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Relief comes to Northland residents with family in Fort Hood

Capt. Tim Lafferty, who is stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, is the son of Nancy Norvell of Duluth.

It's nearly a 1,300-mile drive from the Twin Ports to Fort Hood, Texas, but Thursday's news of gunfire and mass death at the world's largest military base hit close to home in the Northland.

Nancy Norvell was devastated when she saw the news break. The Duluth resident's son is stationed at Fort Hood.

"My first thought was, 'He survived Iraq only to get shot at Fort Hood, Texas,' " she said. "It was just horrible."

She tried to call the cell phone of her son, Army Capt. Tim Lafferty, but got no answer. She reached his wife, Amanda, who said she knew about the shootings -- but didn't immediately say whether Lafferty was OK.

Then came the words that Norvell wanted to hear.

"She said, 'Do you want to talk to him? He's standing right here,' " said Norvell, a graphic artist at the Duluth News Tribune. "Well, yeah! What a relief. It was wonderful to hear his voice."

Lafferty, who trains soldiers for deployment, had worked a half-day and had returned home within minutes of the shootings. He learned about the killings only after the base personnel office called him during what the military calls "100 percent accountability" -- a procedure used to confirm whether soldiers are OK after deadly incidents.

Lafferty's first priority was to make sure that everyone in his unit, the 120th Infantry Brigade, was unharmed. He knew of people who were scheduled to be in the area of the shootings Thursday.

The base went on lockdown, but Amanda Lafferty had picked up their 3-year-old son, Lucien, from a base day care center shortly before the shootings. Other parents who weren't on base weren't so lucky, Lafferty said. They weren't immediately allowed to pick up their kids.

"I'm sure that's causing quite a bit of anguish," he said.

Julie Finley, a Superior native who lives at Fort Hood, was feeling that and more. Although her husband, Army Sgt. Jim Finley, is training in Georgia, the couple's 13-year-old son, Andrew, remained under lockdown at his base school until shortly before 7 p.m.

"We keep text-messaging back and forth," Finley said Thursday evening, explaining that her son's school is only a short distance from where the shootings occurred.

"He said, 'Mom, I think they're next door at the PX,' " she said. "I told him, 'Just put on your headphones and stay put.' "

Although Finley was telling her son to remain calm, she found it difficult to do so herself.

"I went from crying to screaming to throwing up to pacing," she said. "I had a couple other moms come up to me bawling, so I gave them my cell phone number and said, 'Call me.' We're all in this together."

Georgette Sarkela of Duluth has a son, Army Capt. Ryan Debeltz, based at Fort Hood. On Thursday, he was attending officer training in Las Vegas -- a fact that gave his mother comfort, though she was still feeling sad.

The shootings are "just awful," Sarkela said. "It's a real tragedy, and I'm sure it generates real sadness for people. It's such a tight-knit community."

Sarkela said she was on edge while her son was serving in Iraq and felt a sense of relief when he returned to the United States.

"Anything can happen in a war zone," she said, "but you don't think something like this will happen on one of our own military bases at home."

Lafferty said the shootings occurred at the Soldier Readiness Processing Center, an area where soldiers prepare to deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan or return from those locations.

"The worst part about it is where they hit," Lafferty said. "All these soldiers are just getting back, or getting ready to go, and are already in pretty much a war zone today. They think they are safe, and they are getting fired at."