Problem with water heater to blame for active shooter scare at Topsail High School


PENDER COUNTY, NC (WWAY) — Schools in the the Hampstead area are back in session after a report of an active shooter this morning that turned out to be a false alarm.

“My mind just went numb. I couldn’t even breathe, it felt like,” said sophomore Jon Siemon who was on his way to school when officers turned them away.

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Pender County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Capt. James Rowell said the call came in at 5:51 a.m. for a report of what sounded like gunfire from the roof of Topsail High School. About 17 students were at the school for cheerleading practice, and they were evacuated.

Rowell said officers who arrived heard what they thought were gunshots. Eventually officers got on the roof. They never found any shell casings and had no reports of anyone getting shot. They found out about a water heater that might be the issue. Officers searched the school room by room and found nothing.

Pender County Sheriff Carson Smith said crews turned off the water heater, and the noise stopped, but they continued their search of the building. When crews later turned the the water heater back on, the gunfire-like sound started again.

“What I heard when I got here sounded like gunfire,” Smith said. “I don’t want people to think the students or officers who responded overreacted.”

Pender County Schools Superintendent Steven Hill said active shooter training at the school paid off. Hill, who said he was a SRO and on a SWAT team during an earlier career in law enforcement, said the issue with the water heater was a malfunctioning combustion chamber that did sound like gunfire. The water heater has been shut down.

Smith said the sound went off dozens of times and could be heard over emergency radios as officers communicated with each other.

Classes for the Topsail area schools will continue today now that a lockdown is over. Hill said he understood if some parents decided to keep their kids home. Hill said the absence will not be counted against the students.

Earlier students who were on buses heading to schools in the Hampstead area were taken to the Lowes Foods shopping center, where they were reunited with their parents. Hill also said the district will help students or staff having trouble dealing with what happened.

Stay with WWAY NEWS for more on this story throughout the day and on WWAY NEWS tonight.