Feb. 14 survivor works as NIU officer


Officer Maria Christiansen, a survivor of the Feb. 14, 2008, NIU shooting, works in the NIU Police Department.

By Kelley Byrne

Officer Maria Christiansen has been with the NIU Police Department for five years this month, but the road to becoming an officer was not easy.

On February 14, 2008, Christiansen’s life changed forever. She was one of more than 100 students in a Cole Hall classroom when former student Steven Kazmierczak entered and opened fire, killing five students and injuring 21 before killing himself. Christiansen, an NIU student at the time, was hit in the chest, neck and face.

“I don’t recall everything about the whole incident, I just know that I was in oceanography class in Cole Hall, and just a few minutes before class was over, the shooter came into the room dressed in all black,” Christiansen said. “After that, I felt pressure in my left shoulder and I was on the floor. How I got to the floor, I’m not sure, but I just kept hearing pop noises in the background, and then there was silence.”

Paramedics took Christiansen, then 19 years old, to the hospital where she would begin her journey to recovery. At the hospital, surgery was performed on her throat and there were worries she might not be able to speak because of the damage to her vocal chords.

“Recovery was pretty fast and slow at the same time. I was at the hospital for 11 days, or a week and a half or so,” Christiansen said. “I got hit with a shotgun so most of the damage was in my throat. I had a trachea tube in there, I had a feeding tube, and I had a chest tube, draining the blood that I had in my lungs. So you know, I had to get over that.”

During Christiansen’s stay in the hospital, she focused on the things she would be doing in the future.

“I wanted to come back, even the first day I woke up, I would say a couple days after that,” Christiansen said. “I even told my mom, I want to go back. I was so worried about my classes and everything, my homework.”

Christiansen’s family and friends chose not to reveal the details of the incident at the time so Christiansen could focus on her recovery.

“To my understanding, I was the only one who got injured that serious, I thought that everybody else was OK, so I didn’t know that people had died,” Christiansen said. “Obviously because they didn’t know how I would react.”

When Christiansen was able to get out of the hospital, she continued physical and vocal therapy because of the damage to her vocal chords. She was unable to talk, eat or even brush her teeth.

At first, Christiansen held some anger toward the shooter and wondered why the incident happened.

“The first time that I looked at myself, I saw this big scar on my neck and stitches on my face,” Christiansen said. “I was asking, ‘Why me? Why did this happen to me?’”

As she wondered whether she would be like that for the rest of her life, Christiansen tried to work through her anger.

“What’s the point of me being in this black hole, being angry at somebody who I didn’t know?” Christiansen said. “It was pointless to me. Why should I satisfy that person of making me unhappy by what happened?”

Focusing on the future helped her to move forward in her recovery.

“I have a lot to look forward to,” Christiansen said. “It’s just a scar. It’s gonna fade away.”

Christiansen looked forward to coming back to school, especially for its familiar feeling. She wanted things to be the way they were before the shooting.

“The first day of school, coming back I was happy, but kind of nervous,” Christiansen said. “What if it happens again? What if someone just bursts in here, in this classroom? So I was very mindful about that. Sometimes where I would sit affected me. I wanted to be closer to the door.”

Christiansen was able to move past her anxiety.

“Everybody handles things different and you never know how you’re going to react to something like that,” Christiansen said. “I would have never guessed that I would have reacted this way. Even if you think you know yourself, you’re still going to react different.”

Christiansen keeps trying to look forward.

“Everybody’s like, ‘It’s so bad, it’s so sad,’ and it was, I’m not saying it wasn’t, but at the same time, I try to look at the positive side,” Christiansen said. “Yeah, it was sad. It was a disaster. I had to go through surgery, and my parents had to wonder if I was going to die or not. I was scared I was not even going to be able to talk. I was scared of a lot of things, but things came around from that. I got closer to my family, I got closer to my friends.”

Christiansen was featured in Cosmopolitan magazine’s April 2014 issue. The feature showcased several survivors of the shooting at NIU and explored college gun laws across the nation. Christiansen said she has been recognized locally for the feature.

“I’m a reader. I was a fan of Cosmo, too, when I was in high school,” Christiansen said. “So I know that there are a lot of young people who read that magazine and who might go through similar or have gone through some sort of tragic incident that they don’t know how to handle it. So maybe just by reading my story or reading about it, they may be like, ‘Hey, she got over it.’”

Today, Christiansen lives with her husband and 9-month-old daughter and continues to work at the NIU Police Department.

“Family and friends were a big, big help,” Christiansen said. “So if somebody does go through something tragic, not necessarily what I went through but similar, maybe just look at the positive things, and find that support group that will help you get through it on and move on.”