CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. (AP) — Last February, Mitch and Annika Dworet became part of a small circle no parent wants to join.
Sons Nick and Alex were in classrooms across from each other at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School when a gunman opened fire with an assault weapon.
Nick, a 17-year-old senior with a college swimming scholarship, was among the 17 slain that day. A bullet grazed younger brother Alex’s head and he was hit by shrapnel as three students in his class, including one next to him, were killed. The boys were the only sibling casualties in the Parkland shooting and one of few such instances nationally.
“Our worst nightmare happened. How do you get back from that?” mother Annika Dworet said.
But honoring Nick while nursing Alex’s physical and emotional wounds has become their mission.
Their charity, Swim4Nick, offers college scholarships for swimmers and swim clinics, and soon will offer water survival classes for toddlers.
“It speaks to Nick and who he was,” said Mitch Dworet, a real estate agent. A tattoo of a swimming Nick, who aspired to compete for his mother’s native Sweden in the 2020 Olympics, covers a forearm.
A year ago on Valentine’s Day, Nick and Alex walked together to the three-story freshman building. Nick’s Holocaust history class met there on the first floor. That afternoon, he impressed his teacher by answering a question about the founder of Adidas, the German athletic brand.
Moments later, the shooting began. The gunman shot down the hall, into Alex’s English class and Nick’s classroom before continuing through the building, firing as he went. The Dworets learned Alex was wounded but couldn’t reach Nick. Still, what were the odds that out of 4,000 people on campus, both would be shot?
Twelve hours later, they learned the worst.
“For the first three to six months, we were basically fetal,” Mitch Dworet said. “We were in a state of shock.”
Classmates, teachers, teammates and staff at University of Indianapolis, where Nick planned to study finance, told them what an impressive young man he had become — thoughtful, courteous, a leader.
“You are so proud when you get a kid like that,” Mitch Dworet said. “Then it kicks in what we all lost. … And for what?”
But while the parents dealt with the grief of losing one son, the other was still suffering. Alex has arm pain, nightmares and post-traumatic stress syndrome. Nick and Alex were extremely close, exchanging confidences and advice. Nick secretly taught his brother to drive.
“I realized, ‘I have another boy sitting in the other room,'” said Annika Dworet, an emergency room nurse. “But how can I support him when I can’t stop my own tears? But luckily, friends, family, the community were just here with love.”
“At first he wouldn’t talk about it. It was very tough,” his father said. His mother added, “A child doesn’t want to hurt his parents, and I think he didn’t want to upset us.”
Counselors came. A survivor of the Columbine High shooting, now in his 30s, contacted Alex and became a mentor, showing him life continues. A veteran visits, bringing her service dog. Alex returned to Stoneman Douglas over his parents’ objections — he didn’t want to stand out at a new school and wanted to be with friends.
Now a sophomore, Alex declined to be interviewed. He told New York Magazine last year, “Some days, I’ll be really sad. Usually, I’m all right. The friends that weren’t there don’t really ask about it. I’m glad they don’t.”
Nick’s bedroom remains as he left it down to the Oreos stash he hid from his healthy-eating parents. A handwritten motivational quote remains on his bulletin board: “When you want to succeed as bad as you want to breathe, then you’ll be successful.” A Valentine’s box from his girlfriend, Daria Chiarella, rests on a table.
Though not among the more openly political among the victims’ parents, the Dworets now speak against the civilian ownership of high-powered, military-style rifles like the killer used and want tougher screening of gun buyers. The suspect in the shooting legally bought the rifle soon after turning 18 despite a history of mental problems and threats.
“I have an empty room there; I have an empty chair there. My dreams are pfft,” Mitch Dworet said, his voice trailing off. The couple’s critics “have not felt it. Their first born wasn’t taken and their other son wasn’t wounded and watched three students being killed.”
Like other parents, the Dworets blast school and law enforcement officials who missed opportunities to stop the shooting yet never apologized.
“It is so heartbreaking when it comes out that if this would have been done or that would have been done, it could have been prevented,” Annika Dworet said.
On the anniversary Thursday, the Dworets will visit the beach where they spread Nick’s ashes.
“Nick is forever swimming in the ocean,” his mother said.