by Tom Parisi
Jeff Merkel doesn’t see himself as a hero, but he says he met some on Feb. 14, 2008.
The 30-year-old former Navy corpsman had just exited Swen Parson Hall when he saw students near the library running toward him.
They were screaming, “Shooter!”
“At first, I thought it was a prank,” he says. “When they ran into Normal Road to flag down a (University Police) squad car, I took it seriously.”
Merkel walked back into Swen Parson. He went directly into a classroom. He told the professor and students to turn off the lights and lock the doors.
He left the building and walked in the direction the students were running from. He called his wife and told her, “I love you.” Then the senior journalism major, a reporter for the student paper, the Northern Star, took out his notebook and went to work.
In front of Cole Hall, Merkel saw a shooting victim sitting near a fountain, being attended to by a police officer and students. He met up with the Star’s city editor, Katie Trusk, who already was interviewing people and pointed him toward a witness.
After overhearing a scanner report of wounded who had run to Neptune Hall, Merkel and Trusk made their way to the residence hall. That’s where they found bloody footprints. And that’s when Merkel put his reporter’s notebook in his back pocket.
“I knew Katie was there taking notes,” Merkel says. “The main concern was making sure these guys were going to be taken care of.”
Trusk adds, “Jeff went into Marine mode.”
Navy corpsmen serve as medics alongside the Marines. Merkel had served tours in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. He was trained in how to treat victims in mass casualty situations.
He picked up a first-aid kit and pair of gloves that he had found near a police officer. “I said, ‘I’m a Navy corpsman, I’ve seen this stuff before,’ ” he recalls.
He handed a pair of gloves to Trusk, who says she put away her notebook as well. She also had training in first aid.
“There’s no way you can walk into the situation and be 100 percent reporter,” Trusk adds. “There’s no way you can do that.”
Merkel bandaged one victim’s head. In all, he dressed wounds or assisted three people with injuries and gathered them at a central staging area to wait for paramedics.
He notes that the wounded had significant help before he and Trusk even arrived. NIU students, including an Eagle Scout and lifeguard, had been using their first-aid knowledge while helping victims.
“I had the first aid kit and a little experience, but the first responders did an amazing job,” Merkel says. “Everything clicked. Everyone did what they were supposed to do. I was just one part of that.”
He heard that each of the three victims were treated and released that night.
There were heroes there that day.