Seventeen people were savagely murdered Wednesday when a student expelled from a Florida high school returned to the campus, pulled a fire alarm and gunned down his former classmates as they frantically filled the hallways, witnesses and officials said.
Chaos, bullets and blood filled the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland shortly before 3 p.m. when gunfire from an AR-15 assault rifle rang out just before the closing bell signaling the end of the school day.
Sixteen people were also wounded.
Cops nabbed the suspect, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, and described him as a former student who had been thrown out of the school for disciplinary reasons.
Others described Cruz as a gun nut with a sick fascination for high-powered weapons. Aerial footage showed a handcuffed suspect being led to a police car, but not before the shooter had initially escaped by blending in with other students.
Terrified teens were sprinting for their lives, some with their backpacks still on, in scenes eerily reminiscent of the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado in 1999, in which 12 students and a teacher were killed.
The Parkland death toll has surpassed the Columbine count in a sickening era when mass shootings have become sadly commonplace.
“It’s a horrific, horrific day,” said Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel. “It’s just catastrophic. There really are no words.”
He added that the shooter was in and out of the school “at varying times.”
Israel said 12 people were found dead inside the school, and two more died outside. Another victim was killed down the street, and two succumbed to their wounds at a local hospital.
Doctors said others wounded in the shooting, some seriously, were still undergoing surgery.
One of the lost was identified as student Jaime Guttenberg, whose brother Jesse, escaped with his life.
Students, some holding Valentine’s Day balloons, huddled with their worried parents at a nearby hotel where they were reunited.
“It is a day you pray every day you don’t have to see,” said Broward County School Superintendent Robert Runcie.
Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, who was briefed by the FBI, said the shooter pulled the alarm “so the kids would come pouring out of the classrooms into the hall.”
“And there the carnage began,” Nelson added.
Authorities said Cruz was also wearing a gas mask, but Nelson said he did not know if the gunman had used smoke grenades.
Television footage showed students leaving single file with their hands above their heads past cops in full body armor.
Viral video showed students hiding under desks, and included screams from scared students that were almost as loud as the gunshots.
Teacher Melissa Falkowski said she hid 19 of her students in a closet as shots were fired.
A student named Heather said she was inside when the calm school turned into a bloodbath.
“The fire alarm went off and then I heard a loud noise that didn’t sound like a gunshot when I heard it,” Heather, 15, told the Daily News.
But it took only seconds for Heather to realize the horror of what was happening.
“People were trampling each other in the halls running and I just ran into a random class, and someone banged on our door really loud, and then there was more banging, and there was just a bunch of terrifying yelling noises,” she said.
After what felt like an eternity passed and police came and evacuated Heather and her classmates, the terror-stricken student walked into a grisly scene.
“There was blood and bodies and dust all over the halls while we walked out.” Heather said. “It was so terrifying.”
Heather said she had no doubt the shooter set the students up to die.
“I definitely think he set it off,” Heather said of the fire alarm. “There’s no other reason it would have gone off,”
Earlier in the day, the fire alarm blared for a routine drill.
When it went off again, student Masiel Baluja said there was lots of confusion.
“We were suspicious because we already had a fire alarm drill, so we weren’t sure if this was real or not,” Masiel told CNN. “So, apparently, the shooter pulled the alarm so he could have kids in the hallway to shoot. I was on the top floor. Right below me on the first floor I heard shooting and saw two guys running. I wasn’t sure what it was, then I heard it again. That’s when me and a group of people ran downstairs, and I could tell he was on my left side because that’s where I heard the gunshots from, and it was very loud.
“Then I went to make a right and I just ran, and I had my backpack on my back, just in case I got shot, it would go through my books.”
She made it out of the school safely.
Authorities said Cruz had been expelled for disciplinary reasons. They did not immediately give a motive for the shooting.
An ex-classmate, who did not give his name, told WSVN-TV that Cruz would show him photos of his guns. He said the twisted teen told him he enjoyed the sensation of pulling triggers.
“He shot guns because he said it was exhilarating,” he said.
Gunman opens fire at Florida high school
“He had countless magazines, multiple magazines, and at this point we believe he had one AR-15 rifle,” Israel said.
Cruz legally bought the rifle used in the crime, attorney Jim Lewis told the South Florida Sun Sentinel. Cruz already owned the gun when he moved in with his friend’s family in northwest Broward around Thanksgiving, Lewis said.
“It was his gun,” Lewis said. “The family made him keep it in a locked gun cabinet in the house but he had a key.”
The school was to be closed for the rest of the week.
Grief counselors will be available off-site for students and staff, and at nearby middle school.
The state will pay the funeral costs of all those killed, said state Attorney General Pam Bondi.
Among the heroes of the shooting was football coach Aaron Feis, who was wounded while shielding students from gunfire, according to reports.
He also works as a security guard at the school.
President Trump was briefed on the shooting, the White House said.
“My prayers and condolences to the families of the victims of the terrible Florida shooting,” Trump tweeted. “No child, teacher or anyone else should ever feel unsafe in an American school.”
Trump also spoke to Florida Gov. Rick Scott and offered federal assistance if needed, according to the White House.
Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee in 2012, postponed an expected announcement about his U.S. Senate plans in Utah, out of respect for the victims and their families.
The shooting enraged Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, a staunch gun control advocate.
“Don’t tell me tomorrow isn’t the appropriate time to debate gun violence,” Murphy tweeted. “If you’re a political leader doing nothing about this slaughter, you’re an accomplice.”
Last year, Parkland was named the safest city in Florida.
At least 18 school shootings have occurred nationwide this year, according to the gun control advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety, and there have been at least 300 since Sandy Hook in 2012.
“How can this happen in this country?” Scott said. “How can this happen in this state? You come to the conclusion that this is absolutely pure evil.”