PARKLAND, Fla. — An American nightmare unfolded Wednesday afternoon at a high school in Broward County after a former student came onto campus and opened fire, killing 17.
Details are beginning to emerge amid a flurry of police activity at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, where students puzzled at the sound of a fire alarm going off just before dismissal were launched into a panic when gunfire punctuated the din.
As teachers and students fled hallways and hid under desks, a former student who teachers and parents say was known to be dangerous came onto campus and unloaded, leaving a trail of bodies and stunned confusion in his wake.
Nicolas de Jesus Cruz, 19, has been taken into police custody. The Broward Sheriff’s Office is reporting 17 dead, and is still working to clear all the buildings at the massive school, home to about 3,200 students.
Authorities have yet to name a motive for the shooting, which they say doesn’t immediately appear to have been prompted by any confrontation.
“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. “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, a former student identified by law enforcement sources as Cruz, managed to make it off campus before he was cornered and taken into custody near the community entrance of Pelican Pointe at Wyndham Lakes in Coral Springs. He was transported to North Broward Medical Center, and then was sped away from the hospital in a police escort.
More than a dozen victims were taken to the same hospital, as well as Broward Medical Center.
Broward Sheriff Scott Israel, whose triplets once attended the high school, said during a 5 p.m. news conference that multiple SWAT teams were still clearing out the school and that an “all clear” had not yet been issued. Israel, who said he spoke with President Donald Trump and Gov. Rick Scott, called the shooting a “detestable act” and “catastrophic.”
“Right now, the buildings are not safe to be cleared,” he said.
Israel said sheriff’s officials would be transporting students to the Fort Lauderdale Marriott Coral Springs Hotel, Golf Club and Convention Center in Coral Springs. “This is a terrible day” for the local and national community, he said.
Israel said the shooter was both inside and outside the school’s buildings during the shooting.
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 and that he should not be allowed on the campus with a backpack. Another student interviewed on the scene by WSVN 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.
On the first floor, freshman Geovanni Vilsant, 15, said he was in a Spanish classroom when a fire alarm went off, urging all students out of their classrooms. Then, two minutes later, gun shots rang out enveloping the three-floor building in explosions.
Vilsant 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 his brother.
“I had to go back for him,” Bradley Vilsant said from a nearby Wal-Mart where the brothers fled with about 100 other students.
The students remained calm. One high school senior elsewhere at the school told the Herald that there were “SWAT teams everywhere with big guns, cops everywhere, helicopters.” She said parents trying to reach their children were unable to make it to the school because the streets were closed off.
But by 2:40, Gard says, they knew it wasn’t a drill. Elsewhere, bullets flew.
Initially, the Coral Springs Police Department urged teachers and students to remain barricaded inside until police reached them. Students posted pictures to social media taken from under their desks.
Police, who flooded the school, 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. The evacuation started under the direction of police officers, and the students were guided to nearby parking lots by officers as well.
Law enforcement and the district’s Special Investigative Unit are on site, as is the bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Federal authorities said they don’t believe the high school shooting was related to terrorism.
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.
“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.”
Parents stood about a mile away as police blocked him from getting closer to their children. Many spoke on their cellphones trying to calm their children down.
Denise Perez paced she spoke to her daughter Marsiel Baluja. Her daughter told her that she was sitting between Publix and Wal-Mart 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 class when she heard shots.