MURRYSVILLE, Pa. — Flailing away with two kitchen knives, a 16-year-old boy with a “blank expression” allegedly stabbed and slashed 21 students and a security guard in the crowded halls of his suburban Pittsburgh high school Wednesday before an assistant principal tackled him, police said.
At least five students were critically wounded, including a boy whose liver was pierced by a knife thrust that narrowly missed his heart and aorta, doctors said. Others also suffered deep abdominal puncture wounds, police said.
The rampage — which came after decades in which U.S. schools geared much of their emergency planning toward mass shootings, not stabbings — set off a screaming stampede, left blood on the floor and walls, and brought teachers rushing to help the victims.
Police shed little light on the motive.
The suspect, Alex Hribal, was taken into custody and treated for a minor hand wound, then was brought into court and charged with four counts of attempted homicide and 21 counts of aggravated assault. He was held without bail, and authorities said he would be prosecuted as an adult.
Defense attorney Patrick Thomassey described Hribal as a good student who got along with others and asked for a psychiatric examination.
The incident unfolded in the morning just minutes before the start of classes at 1,200-student Franklin Regional High School in an upper-middle-class area 15 miles east of Pittsburgh. It was over in about five minutes, police said.
Nate Moore, 15, said he saw the suspect tackle and knife a freshman. He said he going to try to break it up when the accused attacker got up and slashed Moore’s face.
“It was really fast. It felt like he hit me with a wet rag, because I felt the blood splash on my face,” Moore said.
Assistant Principal Sam King finally tackled the suspect and disarmed him, and a Murrysville police officer who is regularly assigned to the school handcuffed him, police said.
King’s son said that his father was treated at a hospital, though authorities said he was not knifed.
In addition to the 22 stabbed or slashed, two people suffered other injuries, authorities said. The security guard, who was wounded after intervening early in the melee, was not seriously hurt.
“There are a number of heroes in this day. Many of them are students,” Gov. Tom Corbett said in a visit to Murrysville. “Students who stayed with their friends and didn’t leave their friends.”
As for what set off the attack, Murrysville Police Chief Thomas Seefeld said investigators were looking into reports of a threatening phone call between the suspect and another student the night before. Seefeld didn’t specify whether the suspect received or made the call.
The FBI went to the boy’s house, where authorities planned to confiscate and search his computer.
“They are a very, very nice family, a great family. We never saw anything out of the ordinary,” said John Kukalis, a next-door neighbor for about 13 years.
While several bloody stabbing rampages at schools in China have made headlines in the past few years, schools in the U.S. have concentrated their emergency preparations on mass shootings.
Nevertheless, there have been at least two major stabbing attacks at U.S. schools in the past year: one at a community college in Texas in April 2013 in which at least 14 people were wounded, and another, also in Texas, in which a 17-year-old student was killed and three others were injured in September at a high school.
On Wednesday, Mia Meixner, 16, said the rampage touched off a “stampede of kids” yelling, “Run! Get out of here! Someone has a knife!”
Meixner and Moore called the suspect a shy boy who largely kept to himself, but they said he was not an outcast, and they had no reason to think he might be violent.
“He was never mean to anyone, and I never saw people be mean to him,” Meixner said. “I never saw him with a particular group of friends.”
Public safety and school officials said an emergency plan worked as well as could be expected. The district conducted an emergency exercise three months ago and a full-scale drill about a year ago.
“We haven’t lost a life, and I think that’s what we have to keep in mind,” said county public safety spokesman Dan Stevens.