A heavily armed gunman opened fire on school children and staff at a Connecticut elementary school on Friday, killing at least 26 people, including 18 children, in the latest in a series of shooting rampages that have tormented the United States this year.
The gunman was found dead inside Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, state police Lieutenant Paul Vance told a news conference.
"The shooter is deceased inside the building," said Vance, at a press conference outside the school. "The scene is secure." Vance declined to confirm the number of dead. "There were several fatalities at the scene, both students and staff," he told reporters. Police were called to the school at 9:30am local time, Vance said.
The holiday season tragedy follows a series of shooting rampages in the United States this year that have killed multiple victims, and it was certain to revive a debate about US gun laws.
The principal and school psychologist were among the dead, CNN said. Witnesses reported hearing dozens of shots with some saying as many as 100 were fired. The suspected shooter was armed with four weapons and wearing a bullet-proof vest, WABC reported.
There were unconfirmed reports of a second shooter. Another person was being held in police custody after he was detained in the woods near the school wearing camouflage pants, CBS reported.
Sandy Hook Elementary School teaches children from kindergarten through fourth grade – roughly ages 5 to 10.
"It was horrendous," said parent Brenda Lebinski, who rushed to the school where her daughter is in the third grade. "Everyone was in hysterics – parents, students. There were kids coming out of the school bloodied. I don't know if they were shot, but they were bloodied."
Television images showed police and ambulances at the scene, and parents rushing toward the school. Parents were seen reuniting with their children and taking them home.
"This is going to be bad," a state official told Reuters, requesting anonymity because the scope of the tragedy remained uncertain.
President Barack Obama was notified and would receive regular updates throughout the day, White House spokesperson Jay Carney said.
Carney called the event "tragic" and said there would be time later for a discussion of policy implications. Obama remains committed to trying to renew a ban on assault weapons, Carney said.
All Newtown schools were placed in lockdown after the shooting, the Newtown Public School District said.
Lebinski said a mother who was at the school during the shooting told her a "masked man" entered the principal's office and may have shot the principal. Lebinski, who is friends with the mother who was at the school, said the principal was "severely injured".
Lebinski's daughter's teacher "immediately locked the door to the classroom and put all the kids in the corner of the room".
Danbury Hospital, about 18 kilometres west of the school, had received three patients from the scene, a hospital spokesperson told NBC Connecticut.
The mayor of Danbury, Mark Boughton, told MSNBC: "They are very serious injuries."
A girl interviewed by NBC Connecticut described hearing seven loud "booms" as she was in gym class. Other children began crying and teachers moved the students to a nearby office, she said.
"A police officer came in and told us to run outside and so we did," the unidentified girl said on camera.
One child was carried from Sandy Hook Elementary School by a police officer, and the child appeared to have been wounded, the town's weekly newspaper, the Newtown Bee, said on its website.
Connecticut State Police said its officers were at the scene with local police but provided no additional details.
Newtown, with a population about 27 000, is in northern Fairfield County, about 70 km southwest of Hartford and 130 km northeast of New York City.
Sandy Hook is one of four elementary schools in the district.
The United States has experienced a number of mass shooting rampages this year, most recently in Oregon, where a gunman opened fire at a shopping mall on Tuesday, killing two people and then himself.
The deadliest attack came in July at a midnight screening of a Batman film in Colorado that killed 12 people and wounded 58. – Reuters