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Water heater malfunction mistaken for gunfire at NC high school

Associated Press

HAMPSTEAD — Classes were delayed by a few hours at a group of North Carolina schools Friday after loud noises from a high school’s malfunctioning water heater prompted a report of an active shooter and a massive law enforcement response.

The response began with a 911 caller’s pre-dawn report of gunfire coming from the roof of Topsail High School, Pender County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Capt. James Rowell said at a news conference. Responding law enforcement officers heard the same noises, but after sweeping the school, they found no shooter, victims or evidence of a shooting, he said.

Once officials learned that a damaged water heater had been making noises, maintenance workers were able to re-create a noise just like gunfire, he said.

Sheriff Carson Smith Jr. said the noises he heard when he arrived on the scene sounded like gunfire.

“I don’t want anyone to think that the students or the first officers that arrived on scene maybe overreacted,” Smith said. “Everybody that treated it as gunfire and reacted that way did exactly what they should have.”

A group of cheerleaders training before school followed common sense over procedure and fled to a nearby middle school, Superintendent Steven Hill said. The malfunctioning equipment will remain off until it is fixed, he said.

“I can concur that it absolutely sounds like a weapon going off,” said Hill, who has served as a school resource officer.

Schools already have lost more than a month of attendance days after Hurricane Florence, and Hill said they’d try to get the second part of the school day in and try to get back to normalcy.

School buses were held nearby during the lockdown, but after it was determined that there was no shooter, the school system announced that schools would open for the day and buses would run on a three-hour delay.

The Topsail High School Twitter account encouraged people to support the school Friday night at the last home football game of the season.

Topsail lost to New Hanover High School, 38-14.

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