About 60 students and staff were inside El Centro College on Thursday evening, preparing for finals and doing janitorial work, when the shots rang out.
By the end of the night, the community college would become the center of a sniper attack and standoff that left five police officers dead and two campus police officers among the wounded. On Monday school officials detailed their response, as well as the eventual killing of the gunman at the end of a campus hallway.
“Unfortunately, in police work, we never know what’s going to happen or where it’s going to happen,” campus police Chief Joseph Hannigan said. “We just make sure that our members are properly prepared, trained, and equipped to respond to such incidents.”
Police were expecting a crowd of 1,500 protesters to march past the college’s main entrance, so five officers were inside the building with the doors locked. With its location on Main Street just across from the JFK memorial, the college is accustomed to protests, and Hannigan said police were working to prevent potential vandalism or other trouble.
When the first shots began outside, campus officers ran to the building’s exit to respond.
“The glass doors exploded with gunfire,” Hannigan said.
Officer John Abbott was cut in both legs by flying glass. Cpl. John Shaw was grazed by a bullet that left shrapnel in his stomach. In spite of the injuries, they put on their tactical gear and took their positions to help Dallas police, Hannigan said.
“I can’t say enough about the bravery of not only the college police officers, but Dallas police officers,” he said. “Once inside the facility, we worked as one. The skill and equipment, strategy that the Dallas department brought with them was amazing.”
Outside, Abbott, a Navy corpsman, pulled an officer toward the college building, turned him over, and recognized him as DART Officer Brent Thomspon — a friend and former colleague.
“He realized it was Brent,” Hannigan said. “He realized that the extent of his injuries would not sustain life.”
Shaw only realized he was injured later.
“At one point, he reached under his vest and came out with a handful of blood,” Hannigan said. “So he realized he was injured but did not leave his post. He stayed there the entire night until the incident was under control.”
After shooting through the doors at officers from a position across the street, the gunman shot out the doors on the school’s Elm Street entrance and entered. He went into a stairwell, leaving a trace of blood on the floor. When a detective tried to follow, the gunman began shooting from a position outside the detective’s line of sight. He retreated, and Dallas SWAT arrived shortly after.
Upstairs, the shooter broke a window in a mezzanine above a loading dock and began firing at the street outside. Eventually, police cornered him in an alcove at the end of a hallway.
“There was a very heavy gunfight at the end, when the suspect decided to barricade himself,” Hannigan said. “It was unsafe for any police officer to enter the hallway to reach the subject.”
For hours, they were at a standoff. Then came the plan by Dallas police’s tactical team to deliver C4 explosives with a robot.
“Any officer that entered that pathway down to him would be killed,” Hannigan said. “So that’s when the tactical decision from DPD came to utilize the robot.”
Dallas Police Chief David Brown earlier in the day said he left the decision to the leaders of the SWAT team.
“Just don’t bring down the building,” he recalled telling them.
The explosion brought down a ceiling tile and damaged sheet rock. The hallway is home to the college’s servers, which also sustained damage, mainly to wiring.
It’s nothing that can’t be fixed, college President Jose Adames said. The campus will be closed until July 17, though classes scheduled to begin on Tuesday will start the summer session online.
“We are very interested and very committed in providing a level of normalcy, not only to our students, but our staff,” he said.
Only once the gunman was confirmed dead, campus police began clearing classrooms and taking people outside. Fifty students were on the seventh and eighth floors of the school’s Building A, away from the explosion and gun battle. In Building C, where the shooter barricaded himself on the second floor, seven janitorial staff and a security guard had hidden in a closet. Two students were taken out of the school’s basement around 2:30 a.m.
Adames said he’s concerned the shooting will make people unsure about safety in the area around the college.
“Downtown is a very safe environment and we will work diligently to get beyond this,” he said. “We don’t deserve this as an institution, our students don’t deserve this, the community of Dallas does not deserve this. This will make us stronger and we will come out of this even better as an institution and as a family.”
He and the chief added they don’t believe the shooter had any particular relationship to the college, or knowledge about the building’s layout.
“It was an opportunity," Adames said, "and it just happens to be our building."
Claudia Koerner is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles.
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