CORNING, Calif. — A tiny Northern California elementary school would have turned into a "bloodbath" if not for quick action by school workers who rushed small children inside and locked down the building,, authorities said.
repeatedly shot into Rancho Tehama Elementary School while trying to get inside. He eventually got frustrated and left.
"There is no doubt that he did not want to give up," Tehama County Assistant Sheriff Phil Johnston said Wednesday. "I really, truly believe we would have had a horrific bloodbath at that school if that school hadn't taken the action that it did."
The school has about 100 children in kindergarten through fifth grade and employs nine staff members, including four teachers.
Some students had finished breakfast while others were being dropped off when Neal started firing Tuesday morning. Corning Elementary School District Superintendent Richard Fitzpatrick said at a press conference Wednesday a school secretary and some other school personnel heard a loud shot nearby, and then two other shots in quick succession just minutes before school was scheduled to start at 8 a.m.
"I can tell you there was a clear perception by all staff that something was dreadfully wrong," Fitzpatrick said.
Fitzpatrick said staff immediately made the critical decision to go into lockdown, without prompting from law enforcement. Staff began ushering students who were outside playing into their classrooms, and school secretaries also went to the front of the school where some parents were dropping of students and brought everyone into the office.
Some students were still being rushed inside by staff when the gunman rammed a locked gate at the north end of the campus with a white pickup truck, Fitzpatrick said, breaking through it. The gunman exited the vehicle brandishing an assault rifle.
Randy Morehouse, the head of the maintenance department for the school district, said a heroic custodian rushed straggling kids inside before the gunman could reach them, yelling "get into the classrooms."
The custodian poked his head around the building and made eye contact with the gunman, drawing his attention, Fitzpatrick said. The gunman fired several rounds toward the custodian, after which his gun appeared to jam.
Fitzpatrick said the custodian's actions were critical in allowing staff the extra seconds they needed to get students safely inside. 8-10 seconds after staff locked the doors, the gunman ran to the school's main quad, and began shooting windows, shooting walls and shooting doors.
"The custodian's actions diverting the shooter gave us the much-needed seconds to complete the process," Fitzpatrick said.
Citing surveillance video, Fitzpatrick said the gunman tried some doors, but couldn't access the building. He then walked into a field, loaded a magazine and fired into an unoccupied wooded area before fleeing.
One student inside a K-1 classroom was shot in the chest and the foot and is in stable condition. Fitzpatrick said he believes the bullet came through a wall. He credited a kindergarten teacher and her aide with comforting the boy and rendering first aid while keeping the other students calm and contained.
Fitzpatrick said he was alerted to the shooting by a brave secretary hiding under a desk as her fingers typed overhead.
"Nobody panicked," he said.
Another parent and student were assaulted and injured on the way to school, Fitzpatrick said. That assault possibly accounted for the shots heard by staff that prompted the lockdown, which Fitzpatrick said was implemented "flawlessly."
"The reason we have a situation where one student is injured and nothing worse is because of the heroic actions of my school staff," Fitzpatrick said. "Every single one. "
Others at the school recounted a harrowing scene. Coy Ferreira told Redding television station KRCR that he was dropping off his daughter for kindergarten when gunfire erupted and a secretary ran out and yelled for the kids to race inside.
Ferreira said he ended up in a classroom with 14 students cowering under desks while shots rang out. Some bullets hit the windows and he saw the boy was shot in the chest and foot.
Neal fatally shot five people, including his wife, before authorities killed him in Rancho Tehama Reserve, a rural community about 130 miles north of Sacramento.
Hospital officials say five other people shot during the gunman's deadly rampage remain hospitalized, including the student shot in the classroom.
Fitzpatrick called the rampage "every educator in America's worst nightmare."
"We were able to get though it with only one significant injury," Fitzpatrick said. "I am broken-hearted about the boy injured, but truly grateful we're not suffering any higher penalty."