When a gunman smashed through the gates of Rancho Tehama Elementary School, opened fire and tried to get inside the building, veteran teacher Ken Yuers was ready to sacrifice himself for the 18 students huddled inside his classroom.
“I felt like, either way, no matter what, my life was on the line,” Yuers told TIME on Thursday. “There’s a lot of kids in the classroom. They need to see their teacher do something. You want to protect the kids.”
As the events unfolded on Tuesday, Yuers rushed his students into his classroom, locked the door – then drew on his training as an Air Force military police officer to keep his students safe.
He barricaded the door with a metal computer charging cart and told his fourth and fifth graders to get down on the floor. He prepared himself mentally to use the cart as a shield – and then as a weapon to ram the gunman, if it came to that.
“I was trying to be able to react and think in a crisis,” said Yuers, a teacher since 1998. “It was a long shot in my mind.”
Teachers and staff at the small elementary school two hours north of Sacramento are being credited with preventing a “bloodbath” by immediately putting the school into lockdown after gunman Kevin Janson Neal opened fire in town.
Five people were killed and 10 others wounded. One student was shot through the window of the school as he huddled for safety, but there were no fatalities. Neal was shot and killed by law enforcement.
“I really, truly believe we would have had a horrific bloodbath at that school if that school hadn’t taken the action that it did,” Tehama County Assistant Sheriff Phil Johnston said at a news conference.
Yuers said he and the other teachers are trained to handle lockdowns and drills for fires and earthquakes. They’re told to lock the doors and get the students on the floor, but they’re not necessarily taught to barricade the door or take any other action that might put their own lives at risk.
After the gunfire stopped, Yuers tried to console the students in the classroom who were crying, shocked and scared.
“I said, ‘Hey, this might be the worst day of your life, but you lived through it,’ ” he recalled. “You just try to talk to them from the heart.”
Yuers said he hopes his students will be able to recover from the trauma. “They’re going to be stronger people,” he said. “We’re closer now because of this experience.”
Yuers also thought about his 4-year-old daughter, who starts kindergarten soon.
“I’m glad she still has a daddy,” he said.