By Tony Bartelme and Glenn Smith, The Post and Courier
Three blocks from Emanuel AME Church, even closer to the controversial John C. Calhoun statue on Marion Square, an urgent police bulletin: “active shooter situation.”
Thursday’s deadly shooting happened in the heart of downtown Charleston’s entertainment district, in the heat of the city’s summer tourist season, in a country already boiling in anxiety over mass shootings and racial and political flares.
(Police: Hostage situation over in Charleston. One victim is dead, gunman in critical condition. Courtesy of Fox News and YouTube)
So when word spread quickly about the violence at Virginia’s on King, the world’s eyes moved just as fast toward Charleston.
From India to the United Kingdom to CNN, networks issued news alerts. The shooting rose to the top of Twitter’s news feed.
Was it terrorism? Was it related to events in Charlottesville, Va.? A mass shooting?
The questions hung in the humidity as the SWAT team and other first responders converged on the corner of King and Hutson streets.
It hit Twitter around 12:23 p.m. “Gunman in Virginia’s on King. Avoid area!!”
CNN, CBS, Yahoo and other international news organizations contacted local reporters for answers.
Within 20 minutes, news poured through social media sites that a disgruntled employee might have been involved — and that there might be hostages.
All of this was taking place in one of the more visible tourist destinations in the nation.
Over the past few years, Charleston has been named one of the best places in the country to visit.
And King Street is one of the busiest areas in the city, blocks from the College of Charleston, the Visitor Center, hotels and museums.
It’s become a hub of the city’s food and beverage district, lined with high-end restaurants, tony bars and eclectic shops.
The draw of Southern fried chicken lured Peter Siegert and his son to Virginia’s on King while in town on vacation from Maryland.
They had barely touched their meals when the gunman strode through the crowded restaurant with a revolver at the height of lunch hour.
They managed to escape with other diners but left behind their belongings as they crawled out a back door, hearts pounding.
Just around the corner is the Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry, which was packed with about 120 children and family members.
“The director saw the police out the window, went down to take a look and came back saying ‘lock down, now,’ ” said Jacquie Berger, the museum’s director of development, shortly after the gunman took over.
At 1:15 p.m., she stood at the door as children shouted in the background. A helicopter hovered above.
Blue-lights flashed on John Street where Jay S., who asked that his last name not be used, said he was trying to get to his girlfriend, who was in an office across from the restaurant.
“She’s pretty frantic,” he said, adding that he knew one of the employees who worked at Virginia’s.
“He’s not picking up his phone. It’s blowing up on Facebook. We’re all worried.”
(Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg says a hostage situation at a local restaurant has ended with the gunman being shot by police. He says a restaurant employee shot by the gunman Thursday has died. Courtesy of The Associated Press and YouTube)
In less than an hour, eyewitness accounts added new details.
A gunman had walked into the dining room, ordered people to get on the floor and then move to the back of the restaurant. Most people fled through a rear door.
The shooting was now a top story on Google News.
Then, a standoff. The gunman was inside. CNN cut to a live press conference just after 1:40 p.m., where Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg said it wasn’t a hate crime or an act of terror.
He stood in Marion Square, just across the field from where his predecessor, Joe Riley, and former Police Chief Greg Mullen told the world about the massacre at Emanuel AME Church that left nine worshippers dead at the hands of a self-avowed white supremacist in June 2015.
Just as on that night, a large stretch of one of Charleston’s main arteries was shut down as heavily-armed police officers raced about, trying to disarm a home-grown threat.
But this was not Mother Emanuel. Not Charlottesville. Storm clouds moved in.
Police shot the hostage-taker. The crisis was over, leaving a rattled nation to puzzle over one more flash of violence that ended with bloodshed and speculation over a killer’s tangled motives.
Just after 3 p.m., Tecklenburg stood in the middle of King Street, surrounded by microphones and cameras.
Officers with military-style rifles strode by. The mayor tried to reassure residents as bells rang from the church behind him.
(The mayor says a hostage situation in a Charleston, South Carolina, restaurant has ended with the gunman being shot by police. Courtesy of TIME and YouTube)
“I’m glad to hear the bells of St. Matthews are ringing, and I do ask our community’s prayers for one family today because one person has been killed,” he said.
He quickly shifted toward a larger audience. “This was not an act of terrorism, this was not a hate crime.”
“This was a tragic case of a disgruntled individual with a history of some mental health challenges who took his anger into his own hands.”
The news cycle churned on: the president’s latest tweet storm; a massive Powerball prize; a hurricane strengthening in the Gulf.
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