PARKLAND — An American nightmare unfolded Wednesday afternoon at a South Florida high school after police say an expelled teenager returned to campus and opened fire with an assault rifle, 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 a 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 opened fire, leaving a trail of bodies and stunned confusion in his wake.
The Broward Sheriff's Office says Nikolas Cruz, 19, walked the halls of the high school wielding an AR-15 and equipped with multiple magazines. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida 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 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. Many underwent surgery at Broward Health hospitals.
The Broward Sheriff's Office says the school, home to about 3,200 students, had been cleared by early evening. They did not identify any 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-TV. "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 to 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, 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. Nor did he explain why Cruz, known by other students as a loner infatuated with guns and knives, was expelled from school beyond saying that it was for disciplinary reasons.
WARNING: The video below contains graphic violence and language:
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 by the 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."
The shooting began just before dismissal, after Cruz pulled the 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.
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, 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. Some students took photos and posted video to social media.
"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 gave no indication that was the case.
Still locked in. I checked the local news and there is 20 victims. Long live Majory Stoneman Douglas High. pic.twitter.com/4kQMAlCBWt
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 building in explosions.
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."
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.
Some at the school said a football coach and security guard, Aaron Feis, was shot when he jumped in front of several students, although that report remains unconfirmed.
Colleen Coleman described the frantic texts she received from her daughter while her child was trapped in the school. Her daughter survived.
"She just kept saying, 'Mommy, I'm scared. Come get me,'?" the mother said. "I kept saying, 'I can't get you right now.'
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.
Parents were sent to Fort Lauderdale Marriott Coral Springs Hotel, where the students were being held after the incident. There they waited outside for hours to be reunited with their children.
Among them was William Latson, principal of Spanish River Community High School, about 20 miles away. When asked if he was there to provide moral support, his eyes welled up with tears. "I'm a parent," he said.
My little brother just sent me this video of the swat team evacuating his classroom at stoneman douglas. So scary but glad he's safe. @nbc6 @CBSMiami @NBCNews @wsvn @CBSNews pic.twitter.com/XNTtra221q— Melody (@Melody_Ball) February 14, 2018
My little brother just sent me this video of the swat team evacuating his classroom at stoneman douglas. So scary but glad he's safe. @nbc6 @CBSMiami @NBCNews @wsvn @CBSNews pic.twitter.com/XNTtra221q
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.
Parents, some of whom were still searching for their kids after 8 p.m., stood about a mile away 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 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, was 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.
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 patients remained in critical condition and three were stable.
"As a human being, you can imagine that they would be in shock or be emotional about the whole situation," Boyar said.
Times correspondent Ayana Lage contributed to this report. 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.