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April 6, 2023

Nashville’s Heroes

Rex Engelbert, Michael Collazo, and their fellow officers saved a lot of lives at the risk of their own.

The world is full of awful things, some just the result of corrupted nature and some due to intentional evil. The latter was the case in Nashville last week. Yet often during either natural or perpetrated calamity, we also see the best of humanity rise to the challenge. We ought always stop to appreciate that.

Rex Engelbert and Michael Collazo are the two Nashville police officers who fired the shots that took down the murderer at The Covenant School. When the natural reaction anyone has is to run from gunfire, they ran toward it. With the help of several other officers, they ended the threat in accordance with their training.

For that reason, these men say they were just doing their job. As we saw in Uvalde, however, that’s not always the way things play out.

Collazo, 31, is a nine-year veteran of the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department (MNPD) and a six-year veteran of the Marine Corps. He’s also a former firefighter and SWAT paramedic. He’s married with one little girl.

Engelbert, 27, has been with the MNPD for four years. He’s engaged to be married.

The MNPD released the harrowing body cam footage last week (viewer discretion is advised). Heroism is an overused word these days, but the video clearly shows that Collazo and Engelbert are heroes.

Engelbert was among the first on the scene. After a woman described the situation to him as he was grabbing a rifle from his police SUV, he calmly replied, “Okay, yes, ma'am.” She continued giving details and then, to other officers, Engelbert said, “Let’s go!” Moments later, he fired the first shots to take down the killer.

Collazo was moving with a different team of officers after entering the building through the same door as the killer. There he found the first victim, custodian 62-year-old Mike Hill. When Collazo met up with Engelbert and others, he ran forward to fire more rounds at a still-moving suspect and then disarmed her at gunpoint.

The body cam footage lasted less than three minutes, which, to these officers, probably felt like an eternity. They may now feel less like heroes than they do simply regular men struggling to cope with grief and shock.

Reflecting on the incident this week, Engelbert said he was simply nearby at the time and even had to rely on GPS to find The Covenant School. “I really had no business being where I was,” he said. “I think you can call it fate or God or whatever you want, but I can’t count on both my hands the irregularities that put me in that position when a call for service came out for a deadly aggression at a school.” He credited two school staff members for not running but giving “concise, clear information” to help as he was the first one to enter the school.

“Once we started hearing the first shots,” said Collazo, “that’s when everything kind of kicked into overdrive for us.” His description of what he and his fellow officers did upon entering the upstairs hallway shows how difficult it can be to follow training: “We had to push past [one] victim because we continued to hear more shots being fired.”

Detective Sgt. Jeff Mathes, who was with Collazo at the time, said, “To this day, I don’t know how I did that morally.” Yet he too knew that there could be no hesitation to save other lives, even possibly at the expense of his own. “I’m not going to stop and say timeout and go talk to my wife, talk to my kids,” he explained. “I’m here to make sure everybody else goes home.”

Collazo agreed on the toll it takes. “My wife’s going through this,” he said. “My family’s going through this. Officer Rex’s fiancé’s going through this. Sergeant Mathes’ wife is going through all of this and it’s tough.”

Every cop and his family knows he might not make it home today. And every cop is just as much human as the rest of us.

Nashville Police Chief John Drake even admitted that when he saw a group of kids days later, he simply started crying. That’s true of an awful lot of Americans.

The young victims were Hallie Scruggs (the pastor’s daughter), Evelyn Dieckhaus, and William Kinney. The adults were Head of School Katherine Koonce (60), Cynthia Peak (61), and Mike Hill (61). They are now enjoying the eternal embrace of their savior, Jesus Christ.

Thanks to Collazo, Engelbert, and their fellow MNPD officers, other kids and staff at the school will live a bit longer before that moment comes.

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