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How a man's experience surviving a shooting drove him to become an FBI special agent


We have spent much of this week talking about the immediate aftermath of another deadly mass shooting in America - the gunman, the investigation, the missed signals, the victims. What there's been little time for is discussing how this shooting in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park, Ill., will affect the community, the surviving family members and those who are injured in the years to come.


Thirty-four years ago, there was another mass shooting just a few miles away at an elementary school in neighboring Winnetka, Ill. The gunwoman shot Phil Andrew after she fled the school. Now 54 years old, Andrew went on to become an FBI special agent specializing in negotiations and a lifelong gun control advocate. We spoke to him about how the experience shaped him, and we began our conversation by talking about the day that he was shot.

PHIL ANDREW: I was a 20-year-old college student. I happened to be the captain of the University of Illinois swimming team. So if you met me back in 1988, we would have been talking about swimming for sure.


ANDREW: And meanwhile, a woman was planning an attack on the community where she attacked the community with a cyanide gas device, which fortunately was a dud and did not affect the school that she tried to ignite that in. She set fire to a nearby home, trapping a family and nearly killing them. And it culminated with her going into a elementary school in Winnetka, Ill., and opening fire at point-blank range on six elementary school students, second graders. She killed one instantly and severely injured five others.

In the course of her escape, she crashed her car and just happened into my childhood home, taking my mother, father and I hostage at gunpoint. And that was a hour and a half negotiation, and I managed to get my folks out but was shot in an attempt to disarm her. And that was my, really, first introduction to violence and gun violence. And immediately, even before I was able to leave the hospital, I realized that my way forward was to make sure I would play a role in making sure that it wouldn't happen again.

SUMMERS: You know, in reading about your experience, I understand that this is something that made you - it made you want to be a helper. Tell us about that. What was that decision-making process like?

ANDREW: Well, what it really did is shape my consciousness for how we really respond to those that are in distress. And one of the things that always stayed with me was that there were people there for me in the worst day of my life. There were amazingly heroic first responders who came to me at great risk to themselves, literally entering into a scene where they were putting themself at risk to render aid to me.

I came into contact with medical first responders, surgeons, doctors and nurses who put my interests, my recovery, my health above their own. And this kind of gift I was given of all the service they had provided really was giving me an opportunity, because I survived, to take this tragedy and turn it into something positive. And the one thing that I recognized that we could focus on was trying to spare others this kind of misery.

SUMMERS: You know, it's quite remarkable that, as someone who survived a violent crime such as you did, the end result was you wanting to help people and to come into a line of work that can put you in the line of danger. I imagine a lot of people would go the other way. They wouldn't want to be anywhere near that.

ANDREW: Well, I don't know if there's a magic to it. I am the beneficiary of a lot of healthy systems. The incident that I was involved in took place just a few villages away from Highland Park, a well-resourced, well-connected area with healthy police departments, with an amazing medical services, with a intact family. And unfortunately, I think that a lot of what happens in our country, particularly around gun violence and in certain areas - those systems, those healthy systems aren't there. I'm lucky to have survived.

And I think that the way the community responded was - it was a broad spectrum of responses. Even, really, in our own house, there was a point at which a threatening phone call for the advocacy I was doing around gun violence prevention came to our phone number one day. And my mother took the call, and she was unnerved. And she asked when we were going to stop talking about what happened and what we could do to fix it. And that - it was kind of an aha moment for us that my mother deeply wanted to see her family and her house and everything kind of return to normalcy. And I recognized that would never be again, that we had experienced something and we would always be advocating and working to prevent it.

SUMMERS: Being more than three decades removed, I wonder, when you think of the day of the shooting now, what do you think of?

ANDREW: I think of the people. I think of the doctor who was in my face and told me to stay awake and somehow picked up that I was a swimmer and called me a swimmer and connected we - with me and what I needed in that moment. I think of the nurse who looked into my eyes and said, you're going to be OK. I think of those children in the classroom that were doing exactly what they should have been doing that day, just going to school and getting ready for a bike safety test. And I think of their parents. And I think of that notion of safety being shattered in a way that's so unimaginable and then still somehow turn back to try to let their children have the freedom to go outside and skin a knee and go have a playdate at somebody else's house - that they really needed a significant amount of support to navigate that.

And it is hard, and it's no time for people to be alone. And there is no reason why they shouldn't be able to find others who empathize deeply with what's taken place. And there is a robust and effective network to now get involved and to prevent this from happening again. And that is so critical in terms of my own journey to know that I'm having impact in the world around me in sparing others or supporting others who have been hurt, knowing that my experience and my own loss and suffering prepared me to do that for others.

SUMMERS: Phil Andrew is the principal of PAX Group, a former FBI special agent and the survivor of a mass shooter. Thank you for sharing your experiences with us.

ANDREW: Thanks for having me, Juana.


Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.