Faulty equipment prompts Topsail High shooter fears – News – The Free Press – Kinston, NC
Faulty equipment prompts Topsail High shooter fears Nov 9, 2018 at 7:32 AM Nov 9, 2018 at 4:23 PM Emergency director: Sounds were from a malfunctioning water heater
PENDER COUNTY — A water heater malfunctioning Friday at Topsail High School sent dozens of officers from the region’s law enforcement agencies speeding to Hampstead, toward what they and others on the scene were initially convinced was gunfire.
Nobody was hurt in the incident, which was first reported when a school employee called 911 at 5:51 a.m. to describe a noise that sounded like shooting behind the school. When law enforcement arrived seven minutes later, they heard loud pops coming from the building’s roof.
“I don’t want anybody to think that the students or the first officers that responded to the scene overreacted,” said Pender County Sheriff Carson Smith. “It sounded just like gunfire.”
Friday morning’s incident comes amid a seemingly regular series of high-profile shootings, including the Thursday slaying of 12 people at a California bar. At a mid-morning press conference, officials said there are lessons to be learned from the incident, but that they are proud of the response, which was necessary considering what information they and people inside the school had available to them.
Ben David, the district attorney for New Hanover and Pender counties, said, “Thank God this was just a water heater and not an active shooter, but if it was I’ve never been more proud to be district attorney than right now because what we saw was just the response that our children deserve.”
David Connolly’s daughter was among the students to be evacuated. He said she rode to school with a friend for cheerleading practice before 6 a.m. Shortly after the students arrived, they heard noises from the roof that sounded like gunshots and were told to run to the middle school next door.
“As a parent, I saw a couple of good things, one being that police were there on site that early and were there to tell my daughter to run,” Connolly said.
According to incident notes, 17 students were evacuated from the high school to nearby Topsail Middle, where they remained for the incident’s duration. Buses that had already picked up children were routed to nearby staging areas in a Lowes Foods parking lot across U.S. 17 from the school.
As Pender Schools Superintendent Steven Hill sped toward Friday morning’s scene, he was thinking about the students and whoever else might have been in the school. As Hill was en route, so were officers from New Hanover and Pender law enforcement agencies, as well as state and federal agents.
Later recalling his initial thoughts, Hill said, “Don’t let our kids be hurt. Don’t let this be true. Don’t let our kids be hurt — that’s all you’re thinking on the way here, as you’re just praying to God, don’t let anybody get hurt.”
After officers sweeping the roof determined there were no shell casings in an area where they expected to find dozens, they began searching for alternative possibilities.
An already arriving officer had turned off the gas to the hot water heater, according to call notes, and around 7:32 the unit was turned back on. Within five minutes, a pair of officers had identified the noise coming from the water heater as the one they’d heard upon arrival.
While the water heater had been making noises throughout the week, it was nowhere near as loud as Friday’s disturbance. Hill said damage to a combustion chamber in the equipment was allowing gas to escape in loud, rapid pops.
“We’re just happy to say it’s a mechanical malfunction and everybody’s safe,” Hill said.
Nevertheless, Smith noted, SWAT teams still went room-to-room through the school, checking for signs of an active shooter. David said both law enforcement and Topsail High students have drilled for active shooter situations.
“Today turned out to be a test, and the students, their teachers and, most importantly, the men and women of law enforcement passed that test,” David said during the press conference.
‘Tensions are high’
The incident marks the second time this year Topsail High has reported a gun-related incident. In May, a pair of Topsail High students were charged with bringing weapons onto campus — including a boy who came armed with a semi-automatic rifle he said he planned to use to stop a rumored school shooter.
While Friday’s event was ultimately tied to equipment malfunction, for a few frightening hours it did throw Topsail High School into the nation’s — and the state’s — ongoing conversation about how to keep students safe.
Smith, who earlier this week won election to the N.C. House, said his experience as Pender’s longtime sheriff could allow him to play a role in the General Assembly’s school safety conversations, in which he intends to focus on mental health.
“I think that’s not being talked about enough — what we’re doing with the mental health care system in this state and what we need to do,” Smith said.
This year’s budget included $35 million in grants to assist with school safety, including $5 million to develop an anonymous tip line and mobile app, with the rest going to school resource officer and mental health support grants. Pender received $91,630 for school resource officers.
Rochelle Whiteside, a Pender County school board member, said schools across the nation have been on high alert amid the spate of gun violence in recent years. On Oct. 29, a student was shot and killed at Butler High School in Matthews, N.C.
“Tensions are high in this whole country, and they need to be high. It’s time to get real about what we do about gun control, that’s just my personal opinion,” she said. “Pender’s not to be singled out to be different from any other county. Our whole nation and our whole world is feeling this, and I feel very lucky to be in a community where people take care of each other and keep close.”
Pastor Jonathan Cockrell of Renovation Church said his congregation was planning to hold a prayer walk Saturday morning at 9 a.m. on the school‘s campus, an already planned annual event focused in part on the safety of schools.
“Today was a reminder of the new reality we live in,” Cockrell said, “that a loud noise is perceived as an active shooter where a decade ago that might not have been the case.”
Staff writers Cammie Bellamy, Tim Buckland, Ashley Morris and Adam Wagner contributed to this report. Never miss a story
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