When gunfire erupted at a football game at Pleasantville (N.J.) High School on Friday night, veteran firefighter Julio Sanchez Jr. instinctively sprang into action to tend to the youngest victim, a 10-year-old boy named Micah.
As chaos ensued at the stadium, packed with thousands of spectators, Sanchez initially rushed to treat a man wounded in the melee. His sister, Elyse, shielded several children with her body and summoned him to where Micah had fallen, unconscious from a bullet to his neck.
Two retired firefighters, Neal Loch and Dale Manning, administered first aid. Sanchez, a father of three, sprinted to a nearby ambulance to retrieve supplies and a stretcher, leaving behind his own sons, ages 18 and 8. (His daughter, who is 15, didn’t attend the game.)
“I just knew I had someone with life-threatening injuries, and my focus had to be on him,” Sanchez said Monday. “I was trying to get to the hospital as fast as I could.”
Donna Weaver, a spokesperson for the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office, described the boy’s condition Monday afternoon as “very critical.” He remained at Cooper University Hospital in Camden.
“I really want to see him pull through this, but he’s in bad shape,” Pleasantville Police Chief Sean Riggin told NBC10.
Sanchez, 41, a firefighter for 19 years, initially drove Micah; his mother, Angela Tennant; and two paramedics to AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center in Atlantic City in the ambulance. He reassured Tennant, telling her they were “doing our best for him.”
”I told him to keep fighting,” said Sanchez. “I told him to hang in there.”
The shooting during Friday’s playoff game between Pleasantville and Camden High School left three people wounded — Micah, a 15-year-old boy, and a 27-year-old man. Six men have been arrested, including the 27-year-old, who police say was the target of the shooting. All face detention hearings Thursday in Superior Court in Mays Landing.
Authorities have said the shooting had no connection to the schools. But the aftermath was fresh on the minds of students struggling to make sense of the immense fear they felt when shots rang out in the third quarter.
On a cold, dreary morning, Pleasantville High students filed through the school’s double doors, a mere 100 yards from where gunfire had broken out. Counselors were made available to speak with students, especially those who had been forced to flee the stands.
From the outside, it seemed like a normal Monday — no increased police presence or visible crime scene tape in the stadium stands — but on the inside, students who attended the game said they were still coping with the tragedy.
In an eerily calm manner, three groups of friends echoed the same sentiment: “This is just life now.”
“It felt like my last minute on Earth,” said junior Andrea Drinkard, 16, who was at the game and said she planned to take advantage of the counselors provided by the school district. She said the shooting wasn’t the school’s fault, but she would “never again” go to a football game.
“It was terrifying. I thought I was going to die,” said freshman Tiara Walker, 16, who also planned to speak with a counselor.
In Camden, trauma response teams provided coping sessions for students and staff impacted by the incident, said district spokesperson Alisha Brown. The district plans to acknowledge Camden High’s coaches, security, and staff who safely escorted players and spectators from the field at a school board meeting Tuesday night, she said.
The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association announced Monday that the remaining 17 minutes of the game will be played Wednesday at Lincoln Financial Field. The game will be closed to the public, but each school will receive a certain number of free passes to distribute to the players’ parents and other family members. The game will be streamed live on NJ.com.
Sanchez said he remains shaken by the experience, which he said was by far the worst among thousands of cases he has handled as a firefighter and EMT. He has had trouble sleeping and eating. He took a few days off from work and plans to return Thursday.
”This has affected me far worse,” Sanchez said. “This one shook me a whole lot. I don’t know that I have the stomach for this anymore.”
Sanchez, a Pleasantville alumnus, and fellow firefighter Ernest Alexander Jr., had gone to the game to support the Greyhounds, who had won their first conference championship in more than four decades. The stadium was packed with alums who had returned for a reunion of the 1980s classes, he said.
Sanchez said he had dozens of relatives at the game, including several Pleasantville football players. About an hour after the shooting, he received word that they were all safe, he said.
He has been hailed as a hero by many, but Sanchez wants attention focused on the boy fighting for his life. He has encouraged the public to support the family’s GoFundMe account to assist with medical expenses.
”This is about this little boy and his family,” Sanchez said.
In Atlantic City, many parents dropping their children off at the Uptown Complex School, where Micah is a fifth grader, were surprised to learn he was one of the victims.
“I couldn’t imagine. That’s somebody’s child,” said Aja White, 36, whose son Justin is a second grader. “It makes no sense.”