CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — A North Carolina college student tackled a gunman who opened fire in a classroom, saving others’ lives but losing his own in the process, the police chief said Wednesday.
Riley Howell, 21, was among the students gathered for end-of-year presentations in an anthropology class at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte when a gunman began shooting students with a pistol. Howell and another student were killed; four others were wounded.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney said Howell “took the assailant off his feet,” but was fatally wounded while doing so. He said Howell, who he described as having an athletic build, did what police train people to do in active shooter situations.
“You’re either going to run, you’re going to hide and shield, or you’re going to take the fight to the assailant. Having no place to run and hide, he did the last. But for his work, the assailant may not have been disarmed,” Putney said. “Unfortunately, he gave his life in the process. But his sacrifice saved lives.”
The father of Howell’s longtime girlfriend said news that the 21-year-old tackled the shooter wasn’t surprising. Kevin Westmoreland, whose daughter Lauren dated Howell for nearly six years, said Howell was athletic and compassionate — and would have been a good firefighter or paramedic.
“If Lauren was with Riley, he would step in front of a train for her if he had to,” Westmoreland said.
The shooting took place during a class on the anthropology and philosophy of science, according to a message on what appeared to be the Twitter account of the instructor who witnessed the attack. Adam Johnson wrote that teams of students were delivering their presentations when the gunman opened fire.
“Yes, there was a shooting in my class today,” Johnson wrote. “My students are so special to me and I am devastated.”
Johnson declined to comment further Wednesday.
The motive wasn’t immediately clear for suspect Trystan Andrew Terrell, who UNC-Charlotte spokeswoman Buffy Stephens said had been enrolled at the school but withdrew during the current semester. Campus Police Chief Jeff Baker said Terrell had not appeared on their radar as a potential threat.
“I just went into a classroom and shot the guys,” Terrell told reporters Tuesday as officers led him in handcuffs into a law enforcement building.
Terrell, 22, was booked into the Mecklenburg County jail on two counts of murder, four counts of attempted murder, possessing and firing a weapon on educational property, and assault with a deadly weapon.
People reacting to the sound of gunshots and a campus alert scrambled to find safe spaces and endured a lengthy lockdown as officers secured the campus on the last day of classes.
In a class a few rooms away from where the shooting happened, Krysta Dean was about to present a senior research project when she heard someone scream “shooter.” The anthropology major huddled behind a table with her classmates.
“The only thing that was going through my head was, one, I could very well die today. … I was mentally preparing myself for what it would be like to get shot and just kind of bracing myself for if it did happen,” she said.
Dean didn’t sleep much Tuesday night because she couldn’t get the noises out of her head. Now, she says she feels guilty for surviving.
“When I was sitting there on the floor, thinking that I might get a bullet in my head, my biggest fear was somebody’s reality. And there are parents that are never going to be able to hug their children again,” she said.
A campus vigil for the victims was planned for Wednesday evening, and the governor vowed a hard look to see what can be done to prevent future attacks.
In a news release, UNC-Charlotte said all the victims were students, five from North Carolina and one international. Howell, of Waynesville, and Ellis R. Parlier, 19 of Midland, were killed in the attack. Those injured were Sean Dehart, 20, and Drew Pescaro, 19, both of Apex; Emily Houpt, 23, of Charlotte; and Rami Alramadhan, 20, of Saihat, Saudia Arabia.
The suspect’s grandfather, Paul Rold of Arlington, Texas, said Terrell and his father moved to Charlotte from the Dallas area about two years ago after his mother died. Terrell taught himself French and Portuguese with the help of a language learning program his grandfather bought him and was attending UNC-Charlotte, Rold said. But Terrell never showed any interest in guns or other weapons, and the news he may have been involved in a mass shooting was stunning, said Rold, who had not heard about the Charlotte attack before being contacted by an Associated Press reporter.
The shooting prompted a lockdown and caused panic across the campus with more than 26,500 students and 3,000 faculty and staff.
Associated Press writers Martha Waggoner and Emery Dalesio in Raleigh and Russ Bynum in Savannah, Georgia, contributed to this report.