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Friends who survived Sandy Hook and Parkland are on a mission to ‘move the needle’ on gun reform

Among the hundreds of thousands at last weekend's March for Our Lives in Washington were two women who share an uncanny bond. Friends for over three decades, Yvonne Cech and Diana Haneski are also both school librarians who survived different shooting massacres at Sandy Hook Elementary and Stoneman Douglas High School. William Brangham reports on their fight for change.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Among the hundreds of thousands of participants in last weekend's March for Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C., were two women who share an uncanny bond.

    William Brangham spoke with these two educators in the days before the march.

    It's part of our weekly series Making the Grade.

  • Yvonne Cech:

    I feel the change coming.

  • William Brangham:

    Yvonne Cech and Diana Haneski have been friends for over 30 years. They joined the thousands who traveled to Washington, D.C., this past weekend.

    They met decades ago working at a radio station in Connecticut, and over the years their lives have been strangely in sync. They both married men at the same station. They each got their master's at the same university. They had kids at almost the exactly same times. And they each became librarians.

    But here's where those similarities turn tragic. In 2012, Yvonne was a librarian at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and Diana is a librarian at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

  • Yvonne Cech:

    It was just total disbelief, because I thought, how is that possible that, in our friend group, there are — you know, this has happened twice? How is that possible? And I kept thinking, it can't be true.

  • Woman:

    There has been a deadly shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut.

  • William Brangham:

    Six years ago, in Newtown, a young man walked into the school with an AR-15 assault rifle and began shooting. Yvonne was preparing lessons for the day.

  • Yvonne Cech:

    It was a Friday, and it was a beautiful blue sky, December day. And I remember leaving for work that morning and thinking, this is going to be a great day.

  • William Brangham:

    Yvonne and her students survived by hiding in a closet. It took several hours before she realized that others hadn't been so lucky.

  • Yvonne Cech:

    When they evacuated us to the firehouse nearby, that's when we kind of understood the enormity of what was going on. And when I got to the firehouse and heard that there were two classes of children missing, I thought, well, they must have found a place to hide like we did. They must have had to have found a spot.

  • William Brangham:

    Twenty elementary school kids and six educators were killed that day.

  • Woman:

    News of a school shooting in South Florida.

  • William Brangham:

    Six years later, another young man with another AR-15 walked into Diana's school, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, and started shooting.

  • 911 Operator:

    Nine-one-one. What is your emergency?

  • Student:

    Please help. Please help.

  • 911 Operator:

    OK. Is anybody injured?

  • Student:

    Yes, yes, a lot of blood. Please help, please.

  • William Brangham:

    Diana was in a room with a dozens of kids when the attack began.

    She immediately thought of what Yvonne had been through years before.

    So, when what happens at Marjory Stoneman Douglas starts to unfold, you're thinking of Yvonne and what she did?

  • Diana Haneski:

    Yes, and I thought of her before it even happened. I was always trying to have my keys and my phone and my radio with me.

    If I didn't have a pocket, I would put a pouch on, because of what she shared, how that people who didn't have a key were in trouble, or if you couldn't unlock or lock something, you had a problem. But then, of course, when it actually was happening, the adrenaline kicked in, and my only focus was getting the kids in and safe.

    And I had — there were four other adults with me and 50 students. And I wanted them safe and hidden and calm. And that's what we did.

  • William Brangham:

    Yvonne, can you tell us where you were when you hear what has happened in Florida?

  • Yvonne Cech:

    I was at work in the library. And I was in a meeting, and I had my phone on mute. And — but I could tell that, you know, the phone was going crazy.

    And so I excused myself from the meeting, and I quickly called back. And I said, what's going on? And it was our friend Sue, and she said, the shooting was at Diana's school.

    And I thought, OK, I have got to talk to her. I have got to talk to her. And she picked up the phone, and she just — the first thing she said to me was, how can we make this the last one?

  • William Brangham:

    That was the first thing you said?

  • Diana Haneski:

    I guess. It's hard to remember. But she remembers for me, yes, because it's too hard to believe. It was like surreal. It was like, this is really happening. It happened to you. It's happening in our school, too?

    So, yes, that was my first reaction. This can't happen again. It can't. So, we have to do something.

  • William Brangham:

    Both women are now a part of a club of sorts, survivors of these horrible tragedies who are trying to help each other cope.

  • Yvonne Cech:

    I think my life is now sort of divided into before the shooting and after the shooting, and not because I want to stay focused on it.

    I'm constantly trying to reframe my thinking, so that I can sort of have a normal life. But the truth is that it's part of your life forever. And, you know, when we talked to the teachers from Columbine and I thought, you know, I said, you know, how long does this take to get over, and they said, that's not how it works. You won't get over it. You will learn to co-exist with it.

  • William Brangham:

    After the Parkland shooting, both Diana and Yvonne have been what they call reluctant activists for comprehensive gun control.

  • Yvonne Cech:

    Diana and I were saying, we would much rather be doing a book club right now than doing this.

  • Diana Haneski:

    It's our spring break for us. It's our spring break.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Yvonne Cech:

    But we find ourselves in the position, I think, that we can't be silent. We don't — we have an obligation to protect the children of this country. And the only way to do that is to change — move the needle, change it.

    And if the NRA doesn't want to listen, I think they're going to be left behind.

  • Diana Haneski:

    And I think it's wrong to say you're going to solve a gun problem, gun violence problem by adding more guns. That just doesn't make any sense, and you don't need to be a teacher to realize that.

    To arm a teacher, like, in the situations we both described, I don't know how a gun would have helped us in our situation.

  • William Brangham:

    At times this past weekend, Yvonne Cech and Diana Haneski looked like two old friends enjoying each other's company.

  • Yvonne Cech:

    Good time.

  • William Brangham:

    But at other moments…

  • Diana Haneski:

    She survived Sandy Hook, and I survived Douglas.

  • William Brangham:

    … the enormity of their experiences and the enormity of this movement they have joined was overwhelming.

  • Diana Haneski:

    Nobody said it was easy.

  • William Brangham:

    But these two friends say they will stick with this for as long as it takes.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm William Brangham in Washington, D.C.

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