In one terrifying Valentine’s Day afternoon, the buffer of miles and time that separated South Florida from the nation’s most catastrophic school shootings shattered in the whine of a fire alarm, a staccato string of “pop-pop” bursts and screams.
At least 17 lost their lives in a storm of bullets about the time an ordinary school day should have been ending Wednesday at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County, authorities said.
Authorities identified the shooter as Nikolas Cruz, a former student, and said they have taken him into custody.
He was reportedly armed with an AR-15 military style rifle and multiple magazines.
“The shooter wore a gas mask, and he had smoke grenades; he set off the fire alarm so the kids would come pouring out of the classrooms and into the hall, and there the carnage began,” Florida’s U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson told reporters.
Gov. Rick Scott, who traveled to Parkland on Wednesday, said, “This is absolutely pure evil.”
As trauma doctors continued to operate on wounded victims, the toll was already more deadly than the 15 who died including the assailants at Colorado’s Columbine High School and second only to only to 27 deaths at or near Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School, among K-12 schools in modern U.S. history.
“It’s catastrophic,” Broward Sheriff Scott Israel said. “There really are no words.”
Palm Beach County Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa called the news from the neighboring county “devastating” and assured students and parents in an email police would have a presence at area schools.
“As students start to hear news of these events, it is important that we all do what we can to make sure that they feel safe and secure in their home, in their community, and of course in their schools,” Avossa said. “We’re working with our local police agencies as well as our own School Police department, to have a presence in our schools for the days and weeks ahead.”
It began with little warning, except for a sound that didn’t make sense.
Jude Lenamon, a freshman at the high school, said the fire alarm sounded about 2:30 p.m.
“At first I doubted that it was a fire drill because we had one this morning,” he said.
Then he heard the shots.
“Doesn’t that sound like gunshots?” he said he asked his teacher.
Two minutes later, he said they were being evacuated
A large group of students was moved outside to a nearby practice field.
“They said we needed to move back and thought it was an active shooter drill,” Lenamon said. “We realized they wouldn’t have armed cops for an active shooter drill.”
The group moved to a softball field at a nearby middle school and were instructed by police to move along a fence behind the school. Some people hopped the fence and went into the middle school parking lot en route to a nearby Walmart.
Lenamon said he realized what was happening when he saw the SWAT vehicles and police cruisers racing down the Sawgrass Expressway and helicopters circling above.
“They were trying to keep us calm by saying it’s probably nothing,” he said. “But we figured it had to be something.”
Tedric Thompson, a 10th grader at the school, said he heard the blasts echo through the halls.
“I thought it was fake to be honest,” he said.
Then students and teachers started shouting and running.
He said he was stuck in the hallway, pulling on locked door knobs trying to get somewere safe. A teacher ended up pulling him into a room to safety.
“It’s unreal,” he said. “Just last week we had Code Red drills and I was making jokes. I never thought it would happen to us.”
Israel said that 17 people were killed: 12 inside, three outside and two at the hospital.
The school will be closed for the rest of the week, according to the Broward County School District.
Israel said the alleged shooter, Nikolas Cruz, started shooting outside and made his way into the school. He had been expelled from the school, but it was unclear when.
Inside a nearby hotel, authorities separated students into rooms for witnesses and non-witnesses, parents said. All students were interviewed by police before they could be released.
Bobby Matthew, whose son is a 10th grader at the Stoneman Douglas, was one of those parents waiting. He said he got a text message from his son during the chaos, so he knew he was all right “but I can’t help but think they should have done more to protect them.”
Matthew said, “It took a while, but I saw my son standing (in the hotel) and I can’t explain it, it was an important moment.”
He continued, “We hear about this all the time. It’s like we socially accept it. But we need to change. We need to do better.”
Maria, whose mother asked her last name not be used, is a senior at Stoneman. She said she was evacuated to the nearby Walmart during the attack. She said soon after, she was shuttled to the Marriott hotel.
“It hasn’t registered,” she said somberly.
She said she didn’t witness anything, but heard students frantically shouting that there was “a shooter, a shooter.”
Evan Boyar, a doctor speaking at Broward Health North, said his hospital treated eight patients and the alleged shooter, Cruz. Two of those individuals died, three remained in critical condition and three were stable Wednesday evening, he said.
Igor Nichiporenko, another doctor at the hospital, said three of the patients remained in operating rooms.
“Fortunately for everybody we were located very close to the high school where the shooting happened,” Nichiporenko said.
Some students ran away from school grounds. Others huddled in lockdown at the school. As worried parents trying to contact them, a sunny afternoon turned into chaos.
Police had to clear the school building by building as they freed students trying to protect themselves in locked classrooms.
Brenda and Nick Sindicich, who live in a community about a mile from the school, said the alleged shooter was arrested there.
They said deputy cars surrounded the area around 3:45 p.m. The shooter was arrested near a community pool in the gated complex.
“It’s the quietest neighborhood,” Brenda said. “You always say it couldn’t happen here.”
They said they didn’t know if the shooter lived here, but police still were blocking off the area with tape and police cars.
Ahmad, a graduate of the high schoool who declined to give his last name, lives in an area known as Wyndham Lakes, about a mile from the school.
“There were at least 12 cop cars and an ambulance rushed out with cops surrounding it,” he said.
He struggled to make sense of what happened.
“I never thought it would happen at my school. I mean you see it on the news,” Ahmad said. “But my school … “
Israel said that shooter was taken into custody without incident and was not a current student at the school. He is believed to be 18 years old.
The incident gripped the nation’s attention.
President Donald Trump tweeted, “My prayers and condolences to the families of the victims of the terrible Florida shooting. No child, teacher or anyone else should ever feel unsafe in an American school.”
According to the school’s website, on a typical day, the high school’s final bell rings at 2:40 p.m.
An hour before then, the Broward Superintendent Robert Runcie had been at another high school to announce the county’s teacher of the year.
About 3,380 students attend Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, according to the district’s website.
It is one of more than 30 high schools in Broward County, the sixth largest school district in the country and the second largest in the state.
The school day was almost over.
It was a day for exchanging Valentine’s cards or candy. For celebrating a teacher of the year.
Instead it became the day of the deadliest school shooting in state history.
Florida’s U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio said, “A mass shooting at one of Florida’s schools is a day you pray will never come.”
It was the day that whatever imagined or hoped-for boundary that separated South Florida schools from tragedy far away disappeared.
Staff writers Hannah Winston, Alexandra Seltzer and researcher Mike Stucka contributed to this report.