NC college lockdown prompted by umbrella

AP News
Posted: Nov 16, 2011 7:24 PM
NC college lockdown prompted by umbrella

A major university in eastern North Carolina was locked down for three hours Wednesday when a man carrying a golf umbrella was mistaken for a gunman.

Greenville Police spokesman Sgt. Carlton Williams said emergency dispatchers received two 911 calls about 9:50 a.m. Wednesday reporting a man was walking along a major street near the East Carolina University campus carrying an assault rifle.

Within minutes, the campus alert system was activated, with announcements broadcast over loudspeakers advising students, faculty and staff to stay inside and lock their doors. Written alerts were also sent to campus e-mail accounts and as test messages to cell phones. Nearby elementary schools and a middle school were also put on lock down.

Police soon reviewed traffic camera footage and isolated what appeared to be a man with a rifle sticking out of a backpack.

Dozens of heavily armed officers from at least four law enforcement agencies responded in force, sweeping campus buildings, searching buses and briefly surrounding a nearby house. Snipers took up positions on rooftops. A North Carolina Highway Patrol helicopter hovered overhead.

ECU spokeswoman Mary Schulken said the reaction was justified even though it was based on a false alarm. Universities across the country beefed up crisis plans following the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech, where a mentally troubled student shot and killed 32 people before committing suicide.

"When a report like that is made, a university has no choice but to respond," Schulken said of the reports at ECU, a university with nearly 28,000 students located in Greenville.

Sarah Schach, an ECU senior, was in class when the alert was sounded. Students turned out the lights and moved away from doors and windows while using their phones and computers to try and learn details, she said.

"It was very tense," she said.

Williams said the situation was also amped up after officers saw Twitter and Facebook posts saying students were being held hostage in a campus building and on a university bus.

Officers armed with pistols and shotguns boarded and searched buses. The campus building was stormed by officers carrying military-style carbines, searched and evacuated.

Doug Boyd, a reporter for the university's in-house news service who was out covering the lockdown, was confronted by officers and ordered at gunpoint to get on his knees. Though it was the first time he'd ever stared down the barrel of a gun, Boyd said he remained calm.

"I wasn't too concerned," Boyd said. "I knew as an ECU employee that it would be straightened out."

Eventually, officers located the man recorded by the video camera and discovered that what was thought to be a rifle was actually just a long black golf umbrella.

"Without getting up close, it looked like the real deal," Williams said.

Classes at ECU were resumed at 3 p.m.

"We are relieved that the reports of this incident turned out to be unfounded," Chancellor Steve Ballard wrote in a message posted on the university's website. "East Carolina University will always err on the side of campus safety when these situations arise."

This is the fourth time this month a college campus in North Carolina has been locked down. Reports of gunmen resulted in similar measures at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and at the north Raleigh campus of Wake Technical Community College. A lockdown at Campbell University happened last week when a student locked himself in his on-campus home after police tried to serve him a warrant.

The Campbell standoff ended peacefully when the student surrendered to police. The reported gunmen have not been found in either the Wake Tech or UNC Wilmington incidents.

Williams, the Greenville police spokesman, praised the response of law enforcement offices to what was believed to be a credible threat at ECU.

"We received two independent calls of a man armed with an assault rifle," he said. "Everything went the way it should have. We don't think it could have gone any better."

Schach said that as a student she is glad the university and police took the report seriously.

"A friend of mine knew people who went to Virginia Tech, and as much as I hate the inconvenience, I'd rather have them prevent another Virginia Tech," she said.


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