PARKLAND, Fla.-- Around 2 in the afternoon on February 14, 2018, 14-year-old Maddie Zeltwanger was a typical high school freshman sitting in English class in Parkland, where she grew up and felt safe. “I was writing an essay," Maddie recalled.
Within 30 minutes, Maddie became a mass shooting survivor. “The first classroom and the hardest hit classroom," she said.
Maddie’s desk was closest to the door in her English classroom inside Stoneman Douglas High School's Building 12. While practicing for the state standardized writing test, she suddenly heard a popping sort of sound. “I looked up and there was a gun shooting down the hallway," she said.
She immediately ran to the other end of the classroom and hid behind her teacher’s desk. “If it was one millisecond before when I ran, I would’ve been shot," Maddie said.
Eight students in Maddie's class were shot. Three of those students died: Alyssa Alhadeff, Alex Schachter and Alaina Petty. “They were good kids. They were all really smart," she said.
That’s why Maddie now has three hearts tattooed on her ankle along with the date of the shooting in roman numerals and '1216,' the classroom she was in. “It's very special and it’s very personalized to what I went through," she said.
PARKLAND ONE YEAR LATER: Click here for full coverage
Sitting next to her mom, Kim Zeltwanger, the two recall the feeling of being reunited later that afternoon one year ago. “Wow, we got very lucky. I felt like God was looking out after her in that classroom," Kim said.
However, the last year has been tough mentally for Maddie. Her emotional wounds are as ingrained as her new tattoo. “In the beginning I had a really hard time laughing and being happy because I just felt guilty," Maddie said.
The memories often flood Maddie’s mind when she goes to school. “That’s the problem for the kids in the school is it’s in their face all the time," Kim said. "So as long as that building is up, they’re going to have a daily reminder of it."
Maddie continues to try to cope by talking about her experience and the victims she grieves. "I think getting through that has made me think of myself as a stronger person and knowing that I can get through that and that I will get through it," she said.
Now, she has a place to go to reflect right by her school. A new community garden, called Project Grow Love, sprouted up in the last couple of months at the corner of Holmberg and Pine Island Roads. Maddie and her mom added 17 solar-powered glowing angels to the garden.
“Especially at the school you just feel kind of close to it," she said. “It makes me feel like they’re with us and they’re our guardian angels.”