A gunman dressed in black stormed into an oceanography class at Northern Illinois University Thursday afternoon and opened fire with a shotgun and two handguns, killing five students and wounding 16 more in a matter of seconds.
Then, still on stage, he killed himself, authorities said.
The gunman was not a current student at the school of more than 25,000 that rises from cornfields and subdivisions 65 miles west of downtown Chicago, authorities said.
NIU President John G. Peters said the man had been enrolled as a sociology graduate student at NIU but left school last spring. Peters said the gunman had no police record.
Late Thursday, sources confirmed that they have tentatively identified the shooter as a 27-year-old graduate student in social work at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
A law-enforcement source said the man was found with a U. of I. identification card in his pocket, but the identification has not been confirmed.
Police also said they were unable to determine a motive for the shooting, which erupted shortly before 3 p.m., about 15 minutes before the class of about 100 students in Cole Hall was scheduled to end.
It was the worst campus shooting since April 16, 2007, when 32 people were shot to death on the campus of Virginia Tech University by a student who later killed himself.
Eyewitnesses described hearing a door to the right rear of the stage slam open and seeing the gunman, wearing a knit cap and sweat shirt, wielding a shotgun. He stayed within 10 feet of the door and started shooting—first with the shotgun and then with the handguns.
"He stood there for a second, looked and then just started shooting," said Meghan Murphy, 22, a junior from Western Springs, a student in the class. "His face was blank, like he wasn't a person. He was a statue, aiming."
Instructor Joseph Peterson, who was giving a PowerPoint presentation, ducked and was shot in the arm.
Junior John Giovanni, 20, of Des Plaines and others said the gunman aimed at the center of the auditorium.
"He just fires right into the audience," Giovanni said. "He didn't say a word. It didn't look like he was aiming directly at someone. I think he was trying to hit as many people as he could."
The blast was deafening, Giovanni said. Chaos erupted, with students dropping to the floor and crawling, running and shoving their way to the doors behind the rear seats, eyewitnesses said. Giovanni said he ran out of one of his shoes.
Half the class bolted for the doors; the rest cowered on the floor and attempted to hide under their seats or under desks, said Loren Weese, 18, a freshman from Schiller Park who was seated on the aisle about halfway up the auditorium.
"A lot of people fell," she said. "I don't know if they did that on purpose to avoid being shot. I remember stepping over them. I didn't talk to anybody."
One of those killed was Dan Parmenter, 20, a sophomore finance major from Elmhurst who worked at the school newspaper, the Northern Star. A graduate of York Community High School, Parmenter played rugby and was hoping to intern at the Chicago Board of Trade this summer. A couple of weeks ago, he persuaded fellow members of the Pi Kappa Alpha to donate time playing bingo.
He was sitting in the first row with his girlfriend when he was shot in the head. She also was shot.
NIU Police Chief Donald Grady said the department received a 911 call from inside the auditorium at 3:06 p.m. Police arrived 29 seconds later and found the gunman dead, Grady said. Students "were running through any door they could find to get out," he said.
After notifying the campus via the university Web site at 3:20 p.m. about a "possible gunman on campus," many students, teachers and staff were told to stay in place or "get to a safe area and take precautions until given the all clear."
Within minutes, the campus and DeKalb, a town of about 40,000, was a logjam of traffic—people trying to flee and others flocking to the scene.
Stuck in traffic as she neared DeKalb from her Park Ridge home, Carolyn DeSantis' anxiety about her son, Michael, a freshman, rose with each passing minute.
"I was just freaking out," DeSantis said. "I called him every five minutes to see if he was OK."
In the half-circle drive in front of Lincoln Hall, cars and mini-vans queued, and students filed out of the building with backpacks, duffel bags and laundry baskets.
As he waited for his daughter, Janae Morgan, 19, to come down to the mini-van from her dorm room, Darrin Robinson of Chicago pondered whether Thursday's shooting was related to the racist threats that were scrawled on a bathroom wall last fall.
"I just want them to take care of the problem," he said.
The shooting rattled students and locals alike.
"I think everyone is numb and kind of out of it. This just doesn't happen in DeKalb," said Rosa Balli, 47, owner of Eduardo's Mexican Restaurant.
Jillian Teegarden, 22, of St. Charles, a hostess at the restaurant, spent the afternoon calling friends to check on their well-being. She estimated she made 100 telephone calls.
"I'm just so scared to death that I'm going to hear someone's name that I haven't gotten a hold of," she said.
Others pondered how close they came to death.
Ethan Gill of Sun Prairie, Wis., was wandering the halls of Cole looking for an exam he was supposed to take. He had poked his head into the lecture hall where the shooting took place about five minutes before the gunman arrived. He left to check on the location for the exam and was about to re-enter the hall when he heard a shot ring out inside.
"What if I was off by another 30 seconds or so, would he have shot me?" Gill said.
The shooting, which occurred near the center of the NIU campus, took place 10 months after a student gunman at Virginia Tech killed 32 people and himself in the worst shooting rampage in modern U.S. history.
Armed with two handguns, the gunman killed two students in a dorm before storming a classroom building, chaining the doors behind him and shooting students and professors in German and engineering classrooms.
It was later revealed that the gunman had been referred to counseling after a professor became disturbed about his creative writing, and he was ordered to a psychiatric hospital because of concern he was suicidal.
On Dec. 10, NIU closed its campus after a racial slur and a reference to the Virginia Tech shootings were found written on a bathroom wall inside a residence hall. Administrators reopened the following day after authorities said the anonymous message no longer represented "an imminent threat to students, faculty or staff."
On Thursday, NIU President Peters dismissed any connection between the graffiti and Thursday's shooting. University administrators said the school imposed new safety measures after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and upgraded those measures after the Virginia Tech shooting.
The shooting was a grim reminder of the problem of keeping the traditionally open atmosphere of a college campus while protecting overall safety.
"Unless you lock every door, I don't know how you keep people out," Peters said. "I don't know if any plan can prevent this kind of tragedy."
On Thursday evening, about three dozen people attended a prayer service at Harvest Bible Chapel in DeKalb.
The non-denominational service focused on healing after the shootings.
"In our community and around the country, people are mourning and praying for us and for our campus," said Trevor Holloway, pastor of adult ministries, who led the service. "This is a very surreal experience. When we were watching it, unfold on TV, it's unreal. You almost can't believe it happened. You think, what if that would have been me?
"It causes all of us to think about how short life can be," said Holloway, urging the crowd to pray for the families of the victims.
Suzanne Mauhauer, a senior from Hoffman Estates, said she was in Gable Hall just after 3 p.m. when someone came into the class and whispered to the instructor.
"His face just went serious; he told everyone to grab our stuff and go into a room and he locked it," she said.
After locking himself in a room with the students, he told them what had happened. "People just broke down in tears," she said. "We couldn't believe what was going on. I kept repeating, 'Father, God.' People were crying around me.
"A lot of students are fearful to go back [to campus]. It's just not going to be the same."
Tribune reporters David Heinzmann, James Kimberly, Gerry Smith, Josh Noel, Deborah Horan, Megan Twohey, Mary Ann Fergus, Andrew L. Wang, Jo Napolitano, Jodi S. Cohen, James Janega, William Presecky, Richard Wronski and Ray Quintanilla contributed to this report. It was written by Tribune reporter Ted Gregory.