By Maria L. La Ganga, Christine Mai-Duc and Richard A. Serrano
In one of the deadliest of a series of school shootings that have become violently familiar across the U.S., a gunman opened fire at a community college in southwestern Oregon on Thursday morning, killing at least 10 people and injuring at least seven more before dying in an exchange of gunfire with police.
The massacre at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore., began when the attacker stormed Snyder hall and began firing. He was armed with three handguns and an assault rifle, a law enforcement official told the Los Angeles Times.
A series of frantic police recordings, punctuated with the scream of sirens, narrated the terrifying scene at the two-year college, about 180 miles south of Portland, where the school year had just begun Monday. The chaos was apparent as ambulances were called and victims were tallied.
A dispatcher could be heard saying the gunman was "outside one of the doors, shooting through the doors" in the hall, with 35 people inside.
Several minutes later, an officer is heard describing a gun battle with the assailant. "The suspect is down," someone shouted, while another officer called in for "as many ambulances as possible."
A law enforcement official identified the gunman as Chris Harper Mercer, 26, from the local area. He spoke on condition of anonymity because the case is so new and the investigation is just beginning. Officials said they do not believe Mercer was "connected" to the school as a student or staff "at this time." The gunman's motive "is not immediately clear," the official said.
Authorities officially have provided no details about the suspect or his motives for the attack. But President Barack Obama, visibly angry, laid blame on the nation's failure to pass tighter gun laws.
"This is a political choice that we make _ to allow this to happen every few months in America. We collectively are answerable to those families who lose their loved ones because of our inaction," the president said.
"I hope and pray that I don't have to come out again during my tenure as president to offer my condolences to families in these circumstances. But based upon my experience as president, I can't guarantee that," he said. "And that's terrible to say."
The attack was among the worst mass school shootings over the last two decades, including the one at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999 in which 13 people were killed; the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut in 2012, which claimed 28 lives; and the rampage at Virginia Tech, in which 32 people were killed.
Cassandra Welding, a 20-year-old studying early childhood education, was in a writing class at a computer lab in the Snyder building when the shooting occurred. Class was nearly over, and her professor had left the classroom to retrieve some papers for students, Welding said. Moments later the third-year student heard a noise coming from the room next door.
"It sounded like a balloon popped ... and then five seconds later I heard it again," she said in an interview. "We knew something wasn't right."
When a classmate of Welding's walked to the door and opened it to peek outside, she was shot, Welding said.
"She was halfway in the doorway, and the door was still open," Welding said. "We were screaming, 'Close the door! Close the door!'"
Another classmate dragged the woman in and locked the door and someone else turned off the lights. Students performed CPR on the woman, who Welding said looked as though she had been shot in the torso.
"I kept hearing that noise, one after another," Welding said. "I probably heard about 40." The students crawled along the floor, she said. They gathered in the back right corner of the classroom, the farthest away from the door.
"I was so terrified for my life and I was shaking," Welding recalled.
Someone called 911. Welding got on the phone with her mother. Blood covered the walls near the student who had been shot, Welding said, and her broken glasses lay on the floor.
"Hey, Mom, there's a shooting at school," she told her mother, whispering because she was afraid the shooter could come in at any minute. "I just heard other people in tears, crying, calling their loved ones and telling them, 'I love you,'" Welding said. "It was such a heart-wrenching thing."
After some time, Welding said, she could hear officers bust in next door, yelling, "Get down! Get down!"
Two more gunshots rang out, Welding said. Then, nothing.
Minutes later, she said, police and SWAT team members entered the classroom to tell them everything was OK and to ask for the students' statements. Officers then escorted the students to the library, where they searched their bags and patted them down. On the way out, Welding said, she saw a woman being taken away on a stretcher.
Her wounded classmate was still breathing when the paramedics arrived, she said, but she still doesn't know the woman's fate, or her teacher's.
"It's just horrific that this had to happen again," Welding said, noting a shooting that occurred several years ago. "The community is such a small community and everyone's either friends or family."
Another student, McCrae Kittelman, was in math class in a building next door when his professor sprinted into the room with news of the attack.
"That was one of the most strange and disquieting parts," Kittelman, 17, told Fox News and others while still in lockdown. "There were no sounds at all."
Douglas County Commissioner Tim Freeman's 19-year-old son was on campus when the shooting began. He said the young man was prepared with an emergency plan _ and lucky: "He immediately left campus, went to a friend's house, to a safe location, and called me.
"We are now in that horrible club of schools that have had to deal with this," Freeman said in an interview. "I hope communities around our nation will pray for us."
Gov. Kate Brown ordered flags lowered to half-staff at all public institutions in the state until sunset Friday in honor of the victims.
Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum lamented in a Facebook post that "this unspeakable tragedy that occurred at 10:30 this morning, sadly, puts Oregon on the growing list of horrendous mass shootings in our country."
And former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, whose political career was ended by gunman Jared Loughner, tweeted: "On a plane and learning about the heinous shooting in Oregon. A community's heart has been tested but will not be broken."
Umpqua has a student population of about 3,300 full and part-time students. According to the campus website, it offers "a peaceful, safe atmosphere and year-round recreational activities."
The college is known for a robust theater program and recently added a winemaking program. But the school has also suffered strains, facing a budget shortfall of $1 million, staff layoffs and enrollment declines due to a strengthening job market, according to the News-Review, a Roseburg paper.
Speaking to reporters late Thursday, college President Rita Calvin said the attack on her campus was both a "tragedy and an anomaly."
"I feel awful. To witness the families that were waiting for the students in the last bus and to see all of the hugs and weeping and trauma that has gone on," Calvin said. "More people were hurt than just the ones that were shot."
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Calvin said the school was not aware of any of the rumored threatening messages the shooter may have left on social media in recent days, and said no threats had been made against the campus recently.
The campus employs at least one security officer, and several faculty members are retired law enforcement personnel, according to school officials. But none of them are allowed to be armed, she said.
"We have a no-guns-on-campus policy," Calvin said.
Mercy Hospital in Roseburg confirmed Thursday afternoon that it received 10 patients and three more were on the way. PeaceHealth Sacred Heart Medical Center at Riverbend in Springfield, Ore., tweeted that two victims had arrived and more were expected.
Cameron Anspach, 24, said Thursday afternoon that his family believed his brother, Treven Anspach, 20, was on campus during the shooting.
"No one's heard from him or anything," said Anspach, who added that his family was searching hospitals and the evacuation center at the county fairgrounds where students and faculty were sent.
"We're waiting to see if he shows up," Anspach said.
By Thursday evening, it appeared that the young man had survived but was injured.
Tweeted Hanna Marie Harwood: "For everyone upset about Treven, I just found out that he's up in Eugene having surgery rn! Everyone please pray for him."
She ended with an icon of hands in prayer.
(Staff writers James Queally, Carla Rivera, Michael Muskal, Michael A. Memoli and Ann M. Simmons contributed to this report)
(c)2015 Los Angeles Times