“We have an active shooter at Excel Industries.”
Those are among the urgent words in recordings of 911 traffic that were released Thursday of the Feb. 25 shooting that left four dead and 14 wounded. Most of the violence occurred at the sprawling mower plant in Hesston; the shooter, 38-year-old Cedric Ford, wounded two people as he drove to the plant where he worked as a painter.
The recordings capture calls received during an 18-minute window. The 911 calls begin shortly after Ford began firing at other motorists just north of Newton. The 911 tapes end about six minutes after Hesston Police Chief Doug Schroeder shot and killed Ford.
On the recordings, stressed callers flood the 911 system with reports of an attacker armed with an assault rifle and a pistol, people “running for their lives” from the plant and some workers trapped in offices and hearing gunshots getting closer.
911 operators calmly direct the callers in how to apply pressure to bleeding wounds, how to clear an airway, how to barricade a door. They urge workers to get to cover and reassure them that help is on the way.
Someone, apparently a first responder, says, “On Ridge. On Ridge (in front of the plant). I’m getting shot at.” Sirens wail.
The shooter is reported to be in the main lobby.
“We’ve got multiple victims,” someone says.
Schroeder is on the scene 20 seconds after the first call goes out, and he and deputies are taking fire.
Then someone says the suspect “is down” inside the front door.
Schroeder ends the carnage about six minutes after the first calls come in from the plant.
Earlier 911 calls, starting around 4:57 p.m. describe a man driving a gray Dodge Charger and shooting at other vehicles just north of Newton, the city he lived. He continues north on Meridian in a pickup that he has carjacked after his Charger ends up in a ditch.
He’s headed toward the plant that he had left less than two hours earlier after receiving a protection-from-abuse order.
At the plant, a caller tells 911 that “we have shots fired on campus. … Twenty shots. It’s, uh, rapid fire. Automatic.
“People are running.”
Apparently the same caller tells the dispatcher that he is in an office with another person and that they can hear gunshots maybe 50 feet away – “it’s close” ‑ inside the building or maybe just outside the door.
The two take cover under a desk.
When the dispatcher asks if he has heard more shots, the man replies that it’s been about a minute since he heard gunfire.
When the 911 worker asks if they have locked the door, the man says it’s not lockable, and she encourages him to push something up to the door to form a barricade.
“I want you to go ahead and make that door safe, OK?”
What appears to be another caller says that he is an upstairs office with another person. They have closed the door but can’t lock it but are putting a chair against it.
The dispatcher gives another direction: “Get something in your arms so if they come in you can fight. I am going to let you go.”
The swamped 911 operators have to cut some calls short as more come in. (Later, Harvey County Communications Director Don Gruver will estimate that at least 30 to 40 calls came from the plant to 911 operators during a 12-minute span, not including calls from officers, residents and media.)
At some point, a dispatcher takes a call from a woman frantically saying that her boyfriend has been shot in the leg. The woman says they have fled to behind a trailer home on Ridge Road.
In another 911 call, a resident tells the emergency operator that “tons of people” are “running for their lives across my lawn.” The woman tells the dispatcher she is opening her home to them.
“Oh, my God,” the woman then blurts out, saying she is hearing gunshots.
The Excel workers fleeing to her home “say that there are people that are hurt,” she tells the operator.
“Stay low and stay out of sight,” the operator says.
Another caller says that he is in Plant 1 at Excel, and “we’ve got people down,” including one person shot in the head. When the 911 operator asks if the person is breathing, the man replies, “Just barely.”
She directs him in how to make sure the person’s airway is open and tells him not to move any of the patients.
Another exchange: A caller, sounding distressed, says that people are running – “there are a lot of gunshots … getting louder.”
“OK,” the 911 operator says. “Get yourself to a safe location, OK?”
“I'm doing right now ... all the employees right now...”
Many of the callers speak in fragments, their voices pinched by stress. They are out of breath. The operators try to calm them and press for specifics on where to send emergency crews first.
At some point, another person tells 911: “We need police to Excel Industries. A guy just popped down with an AK-47 and started shooting.”
The shooter is described as having jumped out of a pickup truck.
When the dispatcher asks what kind of weapon the shooter has, the caller replies, “AK-47, assault, I mean he had it strapped on him and everything.”
The gunman is reported to have fired a couple of shots before he ran into the plant.
Another person on the 911 traffic says that “I just want to confirm, Chief Schroeder said the suspect is down just inside the front door,” that Schroeder says the number of victims is unknown and that he doesn’t think there is another shooter – but isn’t sure – and needs other officers to back him up at the front doors.