PENDER COUNTY, NC (WECT) - Faulty mechanical equipment which was making a sound that resembled gunfire is believed to have led to calls of an active shooter situation at Topsail High School. No evidence of a shooter was ever found and no injuries were reported.
“When I arrived on scene, what I heard sounded like gunfire,” explained Sheriff Carson Smith. “Everyone did exactly what they were supposed to do.”
Smith said stress levels were high as the calls came in and he could hear the sound of gunshots in the background of the radio traffic.
“I heard dozens [of ‘shots’],” Smith explained, adding he said a prayer while driving to Topsail High school.
According to Capt. James Rowell with the Pender County Sheriff’s Office, crews searched the entire building, clearing the school room by room but found no evidence of an active shooter.
At some point during the morning, law enforcement officials were alerted to a malfunction water heater that could have been the source of the gunfire sound. The noise went away when the water was cut off. Officials were able to get to the water heater, which was damaged during Hurricane Florence, and re-created the sound by turning the water back on.
“It’s new damage,” said Superintendent Hill about the water heater. “Basically, there is a combustion chamber in the bottom of these heaters. The device had malfunctioned in there, allowing ignition of the gas to come through. It is a little more powerful, and when it hits the relief valve it does sound like a weapon going off, when it echoes through the chimney, the relief point.”
There had been sounds from the hot water heater in previous days, but it was not as serious as today, said Smith.
“It absolutely does sound like weapon going off when it exits the pipe at the top of the building," said Hill.
“I was sure it was not gunfire over an hour ago,” said Commissioner David Williams, who is also the assistant coach for the varsity football team. “I also coach football there. Lately (during practice), we’ve been hearing a piece of mechanical equipment go ‘bam bam bam.’ It made us the first time we heard it turn around.”
Williams said he has heard the sound personally and can understand how someone might hear it and make a report. He thinks it could be a remnant problem from Hurricane Florence, explaining the sound is up high, near the roof line and faces the back of the building.
“Obviously I was worried,” Williams said. “My son goes to school there. My daughter just graduated.”
Williams believes the law enforcement response was 100 percent correct. There were some students on campus early Friday morning.
“They did exactly the right thing. Law Enforcement did what they’re supposed to do,” Williams said. “There’s no such thing as an over response.”
Superintendent Dr. Steven Hill said the school had been through active shooter training and the students on campus followed procedure.
Hill said the water heater has been turned off until it can be repaired.
“Today turned out to be a test and everyone passed that test,” said District Attorney Ben David. “I can tell you it absolutely sounded real. These young people did not overreact. They did exactly what they are supposed to do.”
Both David and Smith were pleased to see how quickly everyone responded to this situation. Several agencies joined efforts and came together to do what they were trained to do.
“What I saw today across the board is something that should make this community proud,” David said.
Classes for Topsail Elementary, Middle and High School will resume for the second half of the day. Bus routes for Topsail Elementary, Topsail Middle, Topsail High, & South Topsail will be running on approx. 3 hour delay. Lunch will be served.
“I was kind of worried because Hampstead used to be this small, little, collected town and it wasn’t ever like this, so I was kind of worried,” said freshman Kelsey Jones.
Buses for those three schools were staged at the Lowe’s Foods across from the schools while they were on lockdown.
Buses for South Topsail Elementary, North Topsail Elementary and Surf City schools were taken to their respective school campuses where students stayed on the bus until the lockdown was lifted for those schools at 8:40 a.m.
“To be honest, I’ll probably still be a little worried [to go to school],” Jones said. “I always have the little feeling that I don’t know how the world is going to be. It has changed since I was little.”