By Julio-Cesar Chavez
EL PASO, Tx. (Reuters) – A gunman armed with a rifle killed 20 people at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, on Saturday and wounded more than two dozen before being arrested, authorities said, after the latest U.S. mass shooting sent panicked shoppers fleeing.
Many of those in the busy store were buying back-to-school supplies when they were caught up in the rampage, which came just six days after a teenage gunman killed three people at a food festival in Northern California.
“On a day that would have been a normal day for someone to leisurely go shopping, it turned into one of the most deadly days in the history of Texas,” Texas Governor Greg Abbott said at a news conference, announcing the death toll.
Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said three Mexicans were among the dead. Six Mexicans were wounded. It was the eighth-worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history, after the 1984 shooting in San Ysidro that killed 21 people.
The suspect was identified as a 21-year-old white male from Allen, Texas, a Dallas-area city some 650 miles (1,046 km) east of El Paso.
Asked during a CNN interview about reports of disturbing online posts made by the suspect, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said he would not be surprised in any way.
“I think those can help shed light on why he did it,” Paxton said. “They are still interviewing him.”
El Paso police chief Greg Allen said authorities had a manifesto from the suspect that indicates “there is a potential nexus to a hate crime.” Officials declined to elaborate and said the investigation was continuing.
The suspect was taken into custody without incident, according to authorities. Video posted on social media appeared to show him being handcuffed by police and placed in a squad car.
Citing a law enforcement source, El Paso television station KTSM published on its website what it said were two photos of the suspect taken by security cameras as he entered the Walmart.
The images showed a young white man wearing glasses, khaki trousers and a dark T-shirt, and pointing an assault-style rifle. He appears to be wearing headphones or ear defenders.
Reuters could not immediately verify the authenticity of the images.
U.S. President Donald Trump said on Twitter that the reports from El Paso were “very bad, many killed.”
University Medical Center of El Paso received 13 patients, including one who died, hospital spokesman Ryan Mielke told CNN.
Some of the patients were in surgery while others were in stable condition, he added.
Two of the patients who arrived at the hospital were children with non-life threatening injuries who were transferred to El Paso Children’s Hospital, he said.
Local media said there was such an overwhelming response to an appeal by the police department for blood donations to help the wounded that long lines formed at medical centers, some of which had to tell would-be donors to come back on Sunday.
Some people handed out bottled water and slices of pizza to those still waiting in line.
‘PEOPLE WERE PANICKING’
Multiple law enforcement agencies raced to the scene at the Walmart and nearby Cielo Vista Mall, including police, state troopers, Homeland Security agents and border patrol.
Shoppers fled for their lives, including Kianna Long who was at the Walmart with her husband when they heard gunfire.
“People were panicking and running,” Long said. “They were running close to the floor, people were dropping on the floor.”
She and her husband sprinted through a stock room at the back of the store before sheltering with other customers in a steel container in a shipping area.
Graphic video from the scene posted on social media showed what appeared to be dead bodies and wounded victims. Tales of heroism also emerged.
Walmart said in a statement: “We’re in shock over the tragic events at Cielo Vista Mall… We’re praying for the victims, the community & our associates, as well as the first responders.”
Stores at the mall were also locked down as police officers cleared the shopping center in the east of the city, which lies on the southern U.S. border with Mexico.
Video posted on Twitter showed customers at one department store being evacuated with their hands up.
Mass shootings are common in the United States. On Sunday, a teenage gunman opened fire with an assault-style rifle on the crowd at a food festival in Northern California, killing three people before fatally shooting himself.
At a Democratic presidential candidate forum in Las Vegas a clearly emotional Beto O’Rourke, a former Texas congressman who is from El Paso, broke the news to the audience that he had just heard about the deadly mass shooting in his home city.
O’Rourke said he had spoken to his wife Amy, who was driving in the city with one of their children. Addressing reporters, he teared up and struggled to deliver a short statement.
“I am incredibly saddened and it’s very hard to think about this,” he said. “El Paso is the strongest place in the world. This community is going to come together. I’m going back there right now to be with my family, to be with my home town.”
(Reporting by Julio-Cesar Chavez in El Paso; Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles and Tim Reid in Las Vegas; Writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Susan Thomas)