Flailing away with two kitchen knives, a 16-year-old boy with a "blank expression" stabbed and slashed 21 students and a security guard in the crowded halls of his suburban Pittsburgh high school Wednesday before an assistant principal tackled him.
The suspect, Alex Hribal, was taken into custody and treated for a minor hand wound, then was brought into court Wednesday in shackles and a hospital gown and charged with four counts of attempted homicide and 21 counts of aggravated assault. He was jailed without bail, and authorities said he would be prosecuted as an adult.
The incident took place just before the day’s classes started. Assistant Principal Sam King tackled and subdued the suspect, a sophomore at the school. A Murrysville police officer who is regularly assigned to the school handcuffed him, police said.
At least five of those injured were critically wounded, including a boy who was on a ventilator. A knife pierced his liver, missing his heart and aorta by only millimeters, doctors said.
The rampage set off a screaming stampede, left blood on the floor and walls, and brought teachers rushing to help the victims. The scene will take days to investigate and clean, so the high school will remain closed for at least two or three days, according to Westmoreland County Public Safety spokesman Dan Stevens.
“This is an ongoing investigation," Stevens said. "This is not going to be taken lightly. We have to make sure that we do everything necessary to ensure for a swift and orderly type resolution to the situation that occurred.”
The middle and elementary schools will be open for classes as usual.
“Counseling services will be available for the entire school community,” said Franklin Regional School District Superintendent Gennaro Piraino. “If parents elect to keep their students home, we understand and we will provide any support for those families as well.”
Police shed little light on the motive.
At the brief hearing, District Attorney John Peck said that after he was seized, Hribal made comments suggesting he wanted to die.
Defense attorney Patrick Thomassey described him as a good student who got along with others, and asked for a psychiatric examination.
The attack unfolded just minutes before the start of classes at 1,200-student Franklin Regional High School, 15 miles east of Pittsburgh. Police said it was over in just minutes.
Witnesses said the boy with the knives at first tackled a freshman and stabbed him in the belly, then got up and ran wildly down the hall, slashing other students.
Nate Moore, 15, said he saw the first attack and was going to try to break it up when the boy got up and slashed his face, requiring 11 stitches.
"It was really fast. It felt like he hit me with a wet rag because I felt the blood splash on my face. It spurted up on my forehead," he said.
The attacker "had the same expression on his face that he has every day, which was the freakiest part," Moore said. "He wasn't saying anything. He didn't have any anger on his face. It was just a blank expression."
Doctor: Wounds Could Have Been Fatal
Doctors said they expected all the victims to survive, despite large and deep puncture wounds to the abdomen in some cases.
Eight of the victims — seven teenagers and one adult security guard — were taken to Forbes Regional Hospital in Monroeville.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the adult had been treated and released, and three teens have undergone surgery and were in the Intensive Care Unit.
Dr. Chris Kaufmann, director of the Trauma Center at Forbes, said everything worked as smoothly as it possibly could have Wednesday morning.
He said that without a trauma center nearby, some of the wounds could have been fatal.
“If these patients had had to be transported an additional 30 minutes, we wouldn’t be talking about three folks in our ICU – 30 minutes would have been too long,” Kaufmann said.
Kaufmann said the three students who underwent surgery suffered large wounds to the torso, and that it appeared the knife or knives used were at least 1-inch wide.
“Day by day, we have a sense of how they’re doing, and we worry about them hour by hour,” Kauffman said. “A week from now, we should have a very clear sense of how these patients are doing … but it will take that long.”
An additional four students treated at Forbes were all in stable condition Wednesday and will spend at least one night at the hospital.
Kauffman said the Trauma Center had prepared for a situation like this one, and that the pre-hospital notification system helped streamline the process once patients arrived at the hospital.
“Because we knew there were multiple patients coming, we didn’t even have to make a page overhead to say ‘every doctor and nurse who’s not busy please come to the emergency department,’” Kaufmann said. “The emergency department was immediately full with doctors from 10 different specialties, with 40 nurses, with people who knew that they could be of help.”
Kaufmann said the medical response to the violence exceeded his expectations. Chief Medical Officer Dr. Mark Rubino echoed that sentiment, and said he felt “a sense of pride” at how Forbes staff handled the situation.
“All the efforts made in the past few years to build this program all served the community well,” Rubino said.
Student: Feeling 'Shell-Shocked'
Senior Josiah Wages said he was eating breakfast in the school's cafeteria when he heard screaming and saw people running, at which point the fire alarm sounded.
Wages said he and friends then evacuated the school. Outside, Wages said he saw female student with a hand wound.
Wages said he's "shell-shocked" by the incident.
"I guess its one of those things that you never really see it coming until it happens," he said.
Authorities credited Assistant Principal Sam King with subduing the assailant.
A student, Ian Griffith, said he saw the school police officer confront the student, who then stabbed the officer. King then tackled the boy, Griffith told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
King's son told The Associated Press that his father was treated at a hospital, though authorities have said he was not wounded by the knife.
"He says he's OK. He's a tough cookie and sometimes hides things, but I believe he's OK," Zack King said. The boy added: "I'm proud of him."
As for what set off the attack, Murrysville Police Chief Thomas Seefeld said investigators were looking into reports of a threatening phone call between the suspect and another student the night before. Seefeld didn't specify whether the suspect received or made the call.
Someone, possibly a student, pulled a fire alarm after seeing some of the stabbings, the police chief said. Although that created chaos, Seefeld said, it emptied out the school more quickly, and "that was a good thing that that was done."
Also, a girl with "an amazing amount of composure" applied pressure to a schoolmate's wounds and probably kept the victim from bleeding to death, Rubino said.
Public safety and school officials said an emergency plan worked as well as could be expected. The district conducted an emergency exercise three months ago and a full-scale drill about a year ago.
"We haven't lost a life and I think that's what we have to keep in mind," said county public safety spokesman Dan Stevens.