VIRGINIA BEACH — For minutes that felt like hours, all that mattered was silence.
It would keep Tara McGee and the other six women alive.
“We got low, under the desk,” she remembers. She asked everyone to silence their phones.
They were hiding in an office on the second floor of Building Two at the Virginia Beach Municipal Center on Friday, knowing a gunman was roaming the halls.
The walls were no thicker than a cubicle, not nearly enough to stop a bullet and hardly enough to muffle sound. They had barricaded the door with a file cabinet — it took three of them to get it in place.
Then they waited.
“One of the young ladies, noticeably, was shaking,” said McGee, telling her story on Monday. “She made a phone call to her son, she was talking really, really loud. I said to her please, literally, ‘Shut up.’ Those are the actual words I used, unfortunately. She said, ‘K,’ and dropped her phone.”
“We heard shots being fired all around us. We heard gunshots — and you can literally tell the difference between the gunman and the police officers’ shots.”
Another woman contacted a 911 dispatcher.
“She was telling us where the gunman was: On the second floor. On the third floor. Down on the second floor again. And then we hear shots, coming to the door where we are.”
Then, a sound. A woman in the room accidentally crunched against a box, bending it.
“I can only assume he heard it,” McGee said. “When he shot into the door, the only thing that kept it from piercing the door was the file cabinet. Moments later, I heard another shot.
“I mouthed to the young lady. I said, ‘The shot was right there.’ I just prayed. I literally just prayed.”
Then, the moment passed.
“We heard rapid gunfire, just rapid gunfire, and for some reason I remember sitting up in the room at that point. And at that moment, that was the first time I actually cried. A tear rolled down my face and I felt just … sad. I didn’t have fear. I just felt sad.”
The dispatcher on the phone told them the gunman was down, but there could be a second shooter. The women heard police, but stayed quiet.
Finally, officers came.
“They said, ‘Code Blue! Is anyone in there?’ They pushed the door open, and helped us move the file cabinet so we could get out.”
But for McGee, the trauma wasn’t over.
The women had found themselves alive and hiding in that room because of their co-worker, Ryan Keith Cox.
Cox was McGee’s friend, the office “teddy bear” who treated everyone to lunch, the guy she would talk to in quiet moments about their shared faith in God.
She called him a “JB Man.” Just Because. Because he never needed a reason to be nice.
On Friday Keith led the seven women to that office and told them to hide. It was a secure part of the building, only accessible by keycard.
It never occurred to them that the gunman would have a keycard just like theirs — that the man who killed 12 people was their co-worker, whom McGee said hello to every day she saw him, and who never said hello back.
Cox thought he’d have time to find others and bring them to safety. He told them to lock the door.
“We said, ‘Keith, come on. Come on,’” McGee said, her voice starting to break. “And Keith said ‘No. I gotta make sure everyone is OK.’ We begged him to come in.”
And so when they pushed the file cabinet against the door to close off the room, he wasn’t in it.
Later, when it was all over and the officers came to get them, one woman left the room and came back: “Keith’s been shot. When you come out, look to the left, do not look to the right.”
But McGee couldn’t follow her advice.
“I looked out and I saw my friend Keith laying there. He wasn’t moving, he wasn’t doing anything.” She stepped over bullet casings and so many bullet holes. Officers told them to keep their eyes straight and not look down.
“And they rolled in the stretcher for them to come and get Keith.”
McGee kept asking anyone she could find: Where’s Keith? She saw a Nightingale helicopter take off — was it for him? She asked for him at a hospital, but didn’t find him there. Finally, she reached out to his closest friend.
“I texted her. She texted me that he didn’t make it. And, um,” McGee stopped talking for a moment. “It just started all over for me. All of it.”
“We would not be in here today if Keith had not forced us into that room and made us stay in there. He gave his life so that all seven of us women could have ours. I will never forget the ultimate sacrifice that he gave. I came home to my daughters. And he didn’t get to go home to his parents.
“You don’t find not just men, but many humans that do that anymore. People are killing each other every day for stupid stuff, and it makes no sense. We’re never going to find rhyme or reason for senseless killing.
“We’ve lost respect for human life. But Keith literally stood up for us. He sacrificed his life so we could live. I’ll be forever grateful. We will be forever grateful.”
McGee said she wanted to tell her story so people know what Cox did. So they understand he is not forgotten.
And so they know how every day, until the end, he made life just a little bit better for the people around him.
The two friends had a bit, a little back-and-forth they’d say to each other. McGee is an elder at her church, and Cox would ask her, “All right, preacher, you got a word for the day?”
“And I would say, ‘God loves you.’
“And then he’d say, ‘God loves you, too.’”