An American nightmare unfolded Wednesday afternoon at a South Florida high school after an expelled teenager returned to campus and opened fire with an assault rifle, police say, killing 17 and wounding 15 more in the worst school shooting in Florida history.
Just before dismissal at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, thousands of students puzzled at the sound of an unexpected fire alarm were launched into a panic when gunfire punctuated the din. As teachers and students fled through hallways and hid under desks, a gunman fired a volley of bullets, leaving a trail of bodies and chaos in his wake.
The Broward Sheriff’s Office says Nikolas Cruz, 19, walked the halls of the high school wielding an AR-15 and multiple magazines. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson told reporters that Cruz pulled a fire alarm and then, wearing a gas mask, began tossing smoke bombs and shooting people as they ran through the haze.
Police say Cruz, known to other students as a loner obsessed with weapons, shot his way onto campus. He gunned down a dozen people inside buildings on the school’s sprawling campus, two more on the grounds, and one more on Pine Island Road as he fled. Two more died at the hospital. Many underwent surgery at Broward Health hospitals.
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The shooter managed to slip in with his former classmates and make it off campus before he was taken into custody by police near the community entrance to Pelican Pointe at Wyndham Lakes in Coral Springs. He was transported to Broward Health North, and was then sped away from the hospital by a police escort.
The Broward Sheriff’s Office says the school, home to about 3,200 students, had been cleared by early evening and would remain closed Thursday and Friday. They did not release any victims’ names, and were still working to identify five of the slain after 9 p.m.
“It’s a day that you pray, every day when you get up, that you will never have to see. It is in front of us. I ask the community for prayers and their support for the children and their families,” said Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie, appearing at a media staging area near the school. “Potentially there could have been signs out there. But we didn’t have any warning or phone calls or threats that were made.”
The shooting began just before dismissal, around 3 p.m. Police say Cruz walked onto campus and shot his way into a school building. Then he pulled a fire alarm.
Students and teachers were puzzled because the school had already held a fire drill that day. Still, some left their bags by their desk and walked out of their classrooms.
“Six kids ran back into my room, and I locked the door, turned out the lights and had the kids go to the back of the room,” math teacher Jim Gard said. “I told the kids to hang in there, it may still be a drill.”
On the first floor, Rebecca Bogart was in Holocaust class when bullets shattered a window into the room and struck at least one classmate. Rebecca, 17, said she hid under her teacher’s desk.
“Four kids in my class were hurt. There was blood everywhere. I’m so glad to be living right now,” she said. “I knew what gunshots sounded like, but not that loud or extreme. It smelled smoky.”
Police say Cruz was all over the campus during the assault. One student told Miami Herald news partner WFOR-CBS4 that at one point he ascended to the third floor. In a theater class bathroom, Sarah Crescitelli typed a text to her parents: “If I don’t make it I love you and I appreciated everything you did for me.”
A video posted to social media showed students hiding under desks, screaming as at least 20 gunshots rang out. Some students believed there was a second shooter at the school. Some at the school said a football coach and security guard, Aaron Feis, was shot when he jumped in front of several students. Broward Sheriff Scott Israel said Wednesday night that “we lost a football coach.”
Geovanni Vilsant, 15, said he was in a Spanish classroom in the three-story 1200 building when the fire alarm went off. Two minutes later, he heard gunfire.
Geovanni, a freshman, said he saw three bloody bodies on the floor as he was fleeing the school.
“There was blood everywhere,” he said. “They weren’t moving.”
Israel, whose triplets once attended the high school, called the shooting a “detestable act” and “catastrophic.” The son of a sheriff’s deputy was also shot in the arm.
Israel did not name a motive for the shooting, which he said doesn’t immediately appear to have been prompted by any confrontation; federal authorities don’t believe it was related to terrorism. Nor did Israel explain why Cruz was expelled from school beyond saying that it was for disciplinary reasons.
“If a person is committed to committing great carnage, there’s not a lot law enforcement can do about it,” Israel said.
But Gard, the math teacher, told the Miami Herald that Cruz had been identified as a potential threat to fellow students in the past. He believes the school administration had sent out an email warning teachers that Cruz had made threats against other teenagers. Another student interviewed by the Miami Herald said Cruz was punished once for having bullet casings at school.
“We were told last year that he wasn’t allowed on campus with a backpack on him,” said Gard, who said Cruz had been in his class last year. “There were problems with him last year threatening students, and I guess he was asked to leave campus.”
But he returned Wednesday, re-upping America’s troubled history with guns and exposing Broward County to its second mass shooting in just over a year. A gunman killed five at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport early last year.
As students hid and escaped, SWAT teams swarmed the sprawling campus. The FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force, consisting of local, state and federal agents, sent a squad to the school to assist the Broward Sheriff’s Office and other law enforcement.
Initially, they urged teachers and students to remain barricaded inside until police reached them. Eventually, they began clearing buildings one at a time. Students streamed out in a line with their hands up. Others ran like mad, bookbags strapped to their backs.
The exodus was chaos. Marjory Stoneman Douglas High is immediately to the north of the Sawgrass Expressway, and bordered to the south and west by canals. Nicholas Coke, who was sitting in English class when the fire alarm went off, described people jumping fences, running behind the middle school and staying in classrooms to cower and pray after gunshots went off.
“I wasn’t going to stick around and find out what was going on,” he said.
Outside the school, worried parents trying to find their children stood by helpless. Authorities designated the pickup for students at the North Heron Bay Marriott South at Betty Stradling Park, where some families remained late into the night with police and chaplains waiting to hear news about their family members, dreading the worst.
Earlier in the day, parents stood about a mile away from the school as police blocked them from getting closer to their children. Many spoke on their cellphones trying to calm their children down.
Denise Perez paced as she spoke to her daughter, who told her that she was sitting between Publix and Walmart with a bunch of other students. They were surrounded by armed marshals.
“Just stay calm, baby,” Perez said, crying. “This is really hard.”
As the evening wore on, and students had been safely evacuated from the school, attention turned to those who were wounded in the gunfire. Dr. Evan Boyar, medical director for the department of emergency medicine at Broward Health North, said of the eight patients at Broward Health North, three remained in critical condition and three were stable.
Boyar said the hospital routinely runs drills to be prepared for situations like this.
Doctors would not disclose details regarding injuries to any of the patients or the suspect. However, Dr. Igor Nichiporenko, the medical director for trauma at Broward Health North, did say that all of the victims suffered from gunshot wounds. Three patients were still in the operating room, Nichiporenko said.
“They’re going to have successful surgeries. They’re going to recover,” Nichiporenko said. “They’re going to go home.”
Miami Herald reporters Douglas Hanks, Alex Harris, Chabeli Herrera, Tarpley Hitt, Jordan McPherson, Nicholas Nehamas, Connie Ogle, Charles Rabin, Carli Teproff, Martin Vassolo, Jay Weaver and Washington correspondent Alex Daugherty contributed to this story.