Murrysville: Once near-perfect, now shaken, resilient

Lives and a way of life hung in the balance in a school hallway

The large swath of farmland seemed ripe for development. You could not ignore the rustic beauty, the rolling hills set on the edge of a dense forest, and yet you would still be just 20 miles east of the city if you wanted to drive in for a game or a show. And the school district? Well, it did not get much better than Franklin Regional, which annually sent its brightest students to some of the top universities in the country.

The Heritage Estates of Murrysville were going to be undeniably attractive to those who desired the comforts and guarantees of suburban life. When a young married couple named John and Sonya Kukalis found out about the new properties in 1999, one street layout stood out to them as they surveyed their options: Sunflower Court. It would be a cul-de-sac, and for Sonya, it was easy to imagine their three children gallivanting outside freely, with minimal traffic passing through.

Of course, it would be so natural for them to make friends with the rest of the kids on the block. That's how it happened, too, right from the beginning. Next door to their left, Harold and Tina Hribal and their two toddlers, Ryan and Alex, moved into the white two-story country-style home with the dark green accents. The Hribals, who were now both in their second marriage, blended in just fine with the rest of the families.

A look back at a day of horror, night of healing

The events at Franklin Regional High School on April 9 shattered innocence but led to a community embracing its first responders, teachers and students. The healing has begun. (Video by staff; edited by Andrew Rush and Melissa Tkach; 4/13/2014)

The little ones grew up in unison, taking their first steps, putting on training wheels and playing catch together, and the parents took ownership over each of them, no matter the last name. The block parties on Sunflower Court were the most fun, not to mention all the garage sales, Easter egg hunts, turkey trots and Christmas caroling outings.

Every once in a while, a family would move. In 2004, the Ogdens left the corner lot at the top of the cul-de-sac, and Trina and Sam King swapped in with their son, Zack. Everybody in town knew Sam. He had been principal at Heritage Elementary School. People trusted him with the welfare of their kids. He would be a splendid addition to the dynamic.

Sunflower Court was just one patch of green in a small town outside of Pittsburgh that had slowly become a suburb. It contained 13 indiscriminate plots out of thousands, but in Murrysville, there was a sense that you were never alone, that you were a part of a shared, unique experience.

"People were always referring to the 'Murrysville Bubble,' " Sonya Kukalis said.

And it worked. It worked because of the widely held assumption that you knew the person standing next to you, that families such as the Kukalis's, the Hribals and the Kings were like-minded and would always be there for one another.

Really, it would go just as they'd all hoped -- until a Wednesday morning one decade after the Kings' arrival on Sunflower Court. That April day, Mr. King, who would ascend to assistant principal at Franklin Regional Senior High School, and Alex Hribal, a 16-year-old sophomore there, would meet in the school's hallway, with lives -- and a way of life -- hanging in the balance.

■ ■ ■ ■ 

It's a beautiful day in this neighborhood,
A beautiful day for a neighbor.
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?...

-- Westmoreland County native Fred Rogers of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood"

Each morning of the school year, Sam King and the youngest Hribal boy, Alex, would take in the same views during the six-mile drive from Sunflower Court to the Franklin Regional school complex, which sits just a few blocks from William Penn Highway (U.S. Route 22).

The trip is pleasant, going past the many large homes hidden among the tall, thick trees that cover Sardis Road, and the 12-minute journey also stands as real-time evidence of how much Murrysville has grown. A town of 12,000 in 1970 would welcome 8,000 residents during the next four decades, its citizens crossing over into a new century while grasping onto old values.

"It's funny. When we moved into Murrysville 20 years ago," said Steve Kinsel, whose daughter attends Franklin Regional Senior High, "a friend of ours said that the last person to move into Murrysville wants to be the last person to move into Murrysville. They don't want more people coming in because they want to keep the smaller feel of the community."

The schools are the center of everything. There is no reason for Murrysville to exist without them. Families have made the decision to relocate past Monroeville on U.S. Route 22, to the "Gateway to Westmoreland County," to escape the burden of paying Allegheny County taxes, and have been more than willing to replace them with significant school taxes. The investment has been worth it at Franklin Regional, which has a graduation rate of 96.7 percent and regularly outperforms its neighbors academically.

While some would say "there's nothing to do" in Murrysville, others proudly point to the school's vast array of extracurricular activities and point out that, actually, a child can do whatever he or she wants. In rising to the role of assistant principal at the high school, Sam King, 60, had devoted his days to making sure that remained the case, no matter how much the district numbers changed.

He wanted all students to feel as if they mattered, that they could come to him with anything. He helped create an open, trusting environment for students at Franklin Regional, where there were no metal detectors at the entrances and seniors were encouraged to lunch off campus as a way to prepare them to enjoy the similar freedoms that they'd have the next year in college. With Mr. King, it helped that many kids had known him since elementary school.

"He was always one of the guys that my group of friends felt like we could go to if we had an issue or something," said Nico Lodovico, the quarterback of the football team as a senior in 2013. "He is one of the people that I'm closest with in the building. Talk to him one time, and you feel like he's almost your best friend."

Not as many people knew what to think about Alex Hribal as he made his way from Sloan Elementary to Franklin Middle to the high school. He was "the shy kid in the corner," according to a classmate, smart but quiet in classes, usually only responding when being asked a question. At 5 feet, 3 inches tall and 110 pounds, he did not stick out in the crowd, and some kids who had known him in elementary school had basically forgotten about him.

Even on Sunflower Court, where everybody knew Alex, they didn't see as much of him. That's just how it was once kids got to the high school. They were involved in so many different things, it was hard to keep up with what they were doing.

On that Wednesday morning, April 9, Mr. King and Alex once again each made that trip from Sunflower Court to school. Alex, dressed in all black, packed two 8-inch kitchen knives and took them with him.

■ ■ ■ ■ 

"We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It's easy to say "It's not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem." -- Fred Rogers

Gaby Lee could not sleep Tuesday night because of nightmares.

"Usually I only get them if something bad is going to happen," said Gaby, a 15-year-old freshman at Franklin Regional.

She just figured it was a harbinger of another day of being called names and having rumors spread about her by classmates. Yes, getting through high school is hard work, especially for someone like Gaby who just moved to Murrysville before the start of this school year. Most mornings, she would rather stay home, but she knows that won't solve anything.

To combat the negative energy in the halls, she and similarly ridiculed friends have tried to reverse the tide this spring by hugging each other whenever they greet or part ways.

"We hug hello and good-bye because we never know what's going to happen," she said.

All over Murrysville and Export and Delmont, the two smaller towns that contribute to Franklin Regional, kids trudged through a soft sprinkle Wednesday morning to their bus stops, sleepy but as ready as they were going to be.

Steve Kinsel and his wife, Margaret, walked with their daughter, Tatiana, a junior, to the bus stop, where they discussed her role in the upcoming weekend's spring thespian club play.

The nice thing is that the kids get a chance to relax a bit once they arrive at school. They congregate in the hallways by the lockers, catching up with friends and dreading the 7:22 a.m. bell that signals that homeroom has started. It's the most peaceful time of the day.

Julianna Carolla parked her car in the senior lot, where she waved to a few friendly faces. Wearing black pants, black flip-flops, a gray ruffled top and a black jacket, she headed for the science wing, where the hallways are about 10 feet wide, the lockers blue and the walls white. It was very crowded.

Nearby, Shannon Patberg, a 16-year-old junior who plays softball, was standing in the hallway checking the list of people who owed class dues to see whether she was allowed to buy a ticket to their upcoming prom.

For Shannon and her classmates, such innocent thoughts should have been relished. But how could they have known of the hysteria that was coming in a matter of seconds? Four male students would barrel past Shannon down the hall, with a teacher screaming at them from behind to stop horsing around, and one of the boys would frantically yell back what surely had to be nonsense:

"He has a knife!" he said.

Julianna had already discovered the blades Alex Hribal allegedly carried with him at school that day. She had been standing outside the door of ninth-grade science teacher Amy Kerschner's classroom when a knife pierced her hand.

Ms. Kerschner escorted Julianna, a member of the National Honor Society, through the cafeteria to picnic tables outside, where lunch ladies helped to stabilize her. As they tended to Julianna, she apologized for getting blood on the cafeteria floor.

■ ■ ■ ■ 

"When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.' " -- Fred Rogers

What good had the Murrysville Bubble done? The dark-haired boy, one of their own who had been raised by the watchful, caring eye of Sunflower Court, was now running down the hallway, expressionless, slashing at the enclosed world that reared him.

The bubble had burst, exploding in dark red all over the floors of the science wing. Could it be put back together? If so, then it would start right now, in the crucible of the fight-or-flight scenario examined in every psychology class in America.

Gracey Evans, a junior, was in line to be next. She was talking to her close friend, sophomore Brett Hurt, near his locker when Brett jumped in front of her to protect her. The boy stabbed Brett in the back and continued down the hallway.

"I let out a blood-curdling scream," Gracey said.

Gracey then moved into action herself. She knew that if she didn't put pressure on Brett's wound that he could bleed to death. One of the teachers urged them into a science room, where Gracey used paper towels to hold her hero together.

Back in the hallway, sophomore Nate Scimio had been stabbed in the arm but still managed to pull the fire alarm, alerting the rest of the school that something was amiss. Hundreds of students poured into the halls, assuming there was an actual fire, and burst through the doors to get outside.

Ken Wedge, a 62-year-old private security guard, was directing traffic like he did every other morning. When he heard a student say that someone was "knifing people" inside, he said to heck with the traffic, going against the grain back into the school. He was met by the sight of private security Sgt. John Resetar, whom he refers to as "Sarge," lying on the floor, stabbed.

"There was blood all over the halls," Mr. Wedge said. "It was just a holy mess."

Ian Griffith, a senior, saw the boy stab Sarge, and noticed Sam King come on the scene, too. He then witnessed a confusing encounter between Mr. King and Alex. It was as if Mr. King didn't want to believe his eyes.

"Initially," Ian said, "I don't think that he knew he was the stabber. From what I remember it sounded like he was just trying to get him out of the building."

Once reality set in, Mr. King chased Alex and tackled him. Ian then jumped on top of Alex, too, and the pair held down the boy's hands and arms so that he couldn't inflict any more damage.

When Mr. Wedge got there, Sam King had Alex Hribal in a bear hug. Mr. Wedge then put Alex in a choke hold. He was nearly unconscious before he finally let go of the knives.

"Do you want to die today?!" Mr. Wedge kept yelling.

Alex Hribal would leave the school breathing and bound by handcuffs. The Westmoreland County police scanner indicated it took about seven minutes total for two knives to rock the foundation of a town's long-held ideals.

■ ■ ■ ■ 

"Anyone who does anything to help a child in his life is a hero to me." -- Fred Rogers

Gaby Lee and Shannon Patberg both escaped the science wing Wednesday morning. But as they waited outside, they could not avoid the carnage. Franklin Regional had turned into a chaotic war zone.

Gaby's friend, 15-year-old Ariana Schofield, had been stabbed in the throat and was now covering the slash mark while standing on the sidewalk. Without emotion, she revealed it to Gaby.

"I will never get that neck wound out of my mind," Gaby said.

Shannon was shocked to see her best friend, 17-year-old junior Kate Lonergan, with a slash across her face. They had known each other since the third grade.

"I just want to know why," Shannon said.

Soon, they were all ushered to the football field, where the gravity of what had just occurred began to sink in.

"We were all shaking, in tears," Gaby said.

A friend had given Gaby two brownies before the attack began. Now she was walking around the field, splitting them into about 30 pieces and giving them out to whomever wanted just a small bite of comfort.

Then it was on to the middle school, where they were kept until their parents were allowed to pick them up. There, the teenagers had their smartphones, and that meant the names of the victims traveled fast on social media. Gaby learned that her friend, Brett Hurt, was among them.

"We kept hearing our best friends' names being called out as victims," she said, "names of people that we knew and loved."

Those who were in the middle school and not on the way to the hospital like Brett knew they were the lucky ones. Some would cling to the good fortune of knowing that, if they hadn't been running late or hadn't decided to hang out in a different part of the school that morning, it could have easily been them in the science wing.

"Everybody was running really late," said sophomore Marissa Hanchey, who believed her penchant for tardiness had saved her this time.

Tatiana Kinsel wasn't as fortunate. She was coming down the stairs to the science wing as Alex Hribal was allegedly on the attack. She stayed out of the fray but had seen enough horror to be considered a witness.

Afterward, on her way to the football field, she called her father, Steve, to let him know that she was OK. Like many parents, Steve waited in a middle school classroom for hours as detectives talked with his daughter. When she was released to him, he pulled her tight.

"All I said was, 'Let's go home,' " Mr. Kinsel said.

Sometime shortly after noon, Tatiana took a long nap.

■ ■ ■ ■ 

"Forgiveness is a strange thing. It can sometimes be easier to forgive our enemies than our friends. It can be hardest of all to forgive people we love. Like all of life's important coping skills, the ability to forgive and the capacity to let go of resentments most likely take root very early in our lives." -- Fred Rogers

In some ways, it was just Friday morning on Sunflower Court. Mothers waited with their elementary-aged children at the top of the cul-de-sac and stayed engaged in a long conversation once the big yellow school bus had taken their kids away.

In other ways, not much had changed since Wednesday, when Harold and Tina Hribal learned that their son had been accused of a savage attack. A TV station truck was parked in front of Sam King's house on the corner -- Mr. King has not done any interviews since he subdued Alex Hribal -- and it was hard to shake the feeling that only sadness now lived in the darkened home across the street and just four houses down.

Then again, how can one ever truly know what's going on within the walls of another person's home?

"Any child on the street, it would be hard," Sonya Kukalis said, standing at her front door. "We've seen them grow up being a toddler and a baby. We all support the Hribals. They're such a nice family with a really good mom and dad. You know, you can't comprehend or begin to understand how they feel. You can only feel heartbreak for them. We all want them to know that we're praying for them and hope that somehow there's some way to find healing and peace eventually."

The people of Murrysville will try to mend their bubble, build it back even stronger. But for now, their kids are hurt and scared. A vital trust has been broken. Tatiana Kinsel still hasn't opened up to her parents about what she saw. Gaby Lee hasn't left a close friend's side since Wednesday because she doesn't want to be alone. And that's just two of about 1,200.

In only a few days, the community has mobilized around them. T-shirts are being sold to raise college scholarship money for the 21 student victims, and there is also a fund quietly being set up to help Alex Hribal, the young man who now awaits his fate at a juvenile detention center.

The adults have no choice but to believe that all of this will bring them closer.

"It's just been amazing to look at your neighbors," said one school parent who requested anonymity, "and you don't even have to say anything. You just look at them, and you know what they're thinking, and they know what you're thinking, and you know that they're there for you and you're there for them."

Recovery will be toughest on Sunflower Court, where a hero now lives across the street from a suspect and a harsh lesson lingers.

"Nobody," Mr. Kukalis said, "is untouchable."

J. Brady McCollough: and on Twitter @BradyMcCollough.

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