One man was killed and at least three were wounded early this morning in a wild shooting incident apparently touched off when gunmen in one car opened fire at the occupants of another just outside a high-rise Howard University student residence.

The shootings at Barry Place and Sherman Avenue NW brought one of Washington's most violent incidents in weeks to the doorstep of the Howard campus, and left many students frightened and bewildered.

None of the victims was identified immediately. Authorities said there was no indication that any of them were students.

Many details of the outburst remained unclear this morning. A police spokesman said that an off-duty District police officer tried to intervene when he saw the shooting and identified himself as an officer.

At that point, the spokesman said, one or more of the gunmen began firing at the officer, who returned fire. According to the spokesman, the officer may have wounded one of the men.

Several students who live in the Howard Plaza Towers complex apparently witnessed the shooting. The gunfire and sirens of arriving police cars and ambulances that followed brought many others out of their quarters in the two-building complex that houses about 1,200 people.

"This doesn't make any sense," said a 22-year-old student from Dallas. "I'm so tired of this happening {in the city} . . . .It's stupid," she said.

"Everybody is upset," an employee of the residence said.

Witnesses said the victims and their assailants apparently came onto Barry Place about midnight in at least two cars.

One witness said a vehicle carrying some of the assailants apparently turned onto Ninth Street NW and parked there.

The witness said that one of the people in the car then opened fire at one or more occupants of the other vehicle.

An employee of the 11-story student residence said that about 10 students "at most" were outside when the shooting occurred. But afterward, he said, students poured from the residence.

The employee said he saw two handguns on the street, with spent cartridges and three victims nearby.

"One had a big hole in the chest," the employee said.

He said ambulance workers tried vainly to resuscitate him, but the man "looked dead."

A second victim was shot in the side. The wound suffered by the third was not obvious, the witness said. A fourth victim ran to a parked car and was driven to nearby Howard University Hospital, another witness said.

A hospital spokeswoman said the man who was shot in the chest died at the hospital early today. He was 23, the spokeswoman said.

Two other victims, also in their early twenties, were undergoing surgery, she said. The fourth victim was not seriously wounded.

Several witnesses said they believed there may have been a fifth victim, but authorities, who continued to investigate the incident early this morning, did not confirm that.