Three years ago, Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis crammed herself and 15 first-graders into a classroom lavatory just big enough for one child and kept them quiet and calm as gunman Adam Lanza swept through Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., killing 26 people – 20 of them children – in the deadliest mass shooting at a grade school or high school in U.S. history.
By hiding in the bathroom and pulling a cabinet in front of the door, Roig-DeBellis and her students escaped Lanza’s notice, surviving the massacre that killed most of the class in the room just on the other side of her wall.
The teacher was celebrated as a hero but struggled in the aftermath, spending the next six weeks in therapy and wondering how and why she had survived. Although it was difficult to talk about her experience at Sandy Hook and her recovery, she discovered that her message of courage and hope inspired those who heard her story.
At the request of an agent, Roig-DeBellis decided to write a book. Since she had little writing experience, the agent suggested she work with another client she represented: Robin Gaby Fisher, director of the Journalism and Media Studies Program at Rutgers University–Newark.
Since 2008, Fisher has built a career telling the stories of those who overcame tragedy through resilience in books such such as After the Fire, which she co-wrote with two survivors of the Seton Hall dormitory fire, and The Priority List, co-written with a teacher with terminal cancer who traveled across the nation to reconnect with former students.
Choosing Hope: Moving Forward from Life's Darkest Hours, the book that Fisher co-authored with Roig-DeBellis, was released in October to coincide with the third anniversary of the Sandy Hook tragedy.
“I spent long hours interviewing Kaitlin over the better part of a year, and we got to know each other well,” Fisher says. “To be able to help remarkable people like Kaitlin tell their stories is a great privilege, and seeing how that helps others going through hard times is why I do this.”
Roig-DeBellis’s ordeal began on a sunny Friday around 9:30 a.m. Her class had just finished discussing their family holiday traditions during their morning meeting when a nearby blast of gunfire pierced their tranquility.
In a matter of seconds, Roig-DeBellis closed the classroom door and immediately ordered her students into the tiny lavatory in the back of the classroom, stuffing them in and piling several atop the toilet. Knowing that this might have been their last moments, she whispered, “I need you to know that I love you all very much.”
To be able to help remarkable people like Kaitlin tell their stories is a great privilege, and seeing how that helps others going through hard times is why I do this.
In the next classroom, teacher Victoria Soto hid her first-graders in closets and cabinets and was just closing the door when Lanza burst in, murdering the teacher, a special-education aide and most of the children he found cowering under the desks. When he stopped to reload, the rest of the students fled the room.
Roig-DeBellis thought they were next.
She tried to remain calm, reassure the terrified children and keep the group quiet. They remained in the bathroom as mayhem ensued. After the gunfire stopped and silence fell, there was knock at the door. Roig-DeBellis refused to open it, forcing rescuers to find the key before a SWAT team led them to safety.
Fisher, who has also written books about 9/11 and airplane crash survivors and boys who were abused at a reform school, is no stranger to trauma: Her mother died from alcoholism when she was young and her father was a distant figure, who spent much of his time at work. Her experiences have inspired her to help others tell their stories of perseverance.
She first began writing these inspirational stories for The Star-Ledger, where she worked as a general-assignment reporter and feature writer for 15 years.
Her piece, “After the Fire,” was a seven-part series for the newspaper about two survivors of the January 2000 dormitory fire at Seton Hall, which claimed the lives of three students and injured 58 others. The series was a finalist for the 2001 Pulitzer Prize in feature writing and was turned into the book of the same name, which went on to become Fisher’s first New York Times bestseller.
“There’s an incredible power in these folks sharing their message to help others. Readers inspired by someone else's story can see their own hard times differently and want to overcome,” says Fisher. “That's important. It's about people helping people. I'm just lucky enough to be able to help convey the message.”
While Fisher helped Roig-DeBellis tell her story, the pair forged a strong personal and working relationship, doing an intricate dance to strike the right balance and tone in the book.
Roig-DeBellis, who is now 32, for example, wanted to exclude details about the shooting and focus solely on her recovery and message of hope. Fisher convinced her that she needed to recount that horrific day and help readers understand what she’d been through for her message to resonate.
The question then was which details to include. Roig-DeBellis wanted to recount only what she and her students’ had experienced directly, insisting on omitting anything that could hurt relatives of those who were slain.
Neither wanted to appear as if they were exploiting the tragedy for personal gain.
Roig-DeBellis is grateful for the opportunity to have a relationship with a sensitive and talented collaborator. “From the second I met Robin, she understood me and my intention in writing this book,” she says. “She’s truly a great listener, very empathic, meticulous and a seasoned narrative writer who took such care in helping me tell my story and was a dream to work with.”