236 minutes of terror at MSU: Barricaded with a gunman on the loose

EAST LANSING — A senior pre-med student was doing homework at his desk. A junior was out to dinner with friends. And a sophomore was in her usual spot at the union, blasting Metallica’s “Harvester of Sorrow” through her AirPods.

It was a typical Monday night at Michigan State University, one of the country’s largest colleges, an institution known for its groundbreaking research and boisterous school spirit. Students had their minds on exams, Valentine’s Day, Spring Break.

But a few minutes after 8 p.m., the crack of gunshots ruptured the rhythm of campus life, sending those same students running in fear. They barricaded themselves in rooms, cut the lights and grabbed kitchen knives in case the gunman who had just opened fire in two campus buildings decided to target them next.

Almost everyone here on this campus of 50,000 students grew up with the threat of school shootings. A few had survived them before — at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012 or at Oxford High School in 2021. Many more had lived through close calls, false alarms and lockdowns, preparing for gun violence at their schools the way they drill for fires and tornadoes. Now in college — a place that was supposed to be a sanctuary, where young people could find themselves on the way to adulthood — the nightmare was unfolding all over again.

But the rampage that killed three and injured five more in East Lansing played out in a particularly frightening way. Nearly four hours elapsed between the police department’s initial shelter-in-place order and its message alerting the campus community that the shooter was dead. It was 236 minutes of terror.

Students at MSU barricaded themselves in a dorm room after a gunman opened fired at a building on campus on Feb. 13. (Video: Olivia Gilcher)

In school buildings, dorms and off-campus houses, students and staff huddled together, transforming their rooms into fortresses and feverishly refreshing their phones for updates. News — and rumor — travels fast on college campuses. Students desperate for information tuned in to publicly accessible police scanners, relaying intel to group chats and social media.

What they heard was unconfirmed and often inaccurate: The shooter was in their building, he was planting bombs, he was not alone. But at the time, they had no way of knowing these reports were false. They just knew they were scared, and all they could do was wait.

“It felt like you were being hunted,” said Josey Bruce, a junior who was hiding in her attic.

The Washington Post interviewed more than 40 Michigan State students to reconstruct a detailed account of a horrifying evening. This is their story, part of a generation’s American college experience.

It began at 8:18 p.m. with a volley of gunfire inside Berkey Hall, an old building of red brick and stone where most of the school’s social sciences classes are held.

The voice of a 911 dispatcher crackled over the police scanner.

Then the calls flooded in. One said the shooter was moving through a Berkey hallway. Another warned of victims in a classroom. Before long, the callers reported, the shooter was heading west, toward the MSU Union, the beating heart of student activity.

At the time, Emi Lila was inside the building at a table near the food hall, where she spent nearly every evening downing cups of coffee and chipping away at homework.

About 8:25 p.m. she heard a slam over the Metallica blaring in her headphones. Then two bangs, one after another. Someone ran from the food court, so Lila and her roommate followed.

“I didn’t think it was a gun at first,” she said. “But we were just running, and I’m just gonna keep running.”

They jumped down a flight of stairs and ran for the back door with a group of other students. Olivia Gilcher, a first-year who was also in the Union, did the same.

Students on Michigan State University's campus ran away from the sound of gunshots on Feb. 13. (Video: Olivia Gilcher)

When they made it outside, Gilcher said it felt calm, almost like nothing was happening. By 8:28 p.m., Lila was outside, too. Police cars clustered nearby, sirens blaring.

As they fled, the university sent out its first communique, ordering students to shelter in place. “Run, Hide, Fight,” the message read.

From a nearby apartment building overlooking the Union, sophomore Karleigh Duffield thought she heard a gunshot. Then she saw police running on the street below, read the school’s message and knew.

“Is everyone all good,” she asked in a group chat at 8:33 p.m.

A minute later, her friend Brooke Cibor replied that she had seen the school’s email. Cibor’s father called her soon after and told her to stay out of sight, below the window in her room. She would, she told her dad, but she had to get off the phone — she needed to focus.

The training from countless lockdown drills kicked in. Cibor and three friends yanked shut the shades on her ground-floor windows. They shoved furniture in front of their door, turned off the lights and took their places next to a fridge and beneath a desk.

LEFT: Four students propped up furniture against a dorm room entrance to hide from a gunman on Feb. 13 on Michigan State's campus. (Brooke Cibor) RIGHT: Jillian Plant, 20, and other MSU students frantically checked in with one another and offered advice to stay safe over texts and Snapchat. (Jillian Plant)

“Nothing was processing,” Cibor said. “I was just thinking what would I do if he came in. I felt like a sitting duck.”

When Frank Falzetta first saw the alert, its magnitude didn’t register — the school sends security emails often, and people have fired guns on campus before. Soon, though, the junior realized this was different. He pushed the couch in front of the door at his apartment in Cedar Village, a student neighborhood half a mile from the scene, and grabbed the best weapon he could find: a long kitchen knife.

By then, the shooting had ended. But for the next several hours, reports of other attacks, all false, would make their way through group texts and onto the police scanner.

Around 9 p.m., at her house across the street from Berkey, Bruce texted her father.

He called her right back: “What do you mean?” he asked her. He hadn’t seen the news. They quickly hashed out a plan. Bruce and her two roommates would turn off the lights and lock themselves in their attic.

At 9:14 p.m., an unidentified surveillance camera captured a man who fit the shooter’s description walking down an alley. Seconds later, a fleet of police and SWAT vehicles sped by on the adjacent street. After they passed, the man doubled back.

Two minutes later, MSU police advised: “The suspect is believed to be on foot right now.”

As he walked, thousands of students listened to the police scanner. They were bent beneath tables and gathered in basements, listening to the traffic at a whisper in case the shooter was inside their building. Many had no bathrooms, no food, no water.

From her attic, Bruce and her roommates followed his reported movements. Bruce’s father and stepmother did, too, from their house in Oakland County, roughly 75 miles east of campus. They pulled up Google Maps while they listened to the scanner and measured the distance between their daughter and the latest location mentioned.

“It was basically like listening to a play-by-play sports game,” Bruce said, but the scariest one imaginable. “They’re getting closer and closer — that’s how it felt.”

Around 9:20 p.m., 911 dispatchers were receiving call after call from Snyder-Phillips, two large and connected residential halls. Haig Kadian, a junior who lives off-campus, was checking on his friends. At 9:23 p.m., one responded that they were in the building next door.

There never was a shooting at Snyder-Phillips, but in a pattern that would repeat itself throughout the night, reported incidents broadcast on the police scanner seemed to fuel panic, which in turn led to more 911 calls.

The rumors often spread over text. One friend warned Cibor that everyone was under threat.

On at least one occasion, the inaccurate information came straight from an official police channel.

Just before 9:30, MSU authorities tweeted that another shooting had been reported at IM East, a student gym more than a mile southeast of the Union. A few minutes later, the account followed up, saying the gym was “being secured” and, for the first time, telling students there was only one suspect. No shots were ever fired at IM East.

Among peers, communication reached a frenzied level, blurring the line between fact and rumor in message threads with dozens of participants. But students also spent most of those early minutes checking in with friends, acquaintances, exes and high school classmates they hadn’t spoken with in years. They swapped tips and told one another to stay safe.

Word spread that Lila had been inside the Union during the shooting.

“ARE YOU OKAY,” texted one friend, and then another.

So many of America’s high-profile mass shootings occur in split seconds and frantic minutes, like Lila’s brush with danger. But on this night, the horror lasted long after the final shot was fired.

Around 9:30 p.m., 911 dispatch began receiving calls that the shooter could be in Cedar Village. Falzetta, who lives there with his friends, got a similar call. “Frank, I think I saw him move,” a buddy told him. “He’s coming your way.”

Falzetta hung up and texted his apartment group chat.

“Stay in your bathrooms and lock both doors,” a neighbor replied.

Less than 10 minutes later, police released the first description of the suspect, calling him a “short male with a mask, possibly Black.” The Twitter post added: “We are still receiving multiple calls of an active shooter on campus.”

Eight minutes later, authorities sent an email alert with more chilling language: “A person is actively shooting at the East Lansing campus.”

David Booth, a senior studying to be a doctor, was hunkered down in his house a few minutes from the shooting scenes. He had two couches against the door and his heart was pounding. At one point, a helicopter flew so close that it shook his walls.

When he saw the first reports about victims being transported to a hospital, he wished he could be there, rendering aid.

“I wanted to be out there helping everyone,” he said. “But I can’t do anything — I’m not there yet.”

In dorms across campus, resident advisers worked to counter the deluge of false reports.

Eleanor Hoss, a senior and RA in Armstrong Hall, messaged her residents at 10:27 p.m., trying to dispel the rumor that police were using gun shots to clear buildings.

Inside Campbell Hall, a dorm prized for its proximity to the Union, Lila had been taking cover for two hours after fleeing the shooting. Police entered the building around 10:30 p.m. and told students to line up against the walls. They patted everyone down before moving on.

Around that time, a video circulated on social media showing a man who appeared to match the shooter’s description about half a mile down the road, walking past a fraternity house. The footage quickly circulated through campus group chats.

In most mass killings, there is just one gunman, but the mix of video and scattered reports of near-simultaneous shooting fueled fears of a second or a third.

It wasn’t until just after 11 p.m., when campus police held their first press briefing, that officials said explicitly that they believed there was only a single shooter.

At the news conference, MSU Police Interim Deputy Chief Chris Rozman warned students and staff that there was much “misinformation” swirling around social media and appearing on the police scanner, as first responders tried to sort through an avalanche of incoming information.

“There has been false reports, false reports of additional shootings,” Rozman said. “There has been false reports of the suspect seen in numerous different locations.”

Just after he spoke, police released photos of the suspect, apparently taken from campus surveillance video.

As friends continued checking in, some three hours into the campus lockdown, they received another alert from the school, repeating that someone was “actively shooting” on campus.

At that time, however, the shooter was probably miles away. About 20 minutes later, just before midnight, the 911 dispatcher advised that police had “found a subject who matched the description” near an intersection north of downtown Lansing, well over an hour walk from campus.

“When they made an approach, he shot himself,” the dispatcher said.

Back in Williams Hall, Cibor and her three friends were still crouched on the ground, trying to stay hidden.

At 12:26 a.m., police began their second news briefing. The shooter was found off campus, Rozman said, and he was dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. At last, officials lifted the shelter-in-place order.

As Rozman spoke, police sent two updates, one by email and another by Twitter. The email alert, automatically sent to the campus community, said someone “matching the suspect description has been located” and that “there is no longer believed to be an imminent threat to campus.”

It did not say the gunman was dead.

A police tweet sent about the same time was more clear, but some students said they had only seen the email, and they were still on edge. Was it really safe? Was there another shooter at large?

Slowly, uneasily, the campus unwound. Lights came back on, friends reunited — hugging, sobbing. Most couldn’t sleep, their adrenaline still pumping, still working to find out whether their friends were among the victims.

Outside Duffield’s room, police lights flashed in her windows all night. In Cibor’s dorm, her group spent hours debriefing until there was nothing more to say. They fell silent, staring at the floor. Lila, a witness, spoke with police until 2 a.m. And in Cedar Village, just off campus, Falzetta met up with the friends he’d been texting all night. They embraced and ate dinner but couldn’t shake the feeling of danger.

They turned out the lights and slid a chair back up against the door.

About this story

Audio clips from Broadcastify. Design and development by Tyler Remmel. Animation by Anna Lefkowitz. Story editing by Amanda Erickson and Cathleen Decker. Design editing by Madison Walls. Audio editing by Maggie Penman and Reena Flores. Photo editing by Natalia Jiménez-Stuard. Video editing by Jayne Orenstein.

More on the MSU shooting

A gunman killed three Michigan State University students and critically injured five before killing himself on Monday.

The gunman: The MSU shooter, Anthony Dwayne McRae, was arrested for carrying a loaded firearm without a concealed-weapons permit in 2019 and later lied about having a gun inside his home, his father said. McRae was not affiliated with the university and authorities are still working to determine a motive.

The victims: The university identified two of the students killed as junior Alexandria Verner and sophomore Brian Fraser, both of Michigan. Here’s what we know about the victims.