With minutes left in a class in ocean sciences at Northern Illinois University on Thursday afternoon, a tall skinny man dressed in black stepped out from behind a curtain on the stage of the lecture hall, said nothing, and opened fire with a shotgun, the authorities and witnesses said.
The man shot again and again, witnesses said, perhaps 20 times. Students in the large lecture hall, stunned, dropped to the floor.
Five people, all of them students, were killed, John G. Peters, the president of Northern Illinois University, said at a news conference on Thursday evening. Sixteen others were injured. Hospital officials said several of the students had been shot in the head.
The gunman, whom the authorities did not immediately identify, also died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, Peters said, noting that the man’s body was found on the stage of the lecture hall. Police from the campus, which sits in a snow-filled, rural community 65 miles due west of Chicago, said three weapons were found with the man’s body — two handguns, including a Glock, and the shotgun. He had ammunition left over, the police here said.
The gunman had been a graduate student at the university in 2007 but was no longer enrolled, Peters said.
Desiree Smith, one of the public university’s more than 25,000 students, said she saw students fall down around her as the gunman opened fire. She tried to crawl away, she told a local television station, CLTV, thinking she was going to die, then wondered if she should play dead before getting up to run out of the classroom.
Smith said the gunman was wearing a black beanie cap or ski cap. She said he aimed, right off, for one person: the classroom instructor.
Other students told of a chaotic scene in which panicked students dropped to the floor, the blood of victims spattering on those who escaped injury.
“This thing started and ended within a matter of seconds,” said Donald Grady, the chief of police at the university.
The class in Cole Hall had been an introductory offering, and most of the 162 students registered for the course had likely been freshmen or sophomores, said Jonathan Berg, chairman of the department of geology and environmental geo sciences.
Berg, who was about two blocks away from Cole Hall in his office when the shooting began, ran over and found injured students sitting on sidewalks outside waiting for ambulances. Some had bandages on their heads, he said.
Berg said an instructor and a teaching assistant were inside the classroom along with students; he said he believed the instructor had been wounded, but not seriously.
In the moments after the shooting, university officials put into action a detailed security plan created for just such an incident, Peters said. Many universities and colleges around the country designed elaborate lock-down and notification plans in the days and weeks after a student at Virginia Tech killed 32 people on that Blacksburg campus, the worst shooting rampage in modern American history.
“This is a tragedy,” Peters said. “But from all indications we did everything we could when we found out.”
Shots rang out inside Cole Hall shortly after 3 p.m. (Central Standard Time), Peters said. At 3:07 p.m., the campus was ordered into a lockdown, he said. At 3:20 p.m., he said, the university posted an alert on its Web site, through its e-mail system, and through another campus alarm system: “There has been a report of a possible gunman on campus. Get to a safe area and take precautions until given the all clear. Avoid the King Commons and all buildings in that vicinity.”
By 4 p.m., Peters said, the police had determined that there was only one gunman, now dead, and issued another message to students at 4:14 p.m.: “Campus police report that the immediate danger has passed. The gunman is no longer a threat.”
The authorities here canceled classes for the rest of the evening and Friday. Counselors had been called in, they said, and counseling was already being offered in every residence hall by Thursday evening, they said.
Leaders at the school said the events in Virginia a year ago had shaken many, but also led to lots of focus on security and the possibility of such an incident.
“Since Virginia Tech, people have had time to think about how to respond to these things, so it’s fresh on everybody’s mind,” Berg said. “And they’re trying to do everything they’ve been talking about for the last few months.”
Police officers arrived at the classroom within two minutes, Grady said, adding that even with elaborate plans, it might be impossible to entirely prevent such violence.
Students here had heard of threats at the school late last year, a fact that left some wondering whether there might be some connection to what had happened on Thursday. Last December, university officials canceled classes for a day during final exams after someone scrawled threats in a dormitory bathroom, including a reference to the Virginia Tech massacre and a racial slur. The police here said on Thursday that they had no reason to suspect a connection.
Chartered in 1895, Northern Illinois University has more than 25,000 enrolled students, 91 percent of them from inside the state of Illinois.
In Springfield, Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich declared a state of emergency after the shootings, offering state relief for expenses and the state emergency management agency to offer help.
“The state of Illinois will provide whatever assistance and support is necessary to university staff and students, and to local officials,” Blagojevich said.
Here, officials and students said they had yet to even start to come to terms with all they had seen.
Outside the dormitories on Thursday evening, it looked like the last day of school. Students streamed out of dorms carrying backpacks and luggage. A caravan of parents made its way onto campus to meet them, and many waited for their children in idling cars.
“You don’t think it’s going to happen at your university and you certainly don’t think it’s going to happen in your department to people you know,” Berg said.
“You don’t know how to react.”