News, Terrorism & Active Shooter

Firefighter-Paramedic Recalls Response to College Shooting

DEKALB, Ill. — Travis Karr is headed back to work this morning, and you’ll have to forgive him for hoping for a relatively calm day once his shift begins at 7 a.m. sharp.

“I want to go about a normal day again — or whatever is normal, for us,” said Karr, who grew up in Lawrence and now works as a firefighter-paramedic in DeKalb, Ill. “I want to get back to the normal stuff.”

Thursday afternoon, Karr’s work was far from normal.

The Free State High School graduate is a member of the first ambulance crew that entered Cole Hall at Northern Illinois University, which only minutes earlier had been the site of a deadly campus shooting.

“Our department did an excellent job,” Karr said Friday from DeKalb, about 50 miles west of Chicago. “We handled the situation the best we could, and I’ve never been more proud of anything I’ve ever done, and never been more proud of anybody that I’ve known, than the guys that I work with.”

Karr and his comrades saw the carnage up close: six dead, including the shooter, plus more than a dozen others injured by shots fired by a lone gunman inside Cole Hall.

“I can say that it’s surreal — surreal, and you just do what you gotta do,” Karr said. “What we all say is, you just kind of go into autopilot, and you fall right back on your training. You do what you do.

“You do the best that you can, you know, for what you can do.”

Karr’s father, Jerry Karr, knows that his son did all he could do and more.

Jerry Karr spent more than 27 years with the Lawrence Fire Department and its expanded operation, Lawrence-Douglas County Fire & Medical, before retiring in 2006 as division chief for operations.

His son had been letting him know for years that he wanted to be a firefighter. Early on, it was donning dad’s firecoat as an infant. Then, as an early teenager, he observed from a sidewalk while Pops led fire-suppression efforts outside a massive Sunflower Outdoor & Bike Shop blaze in downtown Lawrence.

Just two years ago, at Dad’s retirement ceremony, the two men acknowledged a generational switch: Instead of son watching Dad from “the stands,” it would be the other way around.

“As of now, I’m sitting in the stands, and I’m really impressed with what I’m seeing,” Jerry Karr said Friday. “He is the real deal. I’m so incredibly proud of him for the job he did.”

Karr, now 24, graduated in 2002 from Free State High School, where he played football. He went on to earn certification as an emergency medical technician at Washburn University, then moved to the Chicago area in November 2003, near where his mother, Julie Karr, works as city manager for Evanston, Ill.

Karr soon completed paramedic school, then worked for the Romeoville Fire Department and graduated from the Elgin Fire Academy before joining the DeKalb Fire Department just 10 months ago.

Karr and others on his shift were sent home Thursday after going through “critical stress debriefing.” Since then he’s heard nothing but support from friends, family — including his dad and stepmother, Liz Karr — and the community, both in DeKalb and elsewhere.

Now, he just wants to get back to work.

“As we were told the other day, it is the best job in the world, but there are crappy days,” Karr said. “And (Thursday) was one of ’em, and we did the best we could for what we were given. …

“You know, I don’t know how to say it, but … I just want to go back to normalcy a little bit.”