John Bacon, Thao Nguyen, Paul Bibeau and Jorge L. Ortiz
CHESAPEAKE, Virginia – Flags across Virginia were flying at half staff Wednesday, hours after a store manager opened fire before an employee meeting at a Walmart, killing six people as a wave of deadly gun violence continued to sweep the nation.
Chesapeake police spokesman Leo Kosinski said officers responding to a 911 call Tuesday night found several people wounded or hiding in the store and that rescue and tactical teams swept through providing “life-saving measures.”
At least six survivors were transported to local hospitals, one in critical condition, city officials said. There were about 50 people at the store at the time of the attack, police said. Authorities haven’t said whether any of those killed or wounded was a customer.
Police identified those killed as Chesapeake residents Brian Pendleton, 38; Kellie Pyle, 52; Lorenzo Gamble, 43; and Randy Blevins, 70, along with Tyneka Johnson, 22, of nearby Portsmouth. The name of the sixth victim, a 16-year-old boy, was not released because of his age.
The shooting took place three days after a man with a rifle gunned down five people and wounded 17 at an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
“You hope a day like this never comes, but we train for it, we practice, we talk about it, we learn lessons,” Chesapeake City Manager Chris Price said at a briefing Wednesday. “You hope that those lessons will never have to be put to use.”
Police Chief Mark Solesky said the first 911 call came in at 10:12 p.m., and the first officers arrived two minutes later. The assailant died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, and a handgun was recovered at the scene, Solesky said. Police said the gunman was carrying multiple magazines.
The bodies of two victims and the shooter were found in the break room of the store, city officials said. One body was found toward the front of the store, and three other victims were transported to local hospitals but died of their injuries.
Walmart identified the gunman as Andre Bing, 31, a “team leader” who had worked for the company since 2010. He was found dead in the break room along with two other people. Police said they searched his home in Chesapeake and investigators are trying to find a motive for the attack.
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Employee Briana Tyler told ABC’s “Good Morning America” that workers had gathered in the store’s break room at the start of a shift when the gunman, a manager, walked in and without saying a word started firing indiscriminately.
“He literally just started shooting throughout the entire break room,” she said. “And I watched multiple people just drop down to the floor, whether they were trying to duck for cover or they were hit. … He looked directly at me, but luckily he missed my head by like an inch or two.”
Tyler, who joined Walmart two months ago and worked with Bing the night before, said she was told to be careful with him because Bing had a history of writing up employees for no reason, but she never had a negative encounter with him.
Employee Jessie Wilczewski told WAVY-TV that she was hiding under a table when the shooter looked at her with his gun pointed at her – then told her to go home.
“It didn’t even look real until you could feel the … ‘pow-pow-pow.’ You can feel it,” Wilczewski said. “I couldn’t hear it at first because I guess it was so loud. I could feel it.”
Joetta Jeffery told CNN that she received text messages from her mother, who was inside the store when the shots were fired. Her mother, Betsy Umphlett, was not injured.
“I’m crying, I’m shaking,” Jeffery said. “I had just talked to her about buying turkeys for Thanksgiving, then this text came in.”
At a time when many people are in a festive mood and preparing to celebrate Thanksgiving with their loved ones, a small crowd of 22 congregated for a vigil Wednesday night at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Chesapeake, 4 miles from where the shooting took place.
The Rev. Mark McKone-Sweet led those in attendance in saying the prayer of St. Francis, which begins: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon.”
McKone-Sweet said the prayer brings a kind of balance that “allows us to be where we need to be” in difficult times.
Antonio Garcia, 31, a truck driver from Houston, said he went into Walmart for supplies Tuesday just before 10 p.m. As he walked back to his truck he saw police vehicles converge on the parking lot and people exit the building. He said he saw a man bleeding from the head and learned there was a shooting.
“It’s crazy,” he said. “I was talking to my wife. She was like, ‘You got to pray.’”
Maralee Santiago, 31, a receptionist at Wayne’s Home, a furniture and mattress store next to Walmart, called this the “toughest time of year” for people in retail and said workers worry about their safety regularly. She found out a coworker shopped in the Walmart Tuesday night, an hour before the shooting. “My heart dropped,” she said.
President Joe Biden issued a statement expressing gratitude to the first responders and pledging support and assistance. He referenced a gun reform law passed earlier this year and urged “greater action” to curb gun violence.
“Because of yet another horrific and senseless act of violence, there are now even more tables across the country that will have empty seats this Thanksgiving,” the statement said. “There are now more families who know the worst kind of loss and pain imaginable.”
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said it was assisting with the investigation. Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who ordered flags flown at half staff through Sunday, said he was making state resources available.
“Our hearts break with the community of Chesapeake this morning,” he said.
Mayor Rick W. West, in a statement posted on Twitter, also lauded the efforts of first responders.
“I am devastated by the senseless act of violence that took place late last night in our city,” West tweeted. “Chesapeake is a tightknit community and we are all shaken by this news.”
Anxiety and rumors spread in the hours after the attack. At 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, the city posted a notice on Twitter warning that “rumors of an active shooter at Target in Chesapeake are UNTRUE. Please help us control rumors by only sharing information from this account.”
Comic and former Saturday Night Live cast member Jay Pharoah, a Chesapeake native, vented on Twitter: “My heart goes out to my city and my rage grows from the redundancy of these acts. Right in my backyard, right where I grew up. Chesapeake is strong and we will continue to be but this has got to stop. Too many innocent lost and not enough care to change it.”
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The shooting in Chesapeake is the latest incident to rock the country, coming days after a massacre in a well-known LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where five people were killed and 17 wounded.
Earlier this month, three University of Virginia football players were killed and two other people hospitalized following a campus shooting – the same day four University of Idaho students were found dead with multiple stab wounds.
A database run by USA TODAY, The Associated Press and Northeastern University that tracks mass killings since 2006 counts 40 mass killings so far this year, second to the 45 that occurred for all of 2019. The database defines a mass killing as at least four people killed, not including the killer.
Police tweeted that a family reunification site had been set up at the Chesapeake Conference Center.
Amanda Lambert, a Chesapeake public school teacher with students who shop and work at the Walmart, grew concerned when she learned about the shooting Tuesday night.
“It was the second time in a week in a half I’ve had to wonder if my students were OK, because former students (attend the University of Virginia, site of a recent attack),” said Lambert, 42.
Seeing her students at school Wednesday was a relief, but Lambert said she feels angry: “I don’t see anything changing.”
A Walmart in El Paso, Texas, was the scene of one of the nation’s bloodiest attacks in 2019, when a gunman police say was targeting Mexicans killed 22 people.
Walmart released a statement on Twitter early Wednesday: “We are shocked at this tragic event at our Chesapeake, Virginia store. We’re praying for those impacted, the community and our associates. We’re working closely with law enforcement, and we are focused on supporting our associates.”
Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia tweeted he is “sickened by reports of yet another mass shooting, this time at a Walmart in Chesapeake.”
State Sen. Louise Lucas echoed Warner’s sentiment, tweeting she was “absolutely heartbroken that America’s latest mass shooting took place in a Walmart in my district.”
Chesapeake, Virginia’s second-largest city with about 250,000 people, is 100 miles southeast of the capital, Richmond. The city sits on the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, a few miles from the Virginia Beach oceanfront and downtown Norfolk.
“Chesapeake offers an endless range of outdoor activities, terrific shopping, phenomenal food and beautiful wildlife,” the city says on its website.
Contributing: Charles Ventura, USA TODAY; The Associated Press