Hermantown student group left holocaust memorial minutes before shooting
DULUTH - A group of Hermantown Middle School students was at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on Wednesday about 20 minutes before a gunman opened fire with a rifle, fatally wounding a security guard before being shot by other officers.
The group of 25 students, who are on an intensive four-day trip to the Washington, D.C. area, would have been there at the time of the shootings, but they finished their tour of the museum early and had left, said Hermantown teacher Tony Dobinson, who is leading the group.
Washington Police Chief Cathy Lanier said the gunman was "engaged by security guards immediately after entering the door" with a rifle. "The second he stepped into the building he began firing."
The gunman, 88, was hospitalized in critical condition. Officials identified the dead guard as Stephen Tyrone Johns, 39, a six-year veteran of the facility.
The Hermantown group witnessed part of the emergency reaction to the shootings -- the sirens, helicopters and the cordoned-off area -- and crossed paths with police responding to the scene as the students made their way to the next stop on their tour.
"If we had been there, it would have been very traumatizing," Dobinson said.
Dobinson has led the annual seventh-grade trip for Hermantown Middle School for several years. Because this year's group is half the size of last year's, they finished their tour of the museum early. They were back on their tour bus, headed for lunch at Union Station when a student's cell phone went off.
"The student said there was a shooting at the Holocaust Museum," Dobinson said.
Then other cell phones started going off with calls from concerned parents who also heard reports of the shootings on the news, he said.
Dobinson told the students to call their parents to tell them they were OK.
"I was kind of freaking out," said Kynze Lundeen, 12, who's on the trip. "We were concerned about people and felt really sad for the people and everything. The security guards were really nice."
Her father, Tracy Lundeen, was at the Duluth office of his special events and promotions company when he received a news alert about the museum shooting. His cell phone then rang once and hung up. He saw it was a call from his daughter and immediately called her back.
"She said, 'Dad, are you watching the news?' I said, 'I know something is going on at the museum.' She said, 'Dad, we just left there,'" Lundeen said.
"The kids apparently were never in danger," he said. "But it shows us what a dangerous world this is and how dangerous it can be for our kids. My heart is in my throat."
Like many of the parents, Michele Carlson said she first heard about the shooting in a call from her 13-year-old son, Ryan.
"My son called me and started with the words, 'Everybody is OK,'" Carlson said. "I said, 'What happened?' He said, 'We had just left the museum and there was a shooting.'"
Carlson said the students "were a little freaked out. I went back outside and I had nine text messages from him saying things like, 'We weren't supposed to leave for another 15 minutes.'"
Danielle Anderson got a scare when her son, Jack, called and said there had been a shooting, then said he had to get off the phone so a friend could use it.
She was left hanging for 10 minutes.
"I was worried, but it wasn't so much panic; I just needed more information," she said.
Law enforcement officials said James W. von Brunn, a white supremacist, was under investigation in the shooting and that his car was found near the museum and tested for explosives. The weapon was a .22-caliber rifle, they added. They spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to discuss the investigation just beginning.
Von Brunn has a racist, anti-Semitic Web site and wrote a book titled "Kill the Best Gentiles," alleging a Jewish "conspiracy to destroy the white gene pool."
In 1983, he was convicted of attempting to kidnap members of the Federal Reserve Board and served more than six years in prison. He was arrested two years earlier outside the room where the board was meeting, carrying a revolver, knife and sawed-off shotgun. At the time, police said von Brunn wanted to take the members hostage because of high interest rates and the nation's economic difficulties.
Writings attributed to von Brunn on the Internet say the Holocaust was a hoax and decry a Jewish conspiracy to "destroy the white gene pool."
"At Auschwitz the 'Holocaust' myth became Reality, and Germany, cultural gem of the West, became a pariah among world nations," it says.
Though the Hermantown group had departed, the museum was crowded with school children and other tourists at the time of the attack.
Ashley Camp, 14, of Forsyth, Ill., on a field trip with more than 40 other students, said she heard two or three gunshots. Soon after, she recalled, a security guard ordered the group to run to the exit.
"We had to sprint as fast as we could out the door," she said. "I thought it was the movie (part of a museum exhibit), but then everyone started screaming and running."
The Hermantown students started their day at Arlington National Cemetery and the Holocaust Museum. From there, they continued on to Union Station for lunch, the White House, National Cathedral and the Pentagon City Mall.
By the afternoon, the incident wasn't on their minds so much, Dobinson said.
At first their reaction was a "Wow, what if?" sort of thing," Dobinson said Wednesday evening. "Nobody is even talking about it now."
The group is scheduled to return to Hermantown about midnight Friday.
Parents complimented how the three adult chaperones, including two teachers, handled the situation.
"They made sure everyone alerted their parents immediately and kept panic levels down," Anderson said.
The Associated Press and News Tribune staff writers Sarah Horner and Mark Warner contributed to this report.