Hostages of school gunman tried to put him at ease
MARINETTE, Wis. (AP) – His first shots blasted the film projector and punched into a wall. The last he aimed at himself. In between, the 15-year-old high school sophomore held his teacher and about two dozen classmates hostage for more than six hours.
As the gunman died Tuesday, his motivation still unclear, students who were in the room described how they put their captor at ease – even to the point of laughter – by engaging him in oddly casual conversations about hunting, fishing, movies and music. All the hostages escaped unharmed. In the end, Samuel Hengel himself was the only loss.
Monday’s standoff unfolded the same day students and teachers at Marinette High School returned from a long Thanksgiving vacation in this city of 12,000 people along the border with Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, 50 miles north of Green Bay.
Teacher Valerie Burd’s Western civilization class, the second-to-last of the day, began about 1:30 p.m. as students began filing in. Among them was Hengel, dressed in his favorite Tom-and-Jerry T-shirt and blue jeans. The teens took their seats in a fan-shaped arrangement, and doing worksheets about the Greek demigod Hercules.
Shortly after class began, Hengel told the teacher he was sick, said 15-year-old Austin Biehl, another student in the class. Burd allowed Hengel to go to the restroom. He returned with a backpack, which police later said contained two semiautomatic handguns, ammunition and a knife. He had more bullets in his pockets.
Burd, a 39-year-old teacher with 10 years of experience in the district, started showing a film about Hercules.
Hengel asked his fellow students how they were doing, Biehl said, then he snapped.
He shot a hole in the wall, then fired two more rounds at the film projector, breaking a piece off of it. The sound of the shots was deafening, said Biehl, who questioned why no one else in the school seemed to hear them. Principal Corry Lambie told reporters he could not say how loud the shots were.
Then Hengel propped himself up on Burd’s stool at the front of the class, pulled another gun from his waistband and laid it on Burd’s podium along with a magazine of ammunition, Biehl said.
Girls in the class began to cry.
“He didn’t say anything,” Biehl said. “We were just scared and shocked he was doing this. My legs were shaking.”
Hengel’s cell phone rang. He snapped it in half. He then made everyone in the class dump their cell phones in the middle of the room. When some began to ring, he ordered kids to remove the batteries.
When the bell rang signaling the start of the last class of the day, Hengel told Burd to post a note on the door telling incoming students to go to the library. Burd asked him if they could do anything for him, Biehl said.
“He just said no,” Biehl said.
Hengel never made any demands or pointed his weapons at anyone, Biehl said. He never told anyone not to leave, but it did not matter, Biehl said. Everyone was too petrified to move.
“I didn’t know really what to think. I was just hoping to get out alive,” another student in the class, Zach Campbell, told CBS’ “Early Show.”
Then one of Hengel’s best friends started talking to him, and the rest of the class joined in, discussing movies and actors Hengel liked, deer hunting and fishing, Biehl said.
“All his favorite things,” Biehl said. “We were just trying to make him calm. Just trying to make him remember all the fun stuff.”
Hengel complained he had not seen any deer in the last two years and never caught any big fish anymore. He said he had been sick over Thanksgiving with a sinus infection.
He complained about not having enough money to buy Green Bay Packers tickets or a trail camera, which hunters use to record wildlife movements, but told the class he was two belts away from earning a black belt in martial arts.
Hengel’s family said in a Tuesday evening statement that they’d seen “no indicators” from the sophomore who loved “anything that included his family and the outdoors” to make them think something was wrong.
“We wish we knew and could provide insight to what led Sam to take these drastic acts,” the statement said. “In the coming days and weeks as we talk to other people involved in this incident we hope reasons surface so we too, can stop asking ourselves ‘why?'”
During the standoff, Biehl said, Hengel even laughed at times, but he looked nervous. His hands were sweaty, and he kept rubbing them.
“He seemed fine, except he had a gun in his hand,” Biehl said. “He seemed to have a lot of things to look forward to.”
The school day ended, but the students didn’t move.
About 3:30 p.m., Biehl said, a page came over the intercom asking about a female student’s whereabouts. The principal said the student’s father was looking for her because she had not answered her cell phone.
Lambie, the principal, said he went to the classroom looking for her, and Hengel allowed the girl to leave. When the principal opened the door, the girl stepped outside. Hengel pointed the gun at him and told him to get out. He retreated and called 911. Then he set about clearing the building, stopping in choral teacher Bonita Weydt’s room.
“I said, ‘Corry, what’s going on?’ and he said, ‘Get out of the building,”‘ Weydt said.
Police immediately tried to contact Hengel. They called the phone in the classroom, but he would not talk. That fell to Burd.
Her calmness in the face of a potentially deadly situation, reassuring students that everyone would be OK, won her praise on Tuesday. She declined to discuss the matter when approached at her home in Michigan, saying she had young children at home who were not aware of what had happened.
“She saved the lives of many students by her calm demeanor and heroic way,” Lambie said.
As the hours passed, the kids began to relax.
“I don’t think he intended to hurt anyone,” Biehl said. “If he wanted to, he probably would have done it.”
Students started telling Hengel they had to use the bathroom. Around 7:40 p.m., he let three students go, as well as another student who looked sweaty and pale and a female student who was in tears.
But that was it. Another student who had to urinate was forced to use a garbage can, stinking up the classroom, Biehl said. Burd put down the phone to give the student a spray bottle. Hengel then fired off three rounds, hitting the room’s telephone twice and a computer.
SWAT officers, fearing the worst, broke down the door and rushed at Hengel. He dropped his gun, picked up the one on the podium and pointed it at his head, Biehl said. An officer grabbed his arm just as he squeezed the trigger, but it was too late to save him.
An autopsy was pending.
The school was closed Tuesday, and grief counselors were available for distraught students. District officials planned to reopen the building for classes Wednesday. Safety guidelines at the school, which does not have metal detectors, will be reviewed, Superintendent Tim Baneck said.
Hengel’s death leaves the biggest question unanswered: Why?
Biehl said Hengel was smart and well-liked.
“No one hated him or bullied him,” Biehl said.
District Attorney Allen Brey promised to make public a full report on the investigation, but it could be weeks or months away.
“We may not truly know what happened,” Brey said. Hengel was “the one person who could answer the why question.”