CHICAGO (REUTERS) - A 15-year-old boy opened fire with a handgun just before classes started at his high school in rural western Kentucky on Tuesday (Jan 23), killing two fellow students and wounding more than a dozen other youths before he was arrested, the state's governor and police said.
The shooter, who has not been identified, entered a common area at Marshall County High School in Benton shortly before 8am (10pm Tuesday Singapore time), pulled out a pistol and began firing at students, witnesses told local media.
The suspect will be charged with two counts of murder and multiple counts of attempted murder, the Kentucky State Police said.
The students killed were Bailey Hope, a 15-year-old girl, and Preston Cope, a 15-year-old boy, it said. Five of the victims were in critical condition, police said, but hospital officials said they expected all those injured in the incident to survive.
"I see this guy draw from his side and he pulls out a pistol. I didn't even know what was going on. And then it registered. About the time it registered, this guy was sitting here pulling the trigger into all of us," student Bryson Conkwright told TV station WKRN.
"I can hear the gunshots. He was shooting in our group," said Conkwright, showing where a bullet grazed his hand.
At least one hospitalized student suffered a broken jaw from falling and being trampled while trying to escape, Marshall County prosecutor Jeff Edwards said in a phone interview.
Fourteen students were hit by gunfire, including the two who were killed, and five others suffered injuries in the ensuing chaos. Edwards toured the school where he, his wife and their children all graduated from, describing signs of the scramble to flee from the gunfire.
Backpacks, cellphones and clothes were strewn in the main area where the shooting occurred, he said. "When it happened, apparently everyone left everything laying," Edwards said. "It made it real, seeing the disarray."
There was no immediate indication how well the suspect knew the victims.
"There's no good answer for it," Kentucky State Police and Governor Matt Bevin told reporters at an afternoon news conference. "There's 1,000 hypotheses we're not going to go into."
The bloodshed at the school, where nearly 1,150 students are enrolled, was the latest outbreak of gun violence that has become a regular occurrence at schools and college campuses across the United States over the past several years.
Benton is a small town about 210km north-west of Nashville, Tennessee. The carnage occurred just 52km from Heath High School in West Paducah, Kentucky, where in 1997 a 14-year-old boy opened fire on a group of students, killing three.
The 15-year-old girl died at the scene while the 15-year-old boy was pronounced dead at a hospital trauma centre, Bevin said.
Five of the 12 surviving wounded students were taken by helicopter to the Vanderbilt University Medical Centre's trauma centre in Nashville, a hospital spokeswoman said.
Another five students suffered non-gunshot injuries, Bevin said.
Kentucky State Police Commissioner Richard Sanders said the 15-year-old suspect walked into the school armed with a handgun and started shooting. The governor said the youth was apprehended at the scene "in a nonviolent way," but Bevin did not elaborate.
Agents from the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation were taking part in the investigation, officials said at the news conference.
The school serves Marshall County, which has population of about 31,000.
During the news conference at the county Board of Education, Bevin paused to collect himself as his voice choked with emotion, asking members of the news media to exercise restraint in dealing with the families of victims.
"I beg of you again - respect the fact that these children belong to this community and to specific families in this community. And this is a wound that is going take a long time to heal. And for some in this community it will never fully heal."