A gunman went on a shooting rampage at a college in the US state of Oregon, killing nine people and wounding seven before he died in a shootout with police.
Authorities initially said more had died in Thursday’s shooting but the Sheriff’s department corrected this.
A visibly angry President Barack Obama made an impassioned plea for gun control in the wake of the shooting, blasting Congress for its failure to act in the face of “routine” mass killings.
The shooter – identified by US media as Chris Harper Mercer, 26 – opened fire in a classroom at Umpqua Community College in rural Roseburg, and moved to other rooms methodically gunning down his victims, witnesses said.
Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin said nine people were killed and seven were injured, several critically. He said the victims’ identities would not be released for at least 24 hours.
Witnesses quoted in US media described scenes of terror and panic as the tragedy unfolded. One man whose daughter was wounded told CNN that the gunman ordered students to stand up if they were Christian and then shot them.
“They would stand up and he said ‘Good, because you’re a Christian, you’re going to see God in just about one second’,” Stacy Boylan told CNN, relaying his daughter Ana’s account.
He said his daughter played dead when the gunman ordered her to stand up as she lay on the floor.
Student Cassandra Welding was in a classroom when she heard 35 to 40 shots coming from an adjacent room.
She saw a fellow student be shot after opening the classroom door to check what was happening.
“Then we locked the doors, turned off the lights and … we were all pretty much in panic mode and called 911 (emergency services) and our parents and (said) ‘I love yous’ because we didn’t know what would happen, if those were our last words.”
‘We have become numb’
Voicing both anger and sadness at the latest mass shooting at a US school, Obama threw down the gauntlet to politicians and voters on the thorny issue of gun control.
“Somehow this has become routine,” said the president. “We’ve become numb to this.”
“We are the only advanced country on Earth that sees these kinds of mass shooting every few months,” he added.
“It cannot be this easy for somebody who wants to inflict harm on other people to get his or her hands on a gun.”
Hanlin said police were alerted to the shooting shortly after 10:30am and rushed to the site where two officers exchanged fire with the gunman who was later confirmed dead.
Authorities said investigators were examining social media postings thought to belong to the shooter. Several reports said he may have shared his intentions online beforehand.
Other reports said police recovered three handguns and an assault rifle at the scene along with a cell phone that presumably belonged to the shooter who wore a bullet proof vest.
Hanlin confirmed that authorities had identified the gunman, but declined to release his name.
“You will never hear me mention his name,” Hanlin said. “I will not give him the credit he probably sought prior to this horrific and cowardly act.”
A candlelit vigil was held late Thursday for the victims in Roseburg, a close-knit logging community with many locals among the 3,300 students at the college.
‘We all froze’
Brady Winder, another student at Umpqua, said he was in class when suddenly he heard a loud pop coming from an adjoining classroom.
He said his teacher called out through the door to see if everything was OK and then further shots rang out.
“We all kind of froze and bolted out the door,” Winder said. “I didn’t really have any time to think. It was fight or flight.”
Police searched the entire campus after the shooting aided by sniffer dogs and patted down students and staff as they left and boarded buses that transported them to local fairgrounds.
“Most of us have relatives taking classes here,” said Douglas County fire Marshall Ray Shoufler. “Pretty much everybody knows everybody type scenario.
“So something like this affects many, many, many people.”
School shootings are a disturbing reality of American life and many facilities have reinforced security in recent years, especially in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012.
Twenty students and six adults were killed at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut by 20-year-old Adam Lanza.
On Wednesday, a student who got into an argument with the principal at a high school in South Dakota pulled a gun and shot the school official in the arm before he was tackled and subdued by staff.
There have been 142 school shootings in the United States since the Sandy Hook massacre, according to data compiled by Mass Shooting Tracker.