A former student opened fire at a Florida high school Wednesday, killing at least 17 people and sending scores of students fleeing into the streets in the nation’s deadliest school shooting since a gunman attacked an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut.
Frantic parents rushed to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School to find SWAT team members and ambulances surrounding the campus as classes prepared to dismiss for the day. Live footage showed emergency workers who appeared to be treating the wounded on sidewalks.
“It is a horrific situation,” said Robert Runcie, superintendent of the school district in Parkland, about an hour’s drive north of Miami. “It is a horrible day for us.”
The 19-year-old suspect was taken into custody without a fight about an hour after he left the scene, authorities said.
Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel said the suspect had at least one AR-15 rifle as well as multiple magazines.
“It’s catastrophic. There really are no words,” Israel said on Twitter.
Israel says the attack began outside the school Wednesday afternoon.
He told reporters that authorities subsequently found 12 people dead in the building and two more dead just outside the school and one more in a nearby street. Israel says two other people died later under medical treatment.
The gunman was identified as Nikolas Cruz by a U.S. official briefed on the investigation. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the information publicly.
Israel says investigators are dissecting the suspect’s social media posts and found material that is “very, very disturbing.” He didn’t elaborate.
Israel said the 19-year-old suspect had been expelled from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School for “disciplinary reasons.”
“I don’t know the specifics,” the sheriff said.
However, Victoria Olvera, a 17-year-old junior, said Cruz was expelled last school year after a fight with his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend. She said Cruz had been abusive to his girlfriend.
“I think everyone had in their minds if anybody was going to do it, it was going to be him,” Olvera said.
School officials said Cruz was attending another school in Broward County after his expulsion.
Daniel Huerfano, a student who fled Wednesday’s attack, said he recognized Cruz from an Instagram photo in which Cruz posed with a gun in front of his face. Huerfano recalled Cruz as a shy student and remembered seeing him walking around with his lunch bag.
“He was that weird kid that you see … like a loner,” he added.
Dakota Mentcher, a 17-year-old junior, said he used to be close friends with Cruz but hadn’t seen him in more than a year following his expulsion from school.
“He started progressively getting a little more weird,” Mentcher said.
Mentcher recalled Cruz posting on Instagram about killing animals and said he had talked about doing target practice in his backyard with a pellet gun.
“He started going after one of my friends, threatening her, and I cut him off from there,” Mentcher said.
Runcie told reporters on Wednesday afternoon that he did not know of any threats posed by Cruz to the school.
“Typically you see in these situations that there potentially could have been signs out there,” Runcie said. “I would be speculating at this point if there were, but we didn’t have any warnings. There weren’t any phone calls or threats that we know of that were made.”
However, a teacher told The Miami Herald that Cruz may have been identified as a potential threat to other students. Jim Gard, a math teacher who said Cruz had been in his class last year, said he believes the school had sent out an email warning teachers that Cruz shouldn’t be allowed on campus with a backpack.
“There were problems with him last year threatening students, and I guess he was asked to leave campus,” Gard said.
In a cul-de-sac near the school, Michael Nembhard was sitting in his garage when he saw a young man in a burgundy shirt walking down the street. In an instant, a police cruiser pulled up and officers jumped out with guns drawn.
“All I heard was ‘Get on the ground! Get on the ground!” Nembhard said. He said he could not see the suspect’s face, but that the man got on the ground without incident.
The day started normally at the school, which had a morning fire drill, and students were in class around 2:30 p.m. when another alarm sounded.
Noah Parness, a 17-year-old junior, said he and the other students calmly went outside to their fire-drill areas when he suddenly heard popping sounds.
“We saw a bunch of teachers running down the stairway, and then everybody shifted and broke into a sprint,” Parness said. “I hopped a fence.”
Beth Feingold said her daughter, Brittani, sent a text at 2:32 p.m. that said, “We’re on code red. I’m fine,” but sent another text shortly afterward saying, “Mom, I’m so scared.”
Brittani later was able to escape the school, which is one of the largest in the state, with about 3,000 students.
Inside the school, students heard loud bangs as the shooter fired. Many of them hid under desks or in closets and barricaded doors.
Television footage showed those students who fled leaving in a single-file line with their hands over their heads as officers urged them to evacuate quickly. Parents hurried to the scene.
Caesar Figueroa said when he got to the school to check on his 16-year-old daughter, he saw police officers drawing machine-guns as they approached the campus.
“My wife called me that there was an active shooter, and the school was on lockdown. I got on the road and saw helicopters. … It was crazy and my daughter wasn’t answering her phone.” She finally texted him that she was inside a closet with friends.
Len Murray’s 17-year-old son, a junior at the school, sent his parents a chilling text: “Mom and Dad, there have been shots fired on campus at school. There are police sirens outside. I’m in the auditorium and the doors are locked.”
A few minutes later, he texted again: “I’m fine.”
Murray said he raced to the school only to be stopped by authorities under a highway overpass within view of the school buildings. He said he told his son to save his battery and stop texting. The boy’s mother told him to turn off his ringer.
Authorities told parents to gather at a nearby hotel to get information.
“I’m scared for the other parents here. You can see the concern in everybody’s faces. Everybody is asking, ‘Have you heard from your child yet?”‘ Murray said.
Murray said he’s had just one thought running through his mind since he got his son’s text: “All I keep thinking about is when I dropped him off this morning. I usually say, ‘I love you,’ and I didn’t this morning. He’s 17, he’s at that age, and I didn’t say it this morning, and I’m just kicking myself right now over and over and over. Say it early and often, I’m telling you.”