CHESAPEAKE, Va. (AP) — A Walmart manager opened fire on fellow employees in the break room of a Virginia store, killing six people in the country’s second high-profile mass shooting in four days, police and witnesses said Wednesday.
The gunman, who apparently shot himself, was dead when officers found him, police said. There was no clear motive for the shooting, which also put four people in the hospital.
The store was busy just before the attack Tuesday night as people stocked up ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday, a shopper told a local TV station.
Employee Briana Tyler said the overnight stocking team of about 15 or 20 people had just gotten together in the break room to go over the morning plan. As soon as the team was set to start, she said she looked up, and her manager turned around and opened fire on the staff.
“It is by the grace of God that a bullet missed me,” Tyler said. “I saw the smoke leaving the gun, and I literally watched bodies drop. It was crazy.”
At first, she didn’t think the shooting was real. “It was all happening so fast. I thought it was like a test type of thing. Like, if you do have an active shooter, this is how you respond.”
Tyler, who worked with the manager just the night before, said the assailant did not aim at anyone specific.
“He was just shooting all throughout the room. It didn’t matter who he hit. He didn’t say anything, he didn’t look at anybody in any specific type of way.”
Chesapeake Police Chief Mark G. Solesky confirmed that the shooter, who used a pistol, was a Walmart employee but did not give his name because his family had not been notified. Solesky could not confirm whether the victims were all employees.
Employee Jessie Wilczewski told Norfolk television station WAVY that she hid under the table, and the shooter looked at her with his gun pointed at her. He told her to go home, and she left.
“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.”
Gov. Glenn Youngkin tweeted that he was in contact with law enforcement officials in Chesapeake, Virginia’s second-largest city, which lies next to the seaside communities of Norfolk and Virginia Beach.
“Our hearts break with the community of Chesapeake this morning,” Youngkin wrote. “Heinous acts of violence have no place in our communities.”
The attack was the second time in a little more than a week that Virginia has experienced a major shooting. Three University of Virginia football players were fatally shot on a charter bus as they returned to campus from a field trip on Nov. 13. Two other students were wounded.
The assault at the Walmart came three days after a person opened fire at a gay nightclub in Colorado, killing five people and wounding 17. Last spring, the country was shaken by the deaths of 21 when a gunman stormed an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.
A database run by The Associated Press, USA Today and Northeastern University that tracks every mass killing in America going back to 2006 shows this year has been especially violent.
The U.S. has now had 40 mass killings so far in 2022, compared with 45 for all of 2019. The database defines a mass killing as at least four people killed, not including the killer.
According to the database, more than a quarter of the mass killings have occurred since Oct. 21, spanning eight states and claiming 51 lives. Nine of those 11 incidents were shootings.
Notably, the database does not include the recent shooting at the University of Virginia because that attack did not meet the threshold of four dead, not including the shooter.
Chesapeake Mayor Rick W. West expressed gratitude for first responders’ quick actions in a statement posted on the city’s Twitter account.
“I am devastated by the senseless act of violence that took place late last night in our city,” West said. “Chesapeake is a tight-knit community, and we are all shaken by this news.”
A 911 call about the shooting came in just after 10 p.m. Solesky did not know how many shoppers were inside, whether the gunman was working or whether a security guard was present.
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.”
One man was seen wailing at a hospital after learning that his brother was dead, and others shrieked as they left a conference center set up as a family reunification center, The Virginian-Pilot reported.
Camille Buggs, a former Walmart employee, told the newspaper she went to the conference center seeking information about her former co-workers.
“You always say you don’t think it would happen in your town, in your neighborhood, in your store — in your favorite store, and that’s the thing that has me shocked,” Buggs said.
Walmart tweeted early Wednesday that it was “shocked at this tragic event.”
In the aftermath of the El Paso shooting, Walmart made a decision in September 2019 to discontinue sales of certain kinds of ammunition and asked that customers no longer openly carry firearms in its stores.
It stopped selling handgun ammunition as well as short-barrel rifle ammunition, such as the .223 caliber and 5.56 caliber used in military style weapons. Walmart also discontinued handgun sales in Alaska.
The company had stopped selling handguns in the mid-1990s in every state but Alaska. The latest move marked its complete exit from that business and allowed it to focus on hunting rifles and related ammunition only.
Many of its stores are in rural areas where hunters depend on Walmart to get their equipment.