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Sheila Stearns file

Sheila Stearns, shown in this 2016 file photo, and her husband, Hal Stearns, reported they are safe in Christchurch, New Zealand, after a shooting this week. The shooting at two mosques  left at least 49 people dead, according to local police on the South Island. Sheila Stearns served as the University of Montana's interim president from late 2016 to January 2018 and previously as the Montana Commissioner of Higher Education.

Missoula residents Sheila and Hal Stearns reported Friday they were safe in Christchurch, New Zealand, after a shooting at two mosques that left at least 49 people dead.

Sheila Stearns, who served as interim president of the University of Montana from late 2016 to January 2018, said she and her husband are on a tourism trip to the South Island. She said Friday — Saturday in Christchurch — they would look for a vigil to attend in the aftermath of the murders.

"Your heart just stops," said Stearns, reached via cellphone. "(We're) thinking of others whose whole lives have been turned into a terrible tragedy."

Longtime educator and historian Hal Stearns said he was moved by the thoughtful, articulate remarks of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who described the moment as "one of New Zealand's darkest days."

The gunman in one of the mosque shootings is an Australian white nationalist who hates immigrants, according to the Associated Press.

In the wake of the racist attack, Hal Stearns said he wrote down Ardern's description of the victims: "They are us."

"And she (Ardern) said we are a country that is open to refugees and that we care about each and everyone who lives in our country."

The AP reported four suspects were arrested including one Australian; one person is charged with murder.

Saturday, the Stearnses planned to take a walk through the community after much confusion the previous evening in their attempt to reach their hotel just a few blocks from one of the targeted mosques.

"You just know as we go downtown today that the impact on this city is going to be so real," Hal Stearns said.

***

Police cars were flying by and workers were setting up traffic cones as Hal and Sheila Stearns drove to their hotel from the International Antarctic Centre near the airport at Christchurch.

The GPS on the phone kept redirecting them, but as soon as they took a turn they'd see more traffic cones going up. The commotion came on top of their own lack of familiarity driving on the left side of the road and other quirks of international travel.

"When you go to turn on the turn signal, you're inadvertently turning on the windshield wiper," said Sheila Stearns, former Montana Commissioner of Higher Education. "Everything is backwards."

Finally, she exited the phone's directions and took a look at the larger map. She realized they needed to avoid a specific area in town to reach the hotel, although she couldn't tell why.

When they pulled up to the hotel, the door was locked. "That was odd," Stearns said. The manager sized them up through the glass and made an announcement after he let them inside:

"You're on lockdown. Everything is on lockdown. There's been a shooting."

After lingering in the lobby for a while, Stearns said she and her husband went to their room and turned on the television. She said local news reports confirmed the shooting and identified one location as a mosque near a park just four or five blocks from their hotel.

Sheila Stearns had noticed the park on the way to the hotel: "Hal, look at this lovely park. This will be a good place for us to walk tomorrow."

Instead, they watched from their room a live television shot of a driver getting out of her car to try to help a couple of people who had collapsed after running toward her. They appeared to be gunshot victims.

"She didn't have any health background, but she began to do heart compressions," Stearns said.

The motorist told the media she would try to help until an ambulance could take one man she was helping to the hospital, and Stearns said when the woman looked for the second person who had run her direction, she saw he had died on the street.

The Stearnses watched the incident from several blocks away on television from their hotel room.

***

Eventually, the couple made their way back to the lobby and learned the hotel had only a vending machine and no restaurant.

"Everyone is hungry, but you're embarrassed to be worrying about that," Stearns said.

One of the manager's assistants had finally been able to get to work through the guards and blocked roads, and the manager asked if people would eat pizza. Hotel guests said yes, and Hal Stearns asked if he could ride along with the assistant.

They left for a Domino's Pizza far enough away from the scene that it would still be open. Later, they ate dinner and listened to the prime minister's address.

After the lockdown was lifted at the hotel, the Stearnses decided to walk toward the park. Sheila Stearns said the streets were quiet and they saw hardly anyone, but they came across a restaurant called the Kiwi Viking.

A man working there said the restaurant had been closed for hours, but he wanted to find a way to help in the crisis. So the man — from Iceland, thus, the name of the eatery — was packing food for the estimated 200 families and friends waiting at the hospital for news of loved ones. The hospital didn't have the capacity to feed them all.

"The Kiwi Viking was packing up sandwiches to help out the hospital," Stearns said.

In retrospect, she said she believes she and her husband left the Antarctic Centre roughly 30 minutes after the shooting and were driving into the city center just as police were flying around the site of the attacks.

"They had already set up enough cones to keep us from getting onto Dean's (Avenue) where our phone wanted us to go," Stearns said.

Hal Stearns said news reports counted at least 500 people in both mosques, and New Zealand briefly closed every single mosque in the country for safety.

The couple had arrived in Auckland a week ago. In 2014, they visited Australia and New Zealand, but they didn't get to the South Island, and they planned a return trip in winter 2017. Then, Sheila Stearns stepped out of retirement to temporarily steer UM after a forced presidential step-down.

So they rescheduled travel for 2019, and coincidentally, Stearns said a delegation from Missoula had planned to visit Missoula's sister city, Palmerston North, around the same time. The group invited the couple to join them, and Stearns said she believes some Missoulians are flying for the trip this weekend.

Stearns said she and her husband were in Munich for the Olympics in 1972 when the Israeli hostages were taken. She remembers watching helicopters fly above their campground and listening to the news on the radio as the crisis unfolded. (In 2017, former Montana Grizzlies men's basketball coach Wayne Tinkle was in Barcelona, Spain, during the van attack that killed 13 and injured more than 100.)

Saturday, the Stearnses planned to walk around the city center in Christchurch where their hotel is located.

"It won't be the normal tourism thing. Everyone is in shock," Stearns said. 

She said it's a terrible thing to say, but Americans know that if a gun massacre can happen in a house of worship in Texas, it can happen anywhere, and she ticked off other instances of gun violence and deaths in the U.S. such as in Charleston, South Carolina.

"I think as Americans, we're in some ways less shocked about a mass shooting than they were."

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