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Malfunctioning water heater led to calls of active shooter at Topsail High, officials say

HAMPSTEAD, N.C. (WECT/AP) - Faulty mechanical equipment which was making a sound that resembled gunfire is believed to have led to calls of an active shooter situation at Topsail High School.

“When I arrived on scene, what I heard sounded like gunfire,” explained Sheriff Carson Smith. “Everyone did exactly what they were supposed to do.”

Smith said stress levels were high as the calls came in and he could hear the sound of gunshots in the background of the radio traffic.

“I heard dozens,” Smith explained, adding he said a prayer while driving to Topsail High school.

According to Capt. James Rowell with the Pender County Sheriff’s Office, crews are still searching the building as a precaution but they have found no evidence of an active shooter at this point.

Rowell said there are no reported injuries.

Commissioner George Brown said a piece of equipment at the school that has been malfunctioning in recent days and it sounds like gunfire when it makes noise. This has been going on for several days and is being investigated as a source. Regardless, officials are taking the situation very seriously to ensure everyone’s safety.

Pender County Emergency Director Tom Collins said he also believed a malfunctioning water heater caused a gunfire noise and that the sheriff’s office is expected to hold a news conference soon.

“I was sure it was not gunfire over an hour ago,” said Commissioner David Williams, who is also the assistant coach for the varsity football team. “I also coach football there. Lately (during practice), we’ve been hearing a piece of mechanical equipment go ‘bam bam bam.’ It made us the first time we heard it turn around.”

Williams said he has heard the sound personally and can understand how someone might hear it and make a report. He thinks it could be a remnant problem from Hurricane Florence, explaining the sound is up high, near the roof line and faces the back of the building.

“Obviously I was worried,” Williams said. “My son goes to school there. My daughter just graduated.”

Williams believes the law enforcement response was 100 percent correct. There are a lot of kids on campus in the morning for practice.

“They did exactly the right thing. Law Enforcement did what they’re supposed to do,” Williams said. “There’s no such thing as an over response.”

According to Pender County Schools, Topsail Elementary and Topsail Middle will be opening for staff at 9:30 a.m. Bus routes for Topsail Elementary, Topsail Middle, Topsail High, & South Topsail will be running on approx. 3 hour delay. Lunch will be served.

The school system is expected to inform Topsail High staff about opening shortly.

According to school officials, Topsail High School, Topsail Middle School and Topsail Elementary School are in lockdown.

Buses for those three schools are being staged at the Lowe’s Foods across from the schools, and parents have been notified they can pick up their bus-riding children there.

Staff at those three schools are being asked to report to Lowe’s Foods as well.

Buses for South Topsail Elementary, North Topsail Elementary and Surf City schools were taken to their respective school campuses where students stayed on the bus until the lockdown was lifted for those schools at 8:40 a.m.

In May, an 18-year-old student was found in the school’s parking lot with a large knife strapped to his leg and three other knives. A 16-year-old boy who authorities say armed himself with a semi-automatic rifle after hearing about that potential attack also was arrested.

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