'A horrible day': Florida community mourns accused school shooter charged with 17 murder counts

Just before shots rang out at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Wednesday, some students thought they were having another fire drill.

After all, only hours earlier, students and staff had to leave their classrooms for such an exercise. So when the alarm went off shortly before they were to be dismissed, they once again filed out into the hallways.

According to police, that’s when 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, equipped with a gas mask, smoke grenades and multiple magazines of ammunition, opened fire with a semi-automatic weapon, killing 17 people and sending hundreds of students fleeing into the streets.

“This has been a day we’ve seen the worst in humanity,” said Robert Runcie, superintendent of the school district in Parkland, about an hour’s drive north of Miami said Wednesday.

The former student, an orphan with a troubled past and an AR-15 rifle, was charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder Thursday morning.

‘There are really no words’

The charges followed hours of questioning by state and federal authorities around the deadliest shooting at an American high school, surpassing the 1999 rampage at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., where two teenagers killed 12 students and a teacher and then themselves.

‘All I heard was “Get on the ground! Get on the ground!”‘– Michael Nembhard, local resident

It was also the second deadliest at a U.S. public school, behind the 2012 shooting of 20 students and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., by a gunman who also killed his mother and himself.

“Our district is in a tremendous state of grief and sorrow,” said Runcie. “It is a horrible day for us.”

Authorities offered no immediate details about Cruz or his possible motive, except to say he had been kicked out of the high school, which has about 3,000 students. Students who knew him described a volatile teenager whose strange behaviour had caused others to end friendships with him.

Nikolas Cruz

Nikolas Cruz has been charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder in connection with a school shooting in Parkland, Fla. (Broward County Sheriff’s office)

Cruz was taken into custody without a fight about an hour after the shooting in a residential neighbourhood about 1.5 kilometres away. He had multiple magazines of ammunition, authorities said.

“It’s catastrophic. There really are no words,” said Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel.

‘I thought maybe I could die’

Frantic parents rushed to the school to find SWAT team members and ambulances surrounding the huge campus and emergency workers who appeared to be treating the wounded on sidewalks. Students who hadn’t run began leaving in a single-file line with their hands over their heads as officers urged them to evacuate quickly.

Hearing loud bangs as gunfire went off, many of the students inside hid under desks or in closets, and barricaded doors.

“We were in the corner, away from the windows,” said freshman Max Charles, who said he heard five gunshots. “The teacher locked the door and turned off the light. I thought maybe I could die or something.”

APTOPIX School Shooting Florida

The Valentine’s Day bloodshed in the racially mixed community about 72 kilometres north of Miami was the latest outbreak of gun violence at U.S. schools and college campuses in recent years. (Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun/The Associated Press)

As he was leaving the building, he saw four dead students and one dead teacher. He said he was relieved when he finally found his mother.

“I was happy that I was alive,” Max said. “She was crying when she saw me.”

Noah Parness, 17, said he and the other students were calmly going 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.”

‘There the carnage began’

The Valentine’s Day bloodshed in the racially mixed community about 72 kilometres north of Miami was the latest outbreak of gun violence at U.S. schools and college campuses in recent years.

Most of the fatalities were inside the building, though some individuals were found fatally shot outside, the sheriff said.

AFP_ZU3YQ

Scott Israel, left, sheriff of Broward County, and Florida Gov. Rick Scott speak to the media as they visit Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School following the shooting. (Gaston De Cardenas/AFP/Getty Images)

Sen. Bill Nelson told CNN that Cruz had pulled the fire alarm “so the kids would come pouring out of the classrooms into the hall.

“And there the carnage began,” said Nelson, who was briefed by the FBI.

The scene was reminiscent of the Newtown attack, which shocked even a country numbed by the regularity of school shootings. 

Not long after Wednesday’s attack in Florida, Michael Nembhard was sitting in his garage on a cul-de-sac 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 the young man did as he was told.

The school will be closed for the rest of the week.

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