“ARE YOU SAFE? WHERE ARE YOU? ARE YOU ALONE? GUYS IM SO F—— SCARED.” These were the messages received by terror-stricken students at UNC-Chapel Hill as they fled indoors, escaped through windows and barricaded themselves in dark classrooms.
On Monday, Aug. 28, a graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) shot and killed Dr. Zije Yan, a faculty member and professor.
Just moments after the incident, which transpired around 1 p.m., 911calls reporting an active shooter on campus triggered a three-hour emergency lockdown. One caller identified the assailant as Tailei Qi, a grad student whose faculty advisor happened to be Yan.
As emergency sirens blared throughout campus, students received messages from Alert Carolina warning them that an armed and dangerous person was on or near campus. Though Qi was arrested about 90 minutes afterward, the students of Chapel Hill remained on lockdown until 4:15 p.m.
“It lasted 190 minutes,” is what Editor-in-Chief Emmy Martin and assistant editor Lauren Rhodes wrote in the latest issue of Chapel Hill’s student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel. Published just a day after the incident, the issue’s cover page has garnered national recognition for its poignant presentation of messages students received amidst the shooting.
“I WISH THESE NEVER HAPPENED. STAY CALM AND SAFE – WE LOVE YOU. I AM SO SORRY THIS IS HAPPENING. I LOVE YOU. WHAT THE F— IS HAPPENING? MULTIPLE VOICES AND LOUD BANGING. I’M IN CLASS EVERYONE IS LOSING IT PEOPLE ARE LITERALLY SHAKING.”
President Joe Biden reposted the issue on X, formerly known as Twitter, writing “This was the front page of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Daily Tar Heel. No student, no parent, and no American should have to send texts like these to their loved ones as they hide from a shooter. I’ll continue to do all I can to reduce gun violence and call on Congress to do the same.”
Dr. Yan’s death reignited conversations regarding gun violence and mass shootings in schools. On Wednesday, Aug. 30, in the wake of the tragedy, 600 students and community advocates gathered at the Bell Tower of Chapel Hill to protest gun violence and honor Dr. Zijie Yan. They held up copies of the Daily Tar Heel and signs that read “This is our reality.”
David Hogg, co-founder of the nationwide gun control movement March for Our Lives, protested with students and stated, “This is a critical state because this is where change is possible, a lot more than in Washington. If students at UNC and elsewhere turned out and voted, they could change the state legislature.”
Later that Wednesday night, thousands of students and community members gathered for a candle-lit vigil, paying tribute to the life of Zijie Yan.
“Dr. Yan left this world a better place for his brilliance, his commitment and the lives that he affected. That’s a life well lived and a life ended far, far too soon,” said UNC Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz.
Yan began teaching at UNC-CH in 2019, after being a professor at Clarkson University. He served as an associate professor and faculty advisor in the Department of Applied Physical Sciences, overseeing a lab with several students, including Qi.
Following his passing, colleagues from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where Yan had studied, and Tulane University published tributes and shared insights about his character. Former advisor and close friend, Doug Chrisey, recalled publishing 17 papers with Yan as he was still learning English.
“He would knock on my door with incredible experimental results and a huge smile. He would leave feeling he didn’t understand anything about the nucleation and growth of nanoparticles, but still with a huge smile,” Chrisey wrote. “He was a person who had a resting smiling face and it was really representative of his beautiful soul.” After Yan’s passing, Chrisey started a GoFundMe to create a trust fund for Yan’s two daughters.
The shooter, Tailei Qi, has been charged with first-degree murder and having a gun on educational property. Qi was indicted on both charges on Tuesday, Sept. 5. The incident has reached a national audience, once again bringing to light the impact gun violence can have on one person, a family, a community and the nation.