SALT LAKE CITY — The support of a strong family might have stopped confessed shooter Nikolas Cruz from killing 17 people at Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, say the parents of a 14-year-old girl who died in the attack.
Ryan and Kelly Petty ache over the loss of their daughter, Alaina, a freshman who was scheduled to have a bracket replaced on her braces the afternoon she was shot. Her funeral drew 1,500 people on Monday. "There are no words to fill the hole we feel in our lives," Ryan Petty told the Deseret News.
But the Pettys said they started to learn details about Cruz, 19, who confessed to the shootings in statements to police, even before they learned that Alaina had died. He is responsible for his actions, they say, but he needed love and help he didn't get, especially after his adoptive parents died.
So while some of Alaina's classmates advocate for new gun laws, President Donald Trump suggests arming trained teachers and others push for better mental health and law enforcement efforts, the Pettys called for help for families.
"Strong families are vital to a peaceful, functioning society," Ryan Petty said. "When families break down, that's where the problems begin. We need legislators and policymakers to pass legislation and create policies that strengthen families."
Cruz also shot one of Alaina's friends from her Mormon congregation, Madeleine Wilford, four times. Wilford, who suffered critical wounds that included a collapsed lung, returned home on Wednesday, a week after the shooting.
Wilford, 17, is already walking despite pain, and laughing with friends who visit her as she recovers. The only time she broke down during a phone interview Thursday was when she talked about Alaina.
"She was amazing," Wilford said.
The Pettys have scant details about what happened to Alaina. She was in her English class, expecting her mother to pick her up in about 30 minutes for her orthodontic appointment, when Cruz allegedly emerged from an Uber ride and went on a six-minute shooting spree.
Wilford was in her AP Psychology class.
"All of a sudden shots went off," she said. The shooter was a few classrooms down, shooting through the windows of first one classroom door, then another. Students dove to the floor and tried to get out of the line of sight of the door window. Wilford wedged herself between her teacher's podium and desk. As everyone tried to hide, she was pushed back slightly toward the middle of the room.
"All of a sudden I felt a shot hit me," said Wilford, who doesn't recall feeling the other three bullets. "I realized I was shot and an immense amount of pain went over me. The first thing I thought was that I was going to die. I was screaming, 'Help me! Help me!' I was frantic. I didn't know what to do."
The shooter moved on to the next classroom. Cruz is charged with 17 counts of murder, one each for the three adults and 14 youth who died. Wilford was one of 16 wounded. She said she felt a sense of peace before she slumped against a wall and blacked out.
Alaina's 17-year-old brother, Patrick texted their mother, Kelly Petty: "There's a shooter on campus."
Alaina didn't answer her mother's texts.
Ryan and Kelly Petty went to the Marriott Hotel, where parents were picking up their students. While they waited, they began to learn about the shooter Cruz, who they said had pockets of help but nobody to connect the dots for him.
"We wish and believe," Ryan Petty said, "that if somebody had been able to put their arms around him and show him some compassion and love to the extent that would have enabled him to get some help, things may have been very different last week."
Family might have been the key, Kelly Petty said. She hoped those seeking change will include strengthening families.
"Having a strong family is the most important thing, to have support and love and to learn right from wrong," she said. "When children don't have that, sometimes they end up doing really bad things. If strong families were encouraged more and fought for more, more kids could be helped and not fall by the wayside and not do things like last week."
The Pettys did not absolve Cruz.
"We're saddened he wasn't able to get more help before he made a decision to take other lives," Ryan Petty said. "We're saddened for him. We're sad he didn't get a family that could help him. We're not removing any responsibility for the choices he's made."
Ryan Petty said the coverage of past school shootings made him believe he would be furious if one tore a hole in his family. Many families feel that way now. "He's ruined so many families, it's hard," Kelly Petty said.
But Ryan Petty has felt a faith-based sense of peace and calm. "I'm amazed I haven't felt angry," he said.
The Pettys are holding close to Patrick, who was unharmed, and their other children, 22-year-old Ian and 19-year-old Meghan. "We're choosing to focus on our eternal family," Ryan Petty said.
Alaina stunned her parents by following her older brother Patrick into the school's Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps. They thought she was trying to get out of P.E. Soon she was running 5Ks, obstacle courses and mile runs with a 30-pound backpack through Florida heat and humidity.
Her dedication to her faith and being a cadet meant long school days. LDS Church seminary courses at 6 a.m., school and JROTC until 5:30 p.m.
When disasters struck, she pitched in to help others through Mormon Helping Hands. Last year, she joined several long excursions to help muck out flooded houses after Hurricane Irma.
"It's really physical work," said Alaina's friend, Hannah Beardall, 15, a sophomore at Stoneman Douglas, "but Alaina always did more than the physical work. She was just caring. She would do anything she could to make the families feel safe and to help them emotionally, too, to feel better."
Now that style of community help and healing during and after tragedy is on display again.
The first responders who reached Madeleine Wilford slapped gunshot patches on her wounds, sealing them and slowing the loss of blood. Surgeons put her on a ventilator, reattached three tendons in her right arm and fused titanium plates to her broken ribs.
The SWAT team that first helped Wilford later visited her in the hospital. A team member told her father that after seeing all the people who didn't make it, seeing Wilford was therapeutic.
"She's serving as a thing people can look to and see as a sign of hope," David Wilford said during a phone interview Wednesday night. "She was shot four times with an assault rifle at close range and now she's sitting downstairs a week later with two friends from church, laughing. I can't even believe it."
Both families say they are overwhelmed by the letters, texts, emails, messages and other support they've receive from all over the country. A Maine high school basketball team wore "Fight Like Maddy" warmup shirts in Wilford's honor on Wednesday.
'I loved her'
The Pettys found out Alaina was dead 10 hours after the shooting. At her funeral, the U.S. Army awarded the JROTC cadet its Medal of Heroism.
"I loved her," said Madeleine Wilford, who had gone to week-long church girls' camps with Alaina and has looked out for her and the other younger girls in her Mormon congregation. "She always lit up the room. She was always so lighthearted and spirited. She always made people laugh. It was rough losing her, finding out she was dead. I know she's in a good place."
President Trump visited Wilford in the hospital and promised her a letter of recommendation to her college of choice, Brigham Young University. Elder Gary E. Stevenson of the LDS Church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles visited Wilford and the Pettys. He gave her a blessing and read a scripture with her about how God will "consecrate thine affliction for thy gain." He told her that she could turn her afflictions into a positive.
"It was very spiritual," Wilford said, "and there was an immense amount of peace throughout the room. The peace I felt really helped."
Elder Stevenson's message was similar to one Wilford herself had shared in an LDS stake conference two weeks before the shooting, based on several difficult life experiences she'd already had, her mother, Missy Wilford, told the LDS Church News.
"Most people say they don't believe in God because if there was a God, all these terrible things wouldn't be happening," Madeleine Wilford recalled telling hundreds of fellow Mormons, "but that's what we're put on this earth to do, to endure a lifetime, and life's going to be full of ups and downs. The only way we can make it better is to turn toward Christ and know that he always has a plan for us, and he'll help us through it no matter what."