On an otherwise bright Monday afternoon, many UNC students hid in dark classrooms and closets with barricaded doors and other spaces while they waited for updates about an armed and dangerous person on campus.
As some students texted their loved-ones from lockdown with shaky hands, law enforcement officers searched the area for the suspected assailant.
Most people did not know that Zijie Yan, associate professor in the UNC Department of Applied Physical Sciences, was dead.
Tailei Qi, a graduate student in the same department, was arrested and charged with the first-degree murder of Yan in Caudill Laboratories. Yan worked with Qi, and they had previously co-authored research papers. No other injuries directly related to Qi were reported.
Qi was also arrested and charged with the possession of a firearm on educational property. Police are still looking for the firearm, a 9mm handgun, per a UNC Police news conference at 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday.
According to information gathered by The Daily Tar Heel at Qi’s first appearance in court during Tuesday's arraignment, his murder charge carries a maximum punishment of death and a minimum punishment of life without parole. However, District Attorney Jeff Nieman said his office would not pursue the death penalty.
Qi is currently being held without bail in the Orange County Detention Center.
‘They told me there was an active shooter’
At 1:04 p.m. Monday, students received Alert Carolina messages that an “armed and dangerous person” was on or near campus. Around campus, emergency warning sirens blared.
Just two minutes before the alert was sent, UNC Police received a 911 call about an active assailant near South Road.
As law enforcement and medical officials rushed to the scene, Lydia Canipe, a first-year student leaving Davis Library, saw people sprinting through campus and looking for shelter.
Unsure of what to do, Canipe jumped into the car of a student she didn't know. She went to Kenan Stadium, where she hid crying in a small room with over a dozen other people.
Down the street, sophomore Jagur Williams was leaving the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History when he heard the sirens that he said “sounded like the purge.”
He didn’t initially understand what was going on and continued walking to his next class. But, when he saw police cars driving down South Road, he said he began to realize something was wrong.
“That's when I got to my next class,” Williams said. “They told me there was an active shooter.”
As he sat in the dark on the third floor of Woollen Gym with three other students behind a locked and barricaded door, he said his “heart sank.”
‘I love y'all’
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.
Williams was "constantly" texting and calling his friends and family to let them know what was going on, despite not having much information himself. He said it was “very scary" when they had no idea where the shooter was.
“At one point, we heard someone go down our hall and hit our doorknob,” he said. “That's when it really set in, and I was texting my family ‘I love y'all, I don't know what's going to happen’ and it was very terrifying.”
Some professors continued class during the incident, even holding meetings on Zoom.
While students sheltered in place, they looked to social media for information on the active situation. People on and off campus shared their speculations about the details — such as the number of victims or the possibility of multiple shooters.
“You seriously had no idea,” Williams said. “I mean, at one point, there was rumors that there might be two shooters and that was the biggest one that I was concerned with.”
‘Truly a tragic day’
Less than an hour into the lockdown, an initial unidentified suspect was apprehended. They were questioned by police, but their handcuffs were removed soon after. In a news conference Monday night, UNC Police Chief Brian James said the initial detainment was based on the description of the suspect given to the police and the proximity of the person to the incident.
During the lockdown, Alert Carolina sent several messages warning the campus community to stay sheltered in place.
Still, for many students and faculty, there was confusion about what “shelter in place” meant. Williams said he just followed his intuition.
“I've obviously never been trained on something like this,” he said.
At 2:21 p.m., a resident on Williams Circle called 911 to report a man fitting police description in the woods behind their home.
“That’s all I saw," the caller said. "I saw him walking into my yard, to the side of my house, and then walk into the woods beside my house.”
Ten minutes later, at 2:31 p.m., the suspected armed and dangerous person was apprehended by the Chapel Hill Police Department near his residence on Williams Circle — about two miles away from Caudill Labs — and they verified his identity. UNC Police released a photo of Qi, labeling him as a “person of interest” minutes after at 2:35 p.m.
Some students were evacuated by law enforcement agencies, including the FBI. Others did not receive direction until a 4:15 p.m. message from Alert Carolina that said “All clear. All clear. Resume normal activities.”
While he was relieved to have received the message, Williams said he didn’t know whether or not the alert was true.
As he stepped out of the classroom he had hidden in for over three hours, Williams saw other students crying and hugging each other while reaching out to friends and family
“It was such an eerie feeling being outside and out in the open when I knew there was just an active armed person on campus,” he said.
During a news conference around 5:45 p.m. at the Carolina Inn on Monday, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said it was “truly a tragic day.” The active shooter situation was something police trained for but hoped wouldn't come, James said.
“This loss is devastating, and the shooting damages the trust and safety that we so often take for granted in our campus community," James said. "We will work to rebuild that sense of trust and safety within our community."
On Monday evening, the University announced that all classes and non-mandatory operations would be canceled on Tuesday. This was later extended until 11:59 p.m. on Wednesday.
Williams said he doesn’t think classes will ever feel the same again. For him, the incident still doesn’t feel real.
“I don't think that I will ever sit in a lecture hall ever again, and not think about something that could happen like this,” he said.
Emmy Martin is the 2023-24 editor-in-chief of The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously served as the DTH's city & state editor and summer managing editor. Emmy is a junior pursuing a double major in journalism and media and information science.
Lauren Rhodes is a 2023-2024 assistant university editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously served as a senior writer for the university desk. Lauren is a sophomore pursuing a double major in media and journalism and political science with a minor in politics, philosophy and economics.