Nearly one year ago, a 22-year-old student walked onto campus carrying a .50 caliber rifle in a bag.
Although he was quickly subdued by the Department of Public Safety, the student caused the University to come to a standstill under a mix of shock, fear and fresh memories of Virginia Tech six months before.
The student, Omesh Hiraman, traversed freely on campus from Gate 5 for a eight minutes on the afternoon of Wednesday, Sept. 26 before he was eventually apprehended in the Marillac Breezeway through the combined efforts of Public Safety and the NYPD.
Over the course of a few hours, students, staff and faculty were advised to stay put in campus buildings as a full sweep of the University was conducted to ensure there were no other threats on campus.
“I was stuck on the fourth floor of St. John Hall for a while,” said junior Neysa Lopez. “My professor said that there may be a person with a gun on campus and that there may be more than one,” she said.
“I was just wondering if everyone I knew was ok.”Sophomore Jamar Daniels said he remembers waking up in his room in Donovan Hall to find that he was unable to leave the dorm.
“I was just thinking ‘not another Virginia Tech,'” he said. “I made sure to phone home and let my family know that I was alright.”
Dominic Scianna, director of Media Relations, said the University’s rapid response to the situation was a testament to advanced preparation.
“We had a lot of pieces in place that day,” he said. “Text messaging was one of the things we had to our advantage. An e-mail went out immediately to the students.”
He added, “We were covered all across the board,” he said.The text message alert system had been active for a few weeks before the incident last year. According to Tom Lawrence, vice president of Public Safety, on Sept. 26, 2007 about 2,100 people had signed up for the text service. Since last year’s incident, however, 16,848 students are now registered.
Lawrence also said that he felt the University handled the situation well.
“We got a great response from the NYPD and Public Safety and a great response by the University community,” he said. “I thought everybody stepped up and did what we asked and, fortunately, no one was hurt.”
He added that the University is actively seeking to improve its emergency response plan.
Some things that have already been added include public address speakers in the hallways and classrooms of school buildings, phones in classrooms to give professors and students a direct line with Public Safety, and an increase in the amount of emergency generators on campus.
The quick thinking of student Chris Benson and Public Safety Officer Dan Boylan also helped prevent last September’s incident. Benson, a senior, spotted Hiraman, noticed the rifle he was carrying and followed him from St. John Hall to Marillac where Hiraman was stopped by Boylan, who managed to get the rifle. Together, Benson and Boylan detained Hiraman until law enforcement officials made an arrest.
Benson, who has been an NYPD cadet for over a year and is graduating in December, also downplays his action from that day.
“Some people still say things about it, but the people who are usually around me and know me, know it’s pretty ordinary,” he said.
Both Benson and Boylan were presented by University President Rev. Donald J. Harrington, C.M., with the President’s Medal, one of the highest honors given by St. John’s, for their bravery. The University also recently nominated the duo for a New York Post Liberty Medal for courage.
Coincidentally, Benson said Hiraman was a former student in his volunteer EMT class in February 2007.
“I would teach a skill to a group and after they were taught, they would move on to another instructor, so I was never one-on-one with him,” he said. “I honestly didn’t even remember at first, someone else had to tell me.”
According to Hiraman’s former lawyer, Anthony Colleluori, after being arrested on campus last Fall, Hiraman spent the rest of September and October in Bellevue Hospital before being transferred to Creedmoor Psychiatric Center.
The Long Island-based attorney said he last spoke to Hiraman “about six months ago” and called his conversation with the former St. John’s student as “friendly.”
“He was very involved with his therapy and he sounded a lot better than the last time I had spoken with him,” Colleluori said. Colleluori said Hiraman was facing “possibly up to two years in jail” for weapon possession charges. However, he said that since Hiraman was a first-time offender, was cooperative in while in custody and suffered from schizophrenia, he was able to avoid jail time by seeking medical rehabilitation.
The defense attorney said he played a big part in deciding to hospitalize his client but felt it was the best decision for Hiraman’s health.
“Talking to his psychologist, parents, family and friends, it became quite clear early on that if this person spent a period of time in jail, he would come out and be a danger to himself and others,” Colleluori said.
“You don’t want to hurt your client in the long-term, for a short-term gain.”