Remembering a deadly Kentucky high school shooting 20 years later

Published: Nov. 30, 2017 at 3:45 PM EST
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Friday, December 1st marks 20 years since a mass shooting at Heath High School in Paducah. A student opened fire on a morning prayer group killing three students, injuring five, and traumatized many more. In that time there have been countless more mass shootings, more deaths and more survivors left to deal with the aftermath.

One survivor says even after all these years there is still healing in sharing a story that changed so many lives forever.

"It just seems in my mind that it was a week ago and then there are other times when you look at all the other shootings that have happened since then that you realize it has been that long and nothing has changed," said Brittney Thomas.

Brittney Thomas has shared her story with us before, but even after all these years it is still hard. She is a survivor, just 15-years-old when a fellow classmate opened fire on a morning prayer group in the school's lobby.

"When the shooting started, the shooter was standing right behind me so when I turned around I was kind of facing down the barrel of the gun," said Thomas.

Thomas survived, but three of her classmates did not including her friend Nicole Hadley.

"She was incredibly funny, she was one of the most compassionate people that you would ever meet," said Thomas.

She still keeps some photos and memories of school, but time has helped Thomas heal. She moved to Lexington, went to college and got a job. She says her life is good.

"Probably within the last five years I think I have kind of been able to turn things around and figure out you can either stay stuck in the why questions and stay stuck in the anger or just stay stuck in general or you can figure out this did happen, I'm not going to change that and what can I do to make things better," said Thomas.

Since Heath, sadly there have been many more mass shootings and more victims who have their own stories to tell. In recent years Thomas has met a number of those victims through the online support group, The Rebels Project. It was started by students from another school shooting, Columbine. In talking with others, Thomas realized there was a common thread, they all felt victimized by the media.

"So one thing I have become passionate about over the last year is trying to help news reporters and anchors tell our stories because for me the power of story is actually really healing," said Thomas.

She wants to create a dialogue and possibly a training manual for members of the media when it comes to approaching victims.

"The media have the power to tell the story, and we have the stories, so there has to be a way to put the two together so that the stories are told in a way that is empowering," said Thomas.

She is saddened she says when in many cases there is more focus on the gunman and not enough on the victims and survivors. She also worries about certain language being used that could become fuel for another gunman.

"When you start reporting on these tragedies and events and calling them the deadliest mass shooting all you are doing is creating a benchmark for the next person who is going to commit this crime to then kill more people," said Thomas.

Thomas' story now continues, advocating for other victims and survivors like herself.

"Everyone wants their stories told, in fact, the fear is that people will forget," said Thomas.

This week is about not forgetting. Friday a new memorial will be unveiled in Paducah. It is being built in a lot across from the old Heath High School. Thomas says she will be on hand for what will be another bittersweet, but also special moment in her story.

"We are actually going to get to meet the first responders. We've never been able to thank those people who came to help us in the minutes after that happened," said Thomas.

At 35, Thomas is determined not to let what happened 20 years ago define her. Forgiveness to the shooter has found a place in her life.

"I'm not angry anymore, I am at a point where I can just rest in what I know," said Thomas.

She hopes other survivors can find that same peace in their own story.

The community will dedicate that new memorial Friday morning, former students and the others helped raise $100,000 to help construct it. The memorial will include the stones previously placed at the first memorial at the school.

As for the gunman, Michael Carneal was fourteen at the time of the shooting. In 1998 he plead guilty, but mentally ill and was sentenced to life without parole for 25 years. Currently he is serving out his time at the Kentucky State Reformatory in Lagrange. He is now 34 and when we checked with the Kentucky Corrections they told us he will be eligible for parole in 2022.