Aurora Shooting, One Year Later: First Responder Remembers That Awful Day

Aurora cop John Cebulski
Aurora police officer John Cebulski has returned to desk duty but continues to recover from a bullet wound he suffered during the Henry Pratt Co. shooting on Feb. 15, 2019. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Aurora cop John Cebulski
Aurora police officer John Cebulski has returned to desk duty but continues to recover from a bullet wound he suffered during the Henry Pratt Co. shooting on Feb. 15, 2019. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Aurora Shooting, One Year Later: First Responder Remembers That Awful Day

A year ago, Aurora police officer John Cebulski was among the first responders to the mass shooting at Henry Pratt Co., a manufacturing company. On Feb. 15, 2019, a gunman killed five workers and wounded five officers, including Cebulski, a 31-year veteran of the department.

In an interview with WBEZ’s Michael Puente, Cebulski, 54, described what it was like to be inside the Pratt building with an active shooter, the moment he was shot and his empathy for the people who died. Cebulski also reflected on his feelings as the anniversary of that horrible day approaches. His comments have been edited for brevity.

Friday afternoon, Feb. 15, 2019: The dispatch call

“I was 20 minutes away from my shift ending … We received a call from our dispatchers: an active shooter there at the Pratt factory. It was kind of a scary thought. It's kind of like a lead balloon, and my stomach just dropped. You know, we prepare for this. We train for this. But this was actually the real deal where dispatch told us they can hear shots in the background from people calling.”

Aurora Shooting, One Year Later

Read more: What Did The Aurora Shooting Change About Illinois Gun Policy?

Arriving at Henry Pratt

“I was one of the first cars on the scene. There was [sic] probably three [police] cars that arrived, basically right after each other … So me and three other officers, we grouped up and went inside the building looking for the shooter … Our number one priority was to stop the shooter, stop from further injury.”

Cops at Henry Pratt
Law enforcement officers outside the Henry Pratt building the day of the shooting. Matt Marton / Associated Press

Searching for the gunman

“It was a huge factory … And all I could picture, because there’s crates and boxes all over the place, is this person jumping up from behind there, because you couldn't see anything and we couldn't take any cover because we're walking down the aisle. And that's when we heard more shots being fired …

“Myself and officer [Chris] Weaver, we went up to the second floor … We assumed that the shooter — we still didn’t know where he was shooting from — was up on the second floor, kind of like a sniper. So we went up to the second floor looking for him.”

Encountering the shooter and getting hit

“I passed an opening in the hallway, something caught my eye, which was the shooter, but I didn’t know at the time, so I turned and announced myself, saying, “Aurora police,” and I had my gun pointed toward the person as he was coming up the stairs …

“As I turned and announced myself, he started shooting right away, and the first shot, among the shots, hit me right in the knee … I got hit in the knee right away, so I took cover and then I went into the room across from the hallway, which is an office area, and I either fell down or tripped, or whatever. I ended up falling to the ground.

“I positioned myself against the wall, so in case the shooter came in … through the doorway, I'd be able to see him right away and take action. I was ready for him.”

At the hospital, urgent messages from home

“I had my phone, so I was receiving text messages from my family, wondering what was going on … My wife knew right away [that he had responded to the shooting] because of the area that I patrol, which we call District 5.”

Thoughts about the victims

“I saw the office area where the victims were deceased … It’s very sad that this had to happen … I could relate to some of them being a provider. You think about, what if it happened to me? What if I didn’t come back? What would my family do?”

Henry Pratt families grieving
Family members of workers killed in the Henry Pratt shooting grieve at a makeshift memorial near the factory on Feb. 17, 2019. Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press

Are you a hero?

“No, I don’t consider myself a hero, or brave. There’s not one officer I know, or any officer, that wouldn’t have done the same thing.”

Public support helped his mental recovery

“The text messages, emails, the letters, the phone calls was [sic] overwhelming … People were constantly contacting me and letting me know they appreciate what happened.”

Feeling lucky to be alive

“I do believe my guardian angel was by me, for all the officers, you know, for what could have happened. And then the damage that could've happened to my knee, which didn’t, is a bit of a miracle.”

John Cebulski outside Aurora PD HQ
Officer John Cebulski outside the Aurora Police Department headquarters on Feb. 5, 2020. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Thoughts on the one-year anniversary

“I don't know until the day it happens, how I would feel. I think, you know, I'm going to feel very somber about it. Whether it's emotional or not, I'm not sure yet.”