SHERIFF: "What I heard when I got here sounded like gunfire" regarding Topsail High shooting scare

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PENDER COUNTY, NC (AP/WITN) - The Sheriff for Pender County says that a malfunctioning water heater sounded like gunfire this morning at Topsail High School.

"What I heard when I got here sounded like gunfire," said Sheriff Carson Smith, "I don't want anybody to think that the students or the first officers that arrived on scene maybe overreacted."

Captain James Rowell says that 911 received a call around 5:51 a.m. from someone at the school that heard what sounded like gunfire coming from the roof.

Officers with several agencies responded to the scene and eventually made their way on to the roof where not a single spent shell casing was found, Rowell said.

Superintendent Steven Hill says that damage to a water heater from Hurricane Florence is to blame for the malfunction. Hill pointed to the combustion chamber at the bottom of the heater saying that the device in there malfunctioned allowing the ignition of gas that came through. When it hits a relief valve, it sounds like weapon going off when it hits the exit pipe, Hill said.

There will be no more noise from the water heater until it's fixed or completely repaired, Hill said.

Rowell says that 16 to 17 students who were there for athletics were immediately evacuated to Topsail Middle School.

The second half of the school day will go on as planned at Topsail High School.


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School officials in North Carolina are making preparations to get the school day started late after a report of an active shooter at a school turned out to be a malfunctioning water heater.

Pender County schools spokeswoman Miranda Ferguson said in an email that Topsail Elementary and Middle are opening for staff and staff at Topsail High School will be informed soon about opening. She says bus routes for several schools will run on a three hour delay.

Ferguson said there was a report of an active shooter at Topsail High School on Friday morning after noises were heard coming from the top of the building. The report provoked a massive response by law enforcement and caused the school district to reroute buses and put schools on lockdown.

Capt. James Rowell of the Pender County Sheriff's Office was quoted as saying in local reports that deputies swept the school but found no evidence that any shots had been fired. He says deputies did find an HVAC unit that was malfunctioning and making sounds similar to gunshots.

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A county official says that a malfunctioning water heater at Topsail High School may be to blame for an active shooter call.

News outlets report that Pender County Emergency Management Director Tom Collins said noise from the water heater was taken for the sound of gunfire at Topsail High School on Friday morning. The earlier report of shots fired provoked a massive response by law enforcement and caused the school district to reroute buses and put schools on lockdown.

Capt. James Rowell of the Pender County Sheriff's Office was told local news outlets that deputies swept the school but found no evidence that any shots had been fired.

He said deputies did find an HVAC unit that was malfunctioning and making sounds similar to gunshots.

As of 7 a.m., Capt. Rowell told WECT-TV in Wilmington that there were no reported injuries.

As of 8 a.m., the scene is still active and students are still on lockdown.

The sheriff's office is expected to hold a press conference sometime Friday morning.



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Law enforcement is responding to reports of an active shooter at Topsail High School.

Our sister station WECT reports the Pender County Sheriff's Office received a call regarding an active shooter around 6:30 a.m. Friday.

Pender County schools posted on Twitter that all campuses on the eastern side of the county are on lockdown.

School buses for Topsail Elementary, Topsail Middle and Topsail High are being directed to Lowe's Foods across from the elementary school, where parents could pick up their children. Staff members of those schools were asked to report to the same place.

Capt. James Rowell told WECT there are no reported injuries as of 7 a.m.

Commissioner George Brown told WECT that there is a piece of equipment at the school that has been malfunctioning recently and sounds like gunfire when it makes noise. He says this is being investigated as a source.

Live footage shows numerous law enforcement agencies currently at the school where the scene remains active.

According to the school website, school begins at 8:30 a.m.

There's no word on whether a suspect has been identified or if anyone is in custody.

We are working to get more information and have a crew on the way to the scene.

We will update this story as soon as we learn more.