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Pennsylvania school stabbing: Authorities try to pin down a motive

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MURRYSVILLE, Pa. — It took only a few minutes, what the governor would call “one horrific five-minute period,” for a 16-year-old high school student wielding two kitchen-size knives to attack 21 people at Franklin Regional Senior High School outside of Pittsburgh on Wednesday. Hours after the onslaught, authorities said they were still searching for a motive.

“What made this young man decide to get up today and do this?” Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett asked at a news conference on the school campus. He offered no answer.

The student, described as an average and “kind of quiet kid” by fellow students, stabbed and slashed at classmates before being tackled by school staff. At least two students suffered critical injuries, but all of the wounded were expected to survive.

In an evening news conference, Westmoreland County Dist. Atty. John W. Peck said the unidentified suspect would likely be charged as an adult, with aggravated assault and possibly criminal intent to commit homicide. Scott S. Smith, FBI special agent in charge for the Pittsburgh field office, said the suspect's computer was being seized.

Police and medical workers credited students, including one who pulled a fire alarm and another who applied direct pressure to a badly injured classmate’s wound, with ensuring that the casualty count was not far higher. “Under these circumstances … the first thing you want the students to do is to run,” said Thomas Seefeld, the police chief of Murrysville, about 20 miles east of Pittsburgh.

And run they did, pouring out the front doors of Franklin Regional Senior High School as police and ambulances arrived at the campus. Recordings of emergency calls revealed a soundtrack of shouts and screaming sirens as first responders came upon the wounded lying on the grass outside the school and inside the first-floor hallway.

PHOTOS: Pennsylvania high school stabbing

“I don’t know what’s going down here at school, but I need some units here ASAP,” one official radioed. “Be advised: Inside the school we have multiple stab victims, OK?” another said.

As the magnitude of the attack became clear, a medical helicopter was dispatched to the scene, thundering over the school and landing on a soccer field to carry some of the wounded to hospitals. Inside, officials said later, blood coated the hallway where the stabbings occurred.

State Rep. Tim Krieger said he was one of the parents who received a call “that no parent ever wants to receive.” His daughter, who attends the school, was fine. But, he said, “the joy and relief we felt as a result of hearing she was fine was tempered by the fact that some parents tonight do not have that.”

Officials said the attacker was a sophomore at the school who suffered injuries to his hands. He was quickly handcuffed and taken into custody.

Julie Nitchman, who sits near the suspected assailant in an English class, described him as “very quiet, not very social.” “He’s more like into computers. A kind of quiet kid,”  she said, adding: “I wouldn’t really expect this from him.”

“Oh my God,” said Michelle Kresak, a neighbor in the hilly housing development where the suspect lives. “Super nice kid,” she said of the boy. “I remember giving him Halloween candy.”

Sophomore Mia Meixner, 16, told the Los Angeles Times that at first she thought two students were fighting in a hallway in the school's science wing shortly before homeroom. But a male freshman, who was believed to have been attacked by the assailant, stood up, lifted his shirt and revealed wounds to his stomach.

“I saw blood gushing everywhere,” Meixner said. The suspect then sprinted down the hall stabbing anyone who was in his way, she said.

“He was knocking people over,” Meixner said.

The brother of one injured student told The Times that his sibling, Jared Boger, a junior, was stabbed in the chest. “He's in critical condition but they've stopped the serious bleeding,” Carter Boger said.

Alex Carolla said his 17-year-old sister, a senior, was stabbed in the hand and taken to a hospital. ”She’s stable; she’s OK,” said Carolla, a 19-year-old sophomore at Ohio University, adding: “When I talked to her, she seemed all right, but she got a little more upset when I asked her about the other kids, who else was hurt.”

Carolla said his sister told him that she had just arrived at school at 7:13 a.m. and had not even made it to her locker when the stabbing began on the school’s first floor.

“The juvenile went down a hallway and was flashing two knives around,” Seefeld said.

Alarms quickly sounded through the building, which has a student body of about 1,200 and 82 teachers on staff.

“We saw people running everywhere,” Seefeld said. “You want the kids to get out of the area, and they did.”

Bloodied students lay on the grass outside the school and inside the hallway, Seefeld said. A girl applied direct pressure to the deep puncture wound of a boy who was among the most seriously hurt. He was quickly whisked to Forbes Regional Hospital in nearby Monroeville for surgery.

“The pressure she applied probably played a significant role in his ability to survive this,” said Mark Rubino, one of the Forbes doctors treating the wounded.

At least one adult was also wounded, a security guard who apparently suffered a stab wound while helping disarm the attacker.

“None of these are superficial wounds. These all have significant stab wounds,” said Chris Kaufmann, a trauma surgeon at Forbes, which took in eight of the most seriously wounded. “Patients who are stabbed in the abdomen and chest have, by definition, life-threatening injuries,” Kaufmann said.

In addition, a school employee suffered injuries that Forbes officials said were not stab wounds.

Twelve people were treated at four University of Pittsburgh Medical Center hospitals, said Wendy Zellner, a UPMC spokeswoman. Of those, six patients, including one adult, have been discharged, she said.

The most seriously injured was a 17-year-old boy with a single 4-centimeter stab wound that reached through to his spine, Zellner said. He was speaking when he arrived at the hospital and has undergone surgery to stop the bleeding, she said. He will undergo more surgeries in the days ahead.

The knife missed the boy's heart and aorta by millimeters, said Dr. Louis Alarcon, director of trauma surgery at UPMC Presbyterian, where the boy was being treated. He was on breathing machines and sedated, Alarcon said at a news conference. Doctors are concerned about additional blood clotting and bleeding, but “we are very optimistic that he is going to make it,” Alarcon said.

Police would not respond to questions about the security system in place at the high school, but an employee of a security company that provides guards at the school said it had no metal detector. In an interview with the Pittsburgh CBS affiliate, the employee, Jeff Dahlke, said security officials had visited the campus Tuesday to see about possibly installing metal detectors or finding other ways to make the campus more secure.

“We always look to increase security and help them in any way we can,” he said, adding that Franklin Regional is a “good school” with no history of problems. The school’s front doors have buzzers, and there are security guards on duty daily, but he said early morning is a hard time to cover every inch of the campus.

“It’s difficult because in the morning you have to open up all the doors to let the students in,” he said.

One student tweeted that she saw the attack and that the attacker "did not look normal," and that "it was unnatural he just stabbed anyone around him.” She added that she then saw people falling to the ground.

Hope Demont, a senior, told reporters that she saw one student apparently wounded inside the nurse’s office. “So I walked out into the parking lot and there was this kid laying down, and he was holding his side and there was a teacher on top of him yelling, ‘Help!’ ” she said.

An emergency responder radioed that there were victims inside and outside the school. “Can you go to the rear of the [school] and assist any way you can? We have victims all over the ground,” the official said.

One apparent student victim, Nate Scimio, posted a widely circulating selfie from the hospital of himself in a gown, smirking and pointing to a bandage on his forearm.

Shane Molyneaux, a sophomore, told The Times that he knew the suspect.

“He was quiet,” Molyneaux said in a message. “He was very smart and had a good future ahead of him. I do not know what his motive would be because he was not bullied.”

Local TV showed the arrested boy being driven away from the Murrysville police station in the back of a squad car wearing a white T-shirt, his head hanging down.

tina.susman@latimes.com

alana.semuels@latimes.com

richard.simon@latimes.com

Susman reported from New York and Semuels and Simon from Murrysville. Also contributing to this report were Hailey Branson-Potts, Adolfo Flores and Matt Pearce in Los Angeles.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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