On Wednesday afternoon, when gunfire first erupted at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, school athletic director Chris Hixon immediately headed towards the sound of the shots. As he tried to save students who were fleeing from the bullets, the father and Navy veteran was struck down and died the next day at the hospital.
His wife, Debra Hixon, tells PEOPLE she is feeling a range of emotions after losing her husband in the Parkland, Florida, shooting that killed 17, including sadness, anger, confusion and pride.
“I am torn,” Debra says. “I am pissed off he did that because he left us, but knowing my husband, that’s just who he was. I knew he would be right there in the middle of what was going on as soon as I heard the shooting was happening. That was just who he was.”
Hixon, 49, coached wrestling in addition to his athletic director job.
The suspected shooter, identified as 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, is in custody and is being held without bond. He has been charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder and has not yet entered a plea — one for each person he allegedly killed.
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Debra Hixon tells PEOPLE Chris lived for his work. He cherished the opportunity his position afforded him to have a positive impact on young people.
On Valentine’s Day, Hixon also saved some of those young lives.
“I’m beyond proud that he didn’t even think of himself in that moment — he just thought of the safety of everyone else,” Debra says. “We love him for doing that.”
Still, she’s reeling after the loss of her husband, a man she says had a contagious zest for life.
“He loved athletics and loved being part of that whole school system,” Debra says. “He loved to be supportive for those kids.”
She adds: “He was adventurous; we had some very exciting adventures. He was the kind of person who was always up for trying anything, even if it was outside his comfort zone. He was a military man who loved serving his country. He was active duty and served in the Persian Gulf, but then switched to the reserves after we had kids. He wanted to be a part of his family.”
Debra believes the shooting reflected a society-wide failure.
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“I don’t have any sympathy for the guy who did this, and I don’t know that I can every forgive him,” she starts. “But our system failed that kid — that’s why he got to where he is. It failed him. We don’t do things right for people who need help and we need to fix that.”
She adds, “If someone had taken time early on in that kid’s life, he would have had the coping skills so he would not have thought that this was an option,” Debra says. “He kept getting in trouble and they sent him to an alternative center, where they don’t necessarily provided the kind of services he needed. He needed someone to love him early on and he never got that. No one that is loved and has coping skills would every think this is an option for what was bothering them.”
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While she’s hopeful for change, she knows it won’t be easy or happen soon.
“This isn’t going to be the last incident, unfortunately,” she says. “But I can’t think it is alright for another family to ever have to feel the way we feel right now. I can’t, and I want to make the world better.”