'Heroic' Professor Describes Actions That May Have Saved Lives

Debra M. Moriarity, a longtime professor and dean, shut the shooter out of the room during Friday's rampage.

Michael Mercier,The Huntsville Times, Landov

Debra Moriarity, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, was hailed as “heroic” by the university’s president for her role in ending Friday’s shooting spree.
February 16, 2010

Over the weekend, David B. Williams, president of the University of Alabama at Huntsville, talked about the "heroic actions" of a person who saved lives during the shootings that left three professors dead and three other people wounded. Mr. Williams didn't offer a name because, he said, the person did not wish to be identified.

But on Monday night, that person agreed to an interview with The Chronicle, and supplied the fullest account yet of what happened when Amy Bishop, a biology professor at the university, allegedly opened fire on her colleagues at a faculty meeting last Friday.

Debra M. Moriarity, a professor of biochemistry whose laboratory was next to Ms. Bishop's and who was perhaps her closest colleague in the department, acted quickly and, according to the president, probably prevented further carnage.

Ms. Moriarity, who is also dean of the graduate school and has been at the university since 1983, said she and her colleagues had assembled on Friday for a routine faculty meeting. For almost an hour, the meeting focused on departmental business. Ms. Moriarity was looking at some papers on the table when the first shot was fired, killing the chairman of the department, Gopi K. Podila.

Ms. Moriarity looked up and saw Ms. Bishop fire the second shot. Apparently, Ms. Bishop was simply going down the line, starting with the people closest to her, killing Mr. Podila, Adriel D. Johnson Sr., and Maria Ragland Davis, all professors, and severely wounding Stephanie Monticciolo, a department administrator, and Joseph G. Leahy, a professor. All were shot in the head.

Another professor, Luis Rogelio Cruz-Vera, was shot in the chest.

After the second shot, Ms. Moriarity dove under the table. "I was thinking 'Oh, my God, this has to stop," she said.

Ms. Moriarity crawled beneath the rectangular table toward Ms. Bishop, who was blocking the doorway. She grabbed at Ms. Bishop's legs and pushed at her, yelling, "I have helped you before, I can help you again!" Ms. Moriarity had in fact worked with Ms. Bishop, and they shared some similar research interests.

Ms. Bishop stepped away from her grasp. While still on the floor, Ms. Moriarity managed to crawl partially out into the hallway. Ms. Bishop, who continued shooting the entire time, then turned her attention to Ms. Moriarity, placing two hands on the gun and pointing it at her. Ms. Bishop's expression was angry—"intense eyes, a set jaw," Ms. Moriarity recalled.

With Ms. Moriarity looking up at her, Ms. Bishop pulled the trigger twice. The gun clicked, apparently out of bullets.

Ms. Moriarity scrambled back to the room. Meanwhile, Ms. Bishop, now barely in the hallway, appeared to be rummaging in her bag, perhaps attempting to reload. Ms. Moriarity took advantage of Ms. Bishop's fumbling and closed the door. Others in the room then helped her push the table against the door, fearing that Ms. Bishop would continue her rampage.

But the shooting was over, and two professors were already calling 911: Mr. Cruz-Vera, who had been shot in the chest, and Joseph D. Ng, a professor who was not hurt.

Mr. Cruz-Vera did not immediately realize he had been injured; he was treated and released from the hospital Saturday. Mr. Ng later sent an e-mail message to a colleague at the University of California at Irvine, which was published by The Orange County Register. "Blood was everywhere with crying and moaning," he wrote. "We were in a pool of blood in disbelief of what had happened."

Ms. Moriarity, who is 55, said she grew up in a hunting family and is familiar with guns. "If somebody is shooting a gun and you want to get away from it, you flatten yourself," she said. Ms. Moriarity said she has been reluctant to talk about what happened for fear of upsetting the relatives of Ms. Bishop's victims and the others who were in the room.

Though only two days had passed since the shooting, Ms. Moriarity was back at work Monday. She plans to go to the campus Tuesday, too. The memory, however, is still fresh, and her knees are still bruised.

Scott Smallwood contributed to this article.