First responders helped bring NIU, DeKalb communities together

By Joe Palmer

Ryanne Mace would be 24 years old today and Julianna Gehant would be 37. Catalina Garcia, Gayle Dubowski and Daniel Parmenter would be 25.

Their stories and their lives have been chronicled, cherished and shared over the past five years. This time has been spent in the hazy limbo between grief and perseverance reserved only for such tragic circumstances.

On Feb. 14, 2008, five students lost their lives and 21 were injured at the hands of former NIU student Steven Kazmierczak. Classes were canceled until Feb. 25. Flags were flown at half staff across Illinois and then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich declared a state of emergency. DeKalb’s first responders took care of the situation and its aftermath, and in a news release from Feb. 15, 2008, the governor shared his appreciation for their work.

“I want to thank everyone who has opened their hearts and reached out to lend a hand, and I especially want to commend all the emergency personnel who are working hard to help the NIU community,” Blagojevich said in the release.

DeKalb Police Sgt. Steve Lekkas was a detective on Feb. 14, 2008. He was one of the first responders at Cole Hall that afternoon.

“It wasn’t like any other investigation we’ve been a part of,” Lekkas said. “There was no template for us to follow. The lines were blurred. It was near chaos on scene.”

On Feb. 14, 2008, Bill Feithen solidified his place in DeKalb’s history. As police chief, Feithen worked to head up the city’s response alongside NIU Police Chief Donald Grady and then-DeKalb Fire Chief Lanny Russell. The community’s first responders were guided by Russell, Feithen, Grady and NIU President John Peters.

“It doesn’t feel like it was five years ago,” Feithen said. “The incident certainly stays fresh in the mind.”

On Feb. 27, 2012, Feithen became the chief of police in Monmouth, Ill.

Bruce Harrison is now the chief of the University of Notre Dame Fire Department, but when Kazmierczak opened fire on NIU, he was DeKalb’s assistant fire chief and he was on scene.

“It’s one of those moments that lives a lifetime,” Harrison said. “It’s just a nightmare that lives in you. It lives with the community and the first responders. It will forever impact the lives of the close associates of those lost.”

Harrison’s recollections of the incident are shared by many in DeKalb.

“This event will live with me for the rest of my life,” Harrison said. “But you must move on.”

He recalls the horrors of the day, though his perspective on the healing process is changing over time.

“No community can truly know how much of an impact an event like this can have without going through it themselves,” Harrison said. “I have a tremendous admiration for those who continue to move forward and stay strong after losing someone they love and care about to an event like this. I just don’t know if I’m that strong.”

That forward movement is reflected in the perspectives of others on scene that day. Lekkas said his memory of the day’s events is highlighted by the outpouring of support shown to the community from outside communities.

“We had officers and first responders driving down from places like Rockford and from places well over an hour away,” Lekkas said. “They weren’t assigned to us, they were just there because they wanted to help. At one point we had two auditoriums full of cops just waiting for assignments or for something they could do to help.”

Former DeKalb mayor Frank Van Buer died of pancreatic cancer on July 23, 2008, while in office. His successor, Mayor Kris Povlsen, was DeKalb’s second ward alderman on Valentine’s Day 2008.

“It was what brought our two communities to realize that they are one in the same,” Povlsen said. “We’ve come together and we continue to grow together. This event spawned the ‘Communiversity’ idea that both sides embrace.”

Feithen expressed a desire to see DeKalb and NIU continue to merge into a more cohesive and collective body as Povlsen suggests.

“Incidents like this cause us to pause and reflect on how fragile life is,” he said. “It really shows how important it us for all of us to work together. The best thing we can do for the victims is to never forget their stories and take action to minimize the risk this happening again.

The aftermath of Kazmierczak’s actions have had a lasting effect on the city and the people of DeKalb, but it is important, Harrison said, to always move forward.

“It had a tremendous impact on me personally,” Harrison said. “But to those close to the victims, some of those wounds,” he paused, “some of those wounds, I’m just not sure if they ever really heal. We just learn to move forward.”