Seventeen people died and 15 others were injured in a shooting at a south Florida high school allegedly carried out by an ex-pupil who had previously been expelled.
The suspect, identified by police as ex-pupil Nikolas Cruz, has been charged with 17 counts of pre-meditated murder following the attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, located just north of Fort Lauderdale.
A gun control group said it was the 18th shooting in the US this year that occurred on or around school premises.
It is also ranked the second-deadliest act of gun violence ever on a US public school campus after the 2012 massacre of 20 first-graders and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, by a gunman who also killed his mother and himself.
Television footage showed images of bewildered students streaming out of the building with hands raised in the air, as emergency services personnel swarmed the area.
The Broward County Sheriff’s Department said 12 victims had died inside the building, two outside of the building, one on the street and two in the hospital.
Police said the accused gunman, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, began shooting outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shortly before dismissal, then barged inside.
Wearing a gas mask and armed with smoke grenades, he pulled a fire alarm to lure students out of classrooms, according to Senator Bill Nelson, who had been briefed by law enforcement.
Cruz then sprayed students and staffers with bullets before blending in with the panicked crowd to escape.
“He went up and down the hallway just banging and shooting into the classrooms,” one student, Natalie, told CBS News. “He shot through my door and broke my window.”
The victims are said to be a mixture of students and adults.
President Donald Trump has offered condolences to the families of the victims on Twitter, adding: “No child, teacher or anyone else should ever feel unsafe in an American school.”
On Thursday, Trump tweeted the shooter “was mentally disturbed, even expelled from school for bad and erratic behaviour... must always report such instances to authorities, again and again!”
Police described Cruz as a 19-year-old former student who been expelled from the school “for disciplinary reasons”.
As a high school freshman, Cruz was part of the US military-sponsored Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corp program at the school, according to Jillian Davis, 19, a recent graduate and former fellow JROTC member at Stoneman Douglas High.
Davis recalled his “strange talking sometimes about knives and guns,” adding, “no one ever took him seriously”.
Chad Williams, 18, a senior at Stoneman Douglas, described Cruz as “kind of an outcast” who was known for unruly behavior at school, including a penchant for pulling false fire alarms, and was “crazy about guns”.
Cruz used an AR-15 assault-style rifle and had “multiple magazines” on him, according to Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, who added the gunman surrendered to police without a struggle.
Florida’s two US senators, briefed by law enforcement officials, said the suspect wore a gas mask as he stalked into the school carrying a rifle, ammunition cartridges and smoke grenades
He then pulled a fire alarm, prompting students and staff to pour from their classrooms into hallways.
One unidentified student, speaking to local station WSVN, said he knows the suspect and that the young man had shown him photos of a gun collection he owned.
“It surprises me that this is going on today but it doesn’t shock me that it was him,” the student said. “He’s been a troubled kid and he’s always had a certain amount of issues going on.”
Madison Sheib, a 15-year-old student at the school, was in her maths class when she heard what she first thought were chairs being shuffled on the floor directly above her. Students soon realised they were actually gunshots.
“We ran into a corner and turned off all the lights,” Sheib told HuffPost. “We just kept hearing gunshots and screaming.”
Sheib said that after the first round of gunshots went off, someone pulled the fire alarm. Students ― including herself ― attempted to stay calm while police arrived. Eventually, an officer smashed the door window and ushered students out of the building.
Sheib credits her math teacher, Zipora Lazarus, with keeping students calm.
“[Lazarus] was very, very good with handling people,” Sheib said. “I started bawling when police finally broke in, and she was very nurturing. I’ve never seen that side of her because she’s just my math teacher, but this brought out the best of everyone.”
Text messages shared on Twitter by the sister of a student at the high school show the panic that gripped those caught up in the tragedy.
The Valentine’s Day bloodshed in the Miami suburb was the latest outbreak of gun violence that has become a regular occurrence at schools and college campuses across the US over the past several years.
It was the 18th shooting in a US school so far this year, according to gun control group Everytown for Gun Safety.
The tally includes suicides and incidents when no-one was injured, as well as the January shooting in which a 15-year-old gunman killed two fellow students at a Benton, Kentucky, high school.
One survivor, Kyle Yeoward, 16, told Reuters he and about 15 fellow students and a teacher hid in a closet for nearly two hours before police arrived.
Anguished parents checked on their children.
“It is just absolutely horrifying. I can’t believe this is happening,” Lissette Rozenblat, whose daughter goes to the school, told CNN. Her daughter called her to say she was safe but the student also told her mother she heard the cries of a person who was shot.
Twelve of the dead were killed inside the school, two others just outside, one more on the street and two other victims died from their wounds at a hospital, Israel said. He said the victims comprised a mixture of students and adults.
The sheriff said at a briefing after dark that investigators had so far positively identified just 12 of the dead, including a football coach he did not name.
Authorities at two nearby hospitals said they were treating 13 survivors for bullet wounds and other injuries, five of whom were listed in critical condition.