed me, and made me feel protected. But not with guns.”

Diaz-Muñoz has spent a lot of time reflecting on why the shooting happened. In part, he blames the widening gap between the rich and the poor and the lack of support for vulnerable people.

"Even though I thought that I was safe in my little private world, sooner or later, we all can be victims of this country's systemic and structural inequalities that we accept. "

While Diaz-Muñoz calls being alive today a miracle, he wishes the tragedy of Feb. 13 had never happened.

But he also says more than ever before that he feels he will help make the world a better place. A place where no one feels so alone that violence is their only perceived solution.

"In the future, I hope this tragedy leads to greater things," said Diaz-Muñoz. "Not greater in the sense of material gains, but in the sense of changing society and of making a better world."

As WKAR's Bilingual Latinx Stories Reporter, Michelle reports in both English and Spanish on stories affecting Michigan's Latinx community.
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