In the days and weeks afterward, as students and families grieved and returned to class, many of the teens who attend the Parkland, Florida, high school have been speaking out about their experiences and demanding there be changes in gun safety legislation so that something like this can never happen again.
As part of a social media initiative called #whatif, photojournalist Jeff Vespa captured students’ heart-wrenching tales of survival — and their determination to create a future free of gun violence. Their powerful words and portraits are featured in this week’s issue of PEOPLE, currently on newsstands. Keep reading for all of the videos with the survivors.
Parkland Survivor Dylan Kraemer, 17, Shares Horror of Watching Classmates Massacred Next to Him
Dylan Kraemer, a 17-year-old junior at the school, was in history class on Feb. 14 when his room was punctured by bullets. “With about 20 minutes of class left, I heard the first shots that I’ve ever heard in my life of a gun,” Kraemer recalls in the video above.
Around him, multiple kids had been killed. “It’s not even surprising when something like this happens anymore and that’s not how it should be anywhere,” he says, “and I just want people to know that this needs to change and gun laws need to change and background checks need to change and schools need to be safer.”
Parkland Student Maia Hebron, 18, on Survivor’s Guilt: ‘It’s Unreal … to Keep On Living’
As the horrific violence became apparent, senior Maia Hebron thought immediately of her sister, Eden, elsewhere on the campus, “because I had just turned 18, but I had a 14-year-old sister who was just starting her high school experience,” she says in the video above. “Finally my mom calls me and said parents of children in Eden’s class just said that she’s okay. I told my mom, ‘Forget about me. I’m fine. I’m safe. Take care of my sister.'”
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“[That] we’re not allowed to drink alcohol, we’re not allowed to get a lottery ticket at 18, but you can buy a rifle is unreal to me,” she says. “We need to make something change, or else this is going to keep happening, which it has been for years.”
“Every day I’m going to wake up and think about my classmates … that aren’t allowed to have the experiences that I guess I have now. Part of me feels guilty. Part of me feels thankful. Part of me feels like it’s still unreal that I’m going to have to keep on living.”
“I know that my neighbors, that people in my community, don’t have a life anymore, because of one kid, because of a gun.”
Parkland Survivor Emily Burke, 15: ‘We Bring Our Memories’ to Celebrate Friend They Lost
Emily Burke, a 15-year-old freshman, lost her friend and soccer teammate Alyssa Alhadeff in the massacre, she says in the video above. “She was shot in the hand, her heart and her head,” Burke says. “All of the people that knew Alyssa, we’ve all come together. We’d just tried to spend time, bring our memories of her,” she says. “We’ve made shirts for her. We’re trying to raise money for her family and do this college fund that her family wants us to help with, so if any player gets a scholarship, we can help them get through college.”
Burke also talks about the strangeness of returning to her life as a student. “It feels like we’re just going to go back to school and everything’s going to be normal, and that all of our friends will be there,” she says. “It just feels like something sad happened. But it just doesn’t feel like this happened, something this big.”
Parkland Survivor Jayden Bier, 17: ‘I Can’t Imagine Any Parent Who Has to Go Through This’
Jayden Bier, a 17-year-old junior, would have been in one of the classrooms that was shot up except for a teacher who innocently redirected her elsewhere to resume taking a test before the shooting began, she recalls in the video above. “All of a sudden I hear someone say, ‘Run for your life, code red.’ I just freeze, and my friend says, ‘Jayden, grab my hand and don’t let go of it,’ ” she says. “There were people screaming everywhere, ‘Let me in!’ People banging on doors, and my teacher actually let six people in the classroom. … I went into the closet with my friend and we were just still holding hands. We were both crying and people were telling us, ‘Why are you guys crying? This is fake,’ and I knew it wasn’t.”
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“I texted my mom,” Bier says. “I was like, ‘Mom I love you. I don’t know if I’m going to die. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I just want you to know that I love you so much.’ “
“I can’t imagine any parent who has to go through this now and has to know they’re never going to see their child again, because of this one crazy kid who just never got help.”
Parkland Survivor Erika Koines, 15, Describes Harrowing Texts With Her Sister During Massacre
Erika Koines, a 15-year-old freshman, followed her classmates outside as a fire alarm rang, then found her classroom already closed after she heeded an administrator’s scream to go back inside, she recalls in the video above. “Where do we go?” she asked. “Just run to any open room!” she was told.
Koines wound up in a room with teachers she didn’t know who rushed the students into closets to hide. “I texted my sister, ‘I love you,’ and she said, ‘Erika are you okay?’ and I said, ‘I’m crying right now ’cause I am near it,’ because I heard the cops and everything,” Koines recalls.
“She said ‘I love you, you’ll be okay. Erika calm down. Are you okay? Please keep texting me. Hello? Erika please text me.’ ” Koines knew several of the victims personally. “I went to most of their memorial services and viewings, and that was really hard,” she says.
Parkland Survivor Maddie Gaffney, 17: Friend’s Mom Has ‘Nothing Left in Her’ After He Was Killed
Maddie Gaffney, a 17-year-old junior, spoke on the phone after the shooting with her mom, who had texted to make sure she was okay. But when Gaffney finally reached home, her mother was not there, she recalls in the video above. Instead, she was out searching with another mother who had not heard from her own child.
The two parents were “looking at hospitals, trying to find him,” Gaffney says of their close family friend, 15-year-old freshman Luke Hoyer. “About 1:30 we found out that he was killed,” she says. “He was shot in the back and they think he died quickly, so at least he didn’t have to suffer.”
Of Hoyer’s mom, Gaffney says, “I can’t even explain to you the feeling of seeing a mother that you know so well that lost her baby. I can’t even explain.”
“It’s just like she’s lifeless. There’s nothing left in her,” she says. “Something needs to be done about this. Something needs to change.”
Parkland Student Sam Schneider, 16, Agonized for Hours Waiting to Hear Who Survived the Shooting
Sam Schneider, a 16-year-old junior at Parkland, was at home when the shooting occurred. He says his sadness has turned to anger as he now pushes to prevent more gun violence. For hours after the massacre, he says, he agonized waiting to hear whether his sister and friends at school had survived. “My biggest fear throughout this whole thing was that I wasn’t sure who was going to be okay,” he says in the video above.
“I was afraid to contact anyone because when you do the drills,” he says. “They always tell you not to call anyone or text them because the slightest sound that a phone makes could alert the shooter.”
Student Madison Leal, 16, ‘Aches’ for the Parkland Victims Who Didn’t Get to Say Goodbye
Sixteen-year-old junior Madison Leal says her heart aches for the 17 people who will never return to their loved ones.
“My heart aches 17 times for our coaches, teachers, siblings that we have to bury,” she says in the video above. “In the name of 17 lives, I refuse to let another soul be taken due to gun violence without taking action.” The teens have planned the March For Our Lives in Washington, D.C., on March 24 to demand changes in gun legislation and already the event has expanded to include more than 400 related demonstrations in cities across the globe.
Parkland Survivor-Turned-Activist David Hogg, 17: ‘Now Is Our One and Only Chance to Stand Up’
During the shooting, 17-year-old senior David Hogg hid in a closet with 65 other classmates who survived. “It was around that time that I decided I would start recording video so that if I was left in that classroom and all of our 65 souls were left on that classroom floor, our voices would echo on,” he says in the video above.
Since the massacre, Hogg has focused on a mission to stand up for the 17 lives lost last month and push for anti-gun violence measures.
“It has to be our generation that says, ‘No, we are not going to take this anymore,’ ” he says. “Now is our one and only chance to stand up, because if we don’t do it now, when?”
Parkland Survivor Eden Hebron, 14, Feared School Massacre Was Her ‘Last Minutes of Life’
Eden Hebron, a 14-year-old freshman at Parkland during the shooting, will never forget seeing the bodies of her dead friends. “There’s glass all over, there’s glass in front of me. I look over, it’s all over the entire room, and he starts shooting my classmates,” she says in the video above. “When you’re hearing gunshots, all you can think about is — ‘I’m next.’ I was thinking like, ‘This is my last moment. These are literally my last minutes of life.’ “
The teens have planned the March For Our Lives in Washington, D.C., on March 24 to demand changes in gun legislation and already the event has expanded to include more than 400 related demonstrations in cities across the globe.