A longtime city employee shot and killed 12 people and injured at least four others after opening fire Friday afternoon in the public works building, making it the country’s deadliest mass shooting this year.
Police said officers killed the man, whom they did not name [at the time], after he fired at them in the city’s scenic Municipal Center in Princess Anne, a campus of about 30 brick Colonial-style buildings.
Officials identify 12 victims of Virginia Beach shooting, who were killed after a gunman opened fire at a municipal building.
— CNN (@CNN) June 1, 2019
The four injured were all in surgery Friday, Police Chief James Cervera said during a news conference a couple of hours after the massacre.
One officer was shot during the exchange but was saved by his bulletproof vest, the chief said.
“This is the most devastating day in the history of Virginia Beach,” Mayor Bobby Dyer said in the news conference. “The people involved are our friends, co-workers, neighbors and colleagues.”
Friday’s rampage is believed to be the worst mass killing in Virginia Beach’s history. Prior to this week, a shooting on June 30, 1994, at the Witchduck Inn held that distinction: Four people — the business owner, two employees and a patron — were shot to death at the restaurant. It also came on the heels of a shooting in Chesapeake’s Holly Cove community over Memorial Day weekend that left one dead and nine others injured.
In the U.S., it is the deadliest attack since the November 2018 shooting at Borderline Bar & Grill in California, when 12 people were killed.
The gunfire in Virginia Beach began shortly after 4 p.m. as workers were preparing to leave for the weekend. The shooting occurred in building 2, next to City Hall near the intersection of Nimmo Parkway and Princess Anne Boulevard. The planning, public utilities, public works departments and others are located there. The three-story brick building on Courthouse Drive houses about 400 workers.
Many of the employees work out of small office spaces along long hallways. The doors are typically unlocked and open to the public.
The shooter on Friday was a current employee of the public utilities department, Cervera said. He came armed with a .45-caliber handgun with a sound suppressor on it and shot one victim in a vehicle outside before entering the building. The rest were shot inside.
Cervera said police found victims on every floor of the building.
Four officers responded, found the gunman almost immediately and then initiated what became a long gunfight with the suspect, Cervera said. After an officer shot the suspect, they administered first aid.
Virginia Beach police are investigating with help from the FBI and state police, he said. They’re still working to identify victims and contact family members. They’re also still working to notify the suspect’s next of kin. Once that is done, Cervera said, his department plans to name the suspect only once out of respect for the victims.
Cervera said the city offices now resemble a “war zone.”
Megan Banton, an administrative assistant in the public utilities office where the man worked, said her supervisor heard a noise then shouted for everyone to get down.
The supervisor then pulled Banton and others into her office and shoved a desk against the door while Banton called 911.
“It felt like forever,” Banton said.
Zand Bakhtiari was one of only five people left in the geographic information services department — located on the first floor of the building — at the end of the day Friday when his supervisor, who had left the office, texted to say there was an active shooter and to shelter in place.
Bakhtiari wasn’t nervous until he heard the gunshots — lots of them, one round in quick succession. He said it sounded like an automatic weapon.
“It was repeated, rapid gunfire,” he said. It sounded like it was coming from above or below him on the second floor or the basement, he said.
After a few minutes — Bakhtiari doesn’t know how much time passed — the bullets stopped, but the fire alarm had been set off. And he could smell the gunpowder.
He assumed it was over when he heard the fire alarm, but he and his co-workers didn’t know whether to evacuate or stay put, so they all came out of their individual offices and huddled together.
After about 10 minutes, officers and SWAT team members came in, told them to duck down and keep their hands up as they escorted employees out and checked every room.
Arthur Felton, an 18-year employee in the planning department, was also inside when the shooting started. He evacuated the building after a co-worker heard gunshots.
“I never thought this would happen in my building,” Felton said. “The people who were shot — I’m sure I know most of them.”
Employees’ family members were sent to Princess Anne Middle School to reunite with loved ones.
Paul Swain’s fiancee sent him a text message at 4:17 p.m. that said, “They are shooting on my floor.” He said he drove to the Municipal Center so fast he was pulled over for speeding.
The officer let him go when he told him why he was driving fast.
Swain made it to the area but was directed to reunite with his fiancee at Princess Anne Middle School.
“My heart is just pounding,” he said as he waited to see her again. Swain reunited with her in the parking lot.
Police did not allow media on the school’s property. When he walked into the school, he said, he was greeted by staff who had a checklist of names. People were waiting for their families in the cafeteria, he said.
Amy Woody is trying to find her neighbor of 20 years who didn’t come home from her job at the city. She said her neighbor always returns home around 4 p.m. but wasn’t answering her text messages or phone calls. Woody arrived at the school shortly after 8:30 p.m. with her two dogs.
“I just want to make sure she is OK,” she said. “It’s definitely a very solemn feeling right now. It’s hard.”
Cheryl Benn rushed to the school after getting a frantic call from her husband, David, who is a traffic engineer and works in the building. At first all she could hear when he called was sirens.
She said her husband barricaded himself in a room away from the shooter and held the door shut until police told him it was safe to leave.
“He was definitely a little freaked out,” Benn said.
While her husband gave detectives a statement, Benn waited outside the school with her dog.
“Some of those people could be his co-workers,” she said.
Public Works spokesman Drew Lankford, who works in the building where the shooting occurred, left the office on Friday afternoon to get a haircut. While he was gone, his daughter called and said there had been a shooter in his work building.
His daughter, who works in the City Hall building nearby, said security told people to get under their desks. He rushed back to the office and saw police taking cover behind parked cars with their guns drawn.
City Councilwoman Barbara Henley had pulled up to the City Hall building just after 4 p.m. to pick up the agenda as she does every week when she heard sirens and saw police cars.
“I thought it was an accident,” Henley said.
As she parked in the lot between buildings 1 and 2, she noticed city employees standing outside using their cellphones. Someone told her there was a shooting and she should leave. Henley had gotten back in her car when she heard a male voice shout, “Get down!”
“I was scared to death,” said Henley, who quickly drove home.
Henley said she’s never seen a situation like this before at the Municipal Center, adding that security has recently been beefed up in the City Hall building as a result of shooting incidents across the nation. Not all the municipal buildings at the complex take the same security measures, she said.
Late on Friday, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, who arrived in Virginia Beach a few hours after the shooting, said the people who died were heading into the summer weekend.
“That they should be taken in this manner is the worst kind of tragedy,” Northam said. “Their families are facing painful loss and grief. They each leave a hole and a family in their neighborhood, in this community and in our Commonwealth.”
Staff writers Gordon Rago, Stacy Parker, Mike Connors, Robyn Sidersky and Elisha Sauers contributed to this report.
© 2019 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)
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