“This is Prague so that can't be happening”: academic trapped in lift during mass shooting describes “surrealism” of the tragedy

As Prague reels from the events that transpired on Thursday, it is difficult for most people who were there to put their experience into words. However, David Vichnar, assistant professor in the Department of Anglophone Literatures and Cultures at Charles University, who was in the building at the time of the attack, agreed to speak about what happened despite still being in the middle of processing it all. I spoke to him outside Prague’s Karolinum, Charles University’s main building, just before a memorial service for the victims was due to take place.

Let me start by saying I’m so sorry for what you went through – I can’t imagine how awful it must have been – and thank you for talking to me anyway. You were at the faculty yesterday when the shooting took place – what were you doing at the time and when did you first realise that something was wrong?

Memorial site in front of the Carolinum | Photo: Ferdinand Hauser,  Radio Prague International

“It was one of these trivial stories that we keep hearing – a pure coincidence, I had no official business being at the faculty. I was carrying back a heavy amplifier to give back to the department ahead of the holidays and I was going to wish a couple of my colleagues merry Christmas.

"I know exactly what time I entered the building because I was texting my colleague to say 'Hey, I'm here!' at 2.59pm. So I was allowed in the building without any obstacles - it was business as usual, nothing extraordinary.

"I entered the elevator, which took me up two storeys – and then got stuck. The lights went out – that was unpleasant enough, but then I started hearing these banging noises, which sounded to me, given the situation I was in, as if someone was hammering away at some of the machinery in the elevator. It was a resounding banging noise, which you normally don't associate with anything terrible happening. Of course, I found out later that was the gunfire.

Photo: Czech Television

"I was stuck there in the elevator for what was the longest 15 minutes of my life, in the dark, hearing all kinds of noises. That's when I messaged my colleague saying, 'Something is off, where are you?'. I messaged another colleague saying, 'If this were the United States, I would say we have an active shooter situation. But hey, this is Prague so that can't be happening.' There was this cognitive dissonance and disconnect.

"Thinking I’d just got trapped in the elevator for 15 minutes and realising no one was out there to open the door for me, I foolishly ran for what I thought was safety. I pried the elevator door open, picked up the heavy amp, and started walking towards the department. At which point, of course, I got shouted and screamed at by three heavily-armed SWAT men, who fortunately asked questions first before opening fire - because of course, there I was, a man dressed in black, carrying what easily could have been construed as an explosive device or heavy weaponry.

"I was told to lie face-down on the ground. There was another person huddled in the corner who told me, 'There's a shooter on the roof.' Upon which, of course, I looked out the window, asking, 'Where is he?' It was just so surreal. Then the coin dropped - I hid away.

Photo: Czech Television

"The SWAT members were going door-by-door, banging on doors, prying them open, searching for either the gunman himself or accomplices. We were fortunate that right opposite us was the philosophy department where a couple of people had sought shelter before, so we were led inside.

"A couple of minutes later another police officer banged at the door saying we should make ready for evacuation. We made this kind of line with our hands on each other's shoulders, bent down as far as possible. We ran down two flights of stairs - there was blood on the stairs, on the walls - evidently wounded people who had run for shelter before us.

"We were escorted outside and sat down in the little foyer and staircase in front of the building, with our hands where the police officers could see them. We were still half incredulous, half not sure - the first rumours of dead people upstairs started circulating.

Photo: René Volfík,  iROZHLAS.cz

"And that's when they started bringing out the wounded and the dead - young students, very pale from the loss of blood, some with open wounds, carried on a stretcher. That's when it dawned on us that this was really happening.

"I have to take a moment to thank the police officers and the SWAT team and the special units. Fortunately, as they were already out to get this man and were hunting him down, they were in the vicinity and were able to make it onto the scene within a couple of minutes. Although this again added to the unreality of the situation - there's somebody opening fire and there's immediate police action, that's not the usual script.

"But they were very professional, very helpful, and we have to count ourselves lucky that the shooter only had five minutes to do his ugly business, in which he managed to gun down 14 people. It's easy maths to work out what the death toll could have been had he been given 20, 30 minutes."

Photo: Czech Television

How are you feeling now? Are you still in shock?

"Well, now we are just beginning to fathom the extent and the scope of it, and what a close shave it was. It's something completely different to when the adrenaline is rushing and you're basically obeying orders and you're still half-incredulous, thinking this cannot be happening, this is Prague."

Do you have any idea why the elevators were shut off - did the police turn off all the electricity in the building?

"I learned later that the elevators were shut down precisely in order to prevent the shooter from getting from the fourth floor, where he was opening fire, down to the lower levels and out of the building. They were basically shutting down all possible escape routes for him. Fortunately I was only going up to the second floor."

Was anybody you know killed or injured?

"The first news is coming through that apparently the head of the musicology department did not make it. That is shocking and horrible.

“I haven't learned of many other names of the people injured or involved. But then again I haven't been following the news that closely.”

Well, you lived it.

"I lived it and for mental health reasons, I might stay away from it for a while."

People hiding at the building of the Faculty of Arts | Photo: Czech Television
Author: Anna Fodor
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