An American nightmare unfolded Wednesday afternoon at a North Broward high school after police say an expelled student returned to school wielding an assault rifle and opened fire, killing 17 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 a fire alarm were launched into a panic when gunfire punctuated the din. As teachers and students fled hallways and hid under desks, a former student expelled from school opened fire, leaving a trail of bodies and stunned confusion in his wake.
The Broward Sheriff’s Office says Nikolaus Cruz, 19, killed 17 teenagers and adults. Wielding an AR-15 and equipped with multiple clips, he gunned down a dozen people inside buildings on the school’s sprawling campus, two more on the grounds, and one more on the corner of Pine Island Road as he fled.
Two more died at the hospital, and 15 more were wounded, many of whom were in surgery at Broward Medical Center or Broward Health North. The Broward Sheriff’s Office says the school, home to about 3,200 students, has been cleared, but they’ve not identified any of the victims.
“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,” Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie, appearing at a media staging area near the school, told WSVN Channel 7. “We received no warning... Potentially there could have been signs out there. But we didn’t have any warning or phone calls or threats that were made.”
The shooter, identified by Sheriff Scott Israel as Cruz, managed to make it off campus before he was cornered and taken into custody near the community entrance Pelican Pointe at Wyndham Lakes in Coral Springs. He was transported to Broward Health North, and then sped away from the hospital in a police escort.
Israel, whose triplets once attended the high school, said during a 5 p.m. press conference that multiple SWAT teams are still clearing out the school and that an “all clear” has not yet been issued. Israel called the shooting a “detestable act” and “catastrophic.”
He did not name a motive for the shooting, which he said doesn’t immediately appear to have been prompted by any confrontation, and did not explain why Cruz was expelled from school.
A teacher at the school told the Miami Herald that Cruz, 19, had been identified as a potential threat to fellow students in the past. Math teacher Jim Gard says he believes the school administration had sent out an email warning teachers that Cruz had made threats against other teenagers in the past. Another student interviewed on the scene by Channel 7 said the student had guns at home.
“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.”
The shooting began just before dismissal, after someone pulled the fire alarm. Students and teachers were puzzled because the school had already held a fire drill that day.
Then the shots started.
“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,” Gard said. “I told the kids to hang in there, it may still be a drill.”
Nicholas Coke was sitting in English class when the fire alarm went off, and left his bag in the classroom before the sound of loud pops sent him running. He described people jumping fences, running behind the middle school and staying in classrooms.
“I wasn't going to stick around and find out what was going on,” he said.
A video posted to social media showed students hiding under desks, screaming as at least 20 gun shots rang out. Some students believed there was a second shooter at the school, but the Broward Sheriff’s Office has given no indication that was the case.
On the first floor, Geovanni Vilsant, 15, said he was in a Spanish classroom when a fire alarm went off, urging all the students out of their classrooms. Then, two minutes later, gun shots rang out enveloping the three-floor 1200 building in explosions.
Geovanni, a freshman, said he said three bloody bodies on the floor as he was fleeing the school.
“There was blood everywhere,” he said. “They weren’t moving.”
His elder brother, who jumped a fence and sought refuge in a nearby neighborhood, ran back around to try to find Geovanni.
“I had to go back for him,” Bradley Vilsant said from a nearby Walmart where the brothers fled with about 100 other students.
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.
Federal authorities said they don’'t believe the high school shootings are related to terrorism.
Worried parents trying to find their children stood by helpless. Authorities designated pick up for students at North Heron Bay Marriott, South at Betty Stradling Park. Many students were being cleared by police and teachers by a Walmart near the school.
Parents stood about a mile away as police blocked him from getting closer to their children. Many spoke on their cell phones trying to calm their children down.
Denise Perez paced as she spoke to her daughter Marsiel Baluja. Her daughter 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,” she said.
Perez just wanted to get closer to her daughter.
“This is really hard,” she said as she cried.
Victoria Olvera, 17, a junior, able to walk out after getting clearance by police officers. She said she was in history when she heard shots.
“Everyone started running,” she said.
Miami Herald reporters Douglas Hanks, Alex Harris, Chabeli Herrera, Tarpley Hitt, Nicholas Nehamas, Charles Rabin, Carli Teproff, Martin Vassolo and Jay Weaver contributed to this report. Washington correspondent Alex Daugherty contributed as well.