By Vernell Hackett
BENTON, Ky. (Reuters) – A 15-year-old boy opened fire with a handgun just before classes started at his high school in rural western Kentucky on Tuesday, killing two fellow students and wounding 13 other youths before he was arrested, the state’s governor and police said.
The shooter, who has not been officially identified, entered a common area at Marshall County High School in Benton shortly before 8 a.m. (1400 GMT), pulled out a pistol and began firing at students, witnesses told Kentucky media.
The suspect will be charged with two counts of murder and multiple counts of attempted murder, the Kentucky State Police said. Police have not released a motive for the shooting but said they believed the gunman acted alone.
The bloodshed at the school of nearly 1,150 students in a small farming town was the latest outbreak of gun violence that has become a regular occurrence at schools and college campuses across the United States over the past several years.
The students killed were Bailey Hope, a 15-year-old girl, and Preston Cope, a 15-year-old boy, state police said. Five of the victims were in critical condition, police said, but hospital officials said they expected all those wounded in the incident to survive.
“I see this guy draw from his side and he pulls out a pistol. I didn’t even know what was going on. And then it registered. About the time it registered, this guy was sitting here pulling the trigger into all of us,” student Bryson Conkwright told TV station WKRN.
“I can hear the gunshots. He was shooting in our group,” said Conkwright, showing where a bullet grazed his hand.
Kentucky State Police previously reported that 14 people were shot, including the two who died, but changed that number to 15 late on Tuesday. Apart from those who were shot, five other people were also injured in the chaos, police said. All 20 of the victims were between 14 and 18 years old.
At least one hospitalized student suffered a broken jaw from falling and being trampled while trying to escape, Marshall County prosecutor Jeff Edwards said in a phone interview.
Edwards toured the school, from which he, his wife and their children all graduated, describing signs of the scramble to flee from the gunfire.
Backpacks, cellphones and clothes were strewn in the main area where the shooting occurred, he said.
“When it happened, apparently everyone left everything laying,” Edwards said. “It made it real, seeing the disarray.”
A WOUNDED COMMUNITY
The school serves Marshall County, which has a population of about 31,000, and the shooting hit the community hard. Churches held vigils on Tuesday night, including the First Christian Church in Benton, where about 150 people gathered for prayers for the victims.
“I don’t know how to start healing myself and I don’t know how the students will be able to heal because they will have to be in that school every day,” said Alexandra Smith, a former student at the school who attended the church vigil.
Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin’s voice choked with emotion and he paused to collect himself at a news conference earlier on Tuesday where he spoke of the shooting.
“There’s no good answer for it,” Bevin said.
Bevin said the suspect was apprehended at the school “in a non-violent” manner but did not elaborate.
Students followed training they had recently received from state police in how to respond to such incidents, authorities said, crediting police for arriving on the scene quickly and apprehending the suspect.
Helicopters took five victims, including the boy who later died, to the nearest Level 1 Trauma Center, about 120 miles (190 km) away at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said President Donald Trump had been briefed on the shooting. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and the families there,” she said.
(Additional reporting by Colleen Jenkins in Winston-Salem, N.C., Peter Szekely in New York, Suzannah Gonzales and Chris Kenning in Chicago, Ben Klayman in Detroit and Ian Simpson in Washington; Writing by Steve Gorman and Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Jonathan Oatis, Peter Cooney and Paul Tait)