SRO wounded in Texas school shooting heads home from hospital
Officer John Barnes was critically wounded in the May 18 shooting after confronting the gunman
By St. John Barned-Smith
SANTA FE, Texas — John Barnes was rushed to the emergency room on a gurney, barely alive, in the chaos and blood that came with the Santa Fe High School shooting on May 18.
Thirty-three days later, on Wednesday, he walked out of TIRR Memorial Hermann in Houston, ready to go home.
“I just want to sit on the porch and smoke a cigar,” Barnes said, chuckling. A whiskey sounded good, too.
But the 49-year old Santa Fe ISD police officer won’t get either for quite some time. A formidable recovery looms.
As he left the hospital, he wore a checkered blue shirt, shorts and sneakers, and an Astros cap to ward off any rain from the gathering clouds above. His arm was wrapped in a sling, and a metal contraption drilled into the arm kept his shattered forearm steady. Stubble lined his cheeks, his hair was cropped short.
The veteran police officer faces months of additional rehabilitation and therapy after the shooting, which left 10 people dead and Barnes and 12 others wounded.
A high school junior was arrested and faces capital murder charges.
‘All hell breaks loose’
That Friday in May, Barnes had headed toward the back of the school to investigate a noise disturbance with his fellow officer Gary Forward close behind. He’d started the job just a few months before, after more than two decades with the Houston Police Department.
At first, the long hallways and closed classrooms concealed the sounds of the gunshots.
“When we started going down the hall, nobody heard that,” he said. “Then all hell breaks loose. Within 10 to 15 seconds, it’s happening.”
Someone pulled a fire alarm. He smelled something acrid in the air.
Then a shotgun blast tore through his elbow, shredding his artery. He watched his blood spill across the floor.
“It was shooting out of me like a movie scene — like something from Quentin Tarantino, just pouring out of my arm,” he said. “I knew it was really bad.”
Barnes staggered back to his friend, trying to stay calm. Forward, the department’s assistant chief, slipped a tourniquet around the damaged elbow and pulled it tight, stemming the bleeding long enough to pull him out of the line of fire. They both knew the shooter might round the corner at any moment.
His voice caught as he recalled the moment.
“Gary Forward saved my life,” he said. “He put that tourniquet on me. Had he not done that, I would have bled out within minutes. Had he not been right there with me, I would have died.”
Chaotic minutes later, other officers who’d rushed to the scene dragged the 288-pound officer outside, where a LifeFlight helicopter picked him up and rushed him to the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.
“I knew if I could get on LifeFlight, I would make it,” he said.
He told himself to keep breathing. “If I was breathing, I was living. I just focused on breathing.”
Against all odds
Barnes flatlined twice — once in the helicopter and once in the operating room.
Barnes’ wife, Ashley Barnes, said the shotgun blast turned his elbow into “a jigsaw puzzle.”
At UTMB, he underwent three surgeries. Doctors used a vein from his leg to reconnect the damaged artery and restore blood flow to his arm, and grafted skin from his leg over the gaping wounds in his arm. They filled him with pint after pint of blood to replace all that he had lost. They fitted him with an “external fixator,” drilling through his arm and immobilizing his elbow with a metal brace.
Doctors would come and watch. They told Ashley they’d never seen someone so sick survive.
He remained intubated for 10 days. At first, they were worried he might have suffered serious brain damage from the blood loss. But he began talking again, and initial memory problems began to fade away.
Little by little, he began to improve.
“When they saw him awake and he was kind of talking, it blew their minds,” said Ashley, an assistant principal at another Santa Fe ISD school.
On June 6, he was transferred to TIRR Memorial Hermann.
As he started to recover from his physical injuries, he also has had to grapple with what happened. The trauma is still raw, and when he talks, he often grows emotional thinking about it.
“I wanted to know I did it right. I wanted to know no one got shot or injured because of the actions I took,” he said. “I was right there, Gary was right there, we were both right there — I know that saved a lot of lives.”
Fatigue strikes him at random, he has shooting pains in his hand. But he can wiggle his fingers and move his thumb, something he could not do a few weeks ago.
Medicine has blunted his appetite. He’s lost 30 pounds in the ordeal.
He likes to make light of it.
“My wife says I don’t have (a butt) anymore,” he said.
Back at home
He walked out of TIRR on Wednesday morning to find a dozen police officers from Galveston County, Santa Fe ISD and the Houston Police Department waiting to escort him home. In his League City neighborhood, a fire truck hoisted an American flag high in his honor.
He choked up watching. Several dozen people cheered his arrival, waving signs and flags.
For the Barnes family, it was a relief to finally be home and regain a measure of control.
“It’s like there’s a huge weight on my back, and to have a portion taken off,” said Luke, 14, as his dad rested in the family’s living room.
Barnes and his family wrestle with a collision of feelings. They are deeply grateful for the outpouring of support from their friends, neighbors and even people they don’t know.
People across the country have sent cards wishing him well, one as far away as San Jose, California. When his kids go places, people thank them, he said.
But they are also private people, unused to such attention.
WELCOME HOME: He confronted the Santa Fe High School shooter and nearly died | Now, after a month healing in the hospital, Officer John Barnes made his way home to a hero's welcome: https://t.co/4ifzP5awnq #ThankYouOfficerBarnes pic.twitter.com/6dKjCxonax— ABC13 Houston (@abc13houston) June 20, 2018
“That totally threw me on my back,” Barnes said. “I really want people to know I felt all of that support and it has helped in my recovery a great deal. Me and my family greatly appreciate that.”
Just before noon, his friends stood talking with him for a few minutes, then said goodbye. Dixie, his border collie, skittered across the living room floor, trying to convince him to play fetch. Barnes sat down, rested his damaged arm on a pillow, and took a few bites of a sandwich Ashley had made for him.
He didn’t do anything special, he said. Certainly nothing his colleagues wouldn’t have done themselves.
In a few months, once his right arm is stronger and his hand has recovered, he’ll walk outside and sit on his porch.
He’ll pour out a finger of Makers 46, hold the glass in his right hand, and take a sip.
©2018 the Houston Chronicle