Editor's Note: This story has been updated throughout.
Some of the workers at a Kansas lawnmower plant thought they heard explosions; others reported the “pop, pop, pop” of automatic gunfire. Whatever it was that interrupted their daily routine, they sprinted out of the factory—fearing for their lives in another workplace shooting.
Hesston Police Chief Doug Schroeder raced in the opposite direction.
Cedric Ford had already shot 17 people, killing three of them, before Hesston Police Chief Doug Schroeder shot and killed him. Harvey County Sheriff T. Walton said Schroeder saved “multiple, multiple lives.” (Gov. Sam Brownback named Schroeder in A statement on Friday.)
“[He’s] a hero, as far as I’m concerned,” Walton said.
The sheriff added that the rampage had begun in Newton, Kansas, when Ford shot a man in the shoulder from his car. Another passerby was shot in the leg. Ford shot at three vehicles before taking a second vehicle to the lawnmower factory where he worked.
Ford didn’t even wait to begin shooting: the first victim was struck in the parking lot. From there he stormed into the lobby with an assault rifle and opened fire.
“I just heard the gunshots and I just took off running,” Jesus Fierros, 25, told The New York Times.
Speaking from his hospital bed, Fierros said he began to run and then felt a searing pain. “I heard people saying someone was shooting, and then I got shot in the leg and everyone started helping me.”
Martin Espinoza, who also works at Excel, got lucky. He heard colleagues shouting that there was a shooter before suddenly coming face-to-face with the man. He said the gunman—whom he had known to be pretty calm—pointed the weapon at him and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened, so the shooter picked up another gun and Espinoza made his escape.
“I took off running. He came outside after a few people, shot outside a few times, shot at the officers coming onto the scene at the moment and then reloaded in front of the company,” Espinoza told the Associated Press. “After he reloaded, he went inside the lobby in front of the building and that is the last I seen him.”
Marty Pierce was near the paint department when the gunman “started spraying everyone” with bullets. “I thought it was a fire or an explosion,” Pierce told KAKE-TV, a local ABC affiliate. “I didn’t know someone was shooting, but then our robot operator decided to go look down the hallway—and he got shot.”
A man who was at the plant for a job interview told KWCH 12 that he heard Schroeder looking for the shooter, calling for him to come out, and then heard “eight or 10 shots.”
“The glass doors I came through were shot out, both doors,” the witness, who gave his name as Eddie, told the news station. “It was shocking, it was unreal.”
The lawnmower plant dominates the Hesston community, where fathers and husbands worked alongside daughters, wives, and cousins. The tight-knit group did not sense any reason to be disturbed by Ford, though.
“He was somebody I could talk to about anything,” Matt Jarrell, who also worked as a painter, told KSNW, adding he was stunned to see Ford shooting. “He was a mellow guy.”
Or so he thought.
Sheriff Walton said Ford had been served a protective order about 90 minutes before he began shooting. The woman who petitioned for the order said on Feb. 5 that Ford choked and battered her, and she claimed he was unstable.
“He is an alcoholic, violent, depressed,” she wrote all in capital letters, according to the Witchita Eagle. “It’s my belief he is in desperate need of medical & psychological help!”
Excel employee Austin McCaskill told The Washington Post that he heard Ford’s girlfriend recently broke up with him.
Authorities say the shooting was not an act of terrorism, and claimed they had an idea of what might have motivated the gunman.
About 3,700 people live in Hesston, and as many as 1,000 work at the lawn-equipment plant in two shifts, according to local news. Sheriff Walton said about 150 were there for the plant’s second shift.
Police later Thursday evening allowed residents back into a trailer park in Newton that had been evacuated as police sought to enter Ford’s home.
Walton told reporters that a man Ford reportedly lived with wouldn’t at first let officials inside the structure. Lt. Brian Hall of the Newton Police Department said they eventually entered—after a standoff—because they received reports that someone may have been inside.
“We had to act as if there were other victims or someone else inside who wanted to do harm,” he said. “We tried to make contact for hours and eventually had to force entry into the home. There was no one inside.”
Police would not say what evidence may have been discovered inside the mobile home. Ford’s girlfriend and two children had recently moved out.
Hesston’s high school was designated as a meeting place Thursday night for first responders and those looking for loved ones. Walton said families of those injured have been notified, but authorities are still working to identify the three individuals killed by the gunman.