VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — A municipal building in Virginia Beach, Va., was turned into a scene of carnage on Friday afternoon after a longtime public utilities employee began firing indiscriminately at his co-workers with a handgun, the authorities said, killing a dozen people and injuring several others before dying after an extended shootout with the police.
It had been nearing closing time in an office offering some of the most mundane functions of city government, such as paying water bills and applying for building permits, when the employee began stalking through several floors firing at his colleagues, the authorities said.
The loud bursts of gunfire sent workers scrambling and barricading their office doors.
Zand Bakhtiari, 28, who works on the first floor of the city building where the shooting happened, looked out his window about 4 p.m. and saw people screaming and running. “I thought they were running to the scene of a bad car accident,” he said in a telephone interview late Friday.
At that point, he had not heard any gunfire. But right after that, his boss, who had just left, called in an order to shelter in place: There was an active shooter. Mr. Bakhtiari and others in his office shut the door and got down.
He then heard 50 to 60 gunshots. “It was a lot of shots,” he said. Five or 10 minutes later, a police SWAT team came and led them out.
The identities of the victims were not immediately released nor was the motive of the attack. One of those injured was a police officer, who was saved by his bulletproof vest, said Chief James A. Cervera of the Virginia Beach Police Department, who said at an evening news conference that the scene could “best be described as a war zone.”
Bodies were found on all three floors of the building, the chief said. One of the deceased was discovered outside in a car.
He called the shooting a “devastating incident” that “none of us want to be here talking about,” adding that it was “going to change the lives of a number of families in our city.”
Chief Cervera said the gunman, whom he declined to name, was carrying a .45-caliber handgun, with several extended magazines. He had a suppressor on the weapon to muffle the sound, the chief said. The gunman was wounded after an exchange of fire with the police, who later issued first aid on him. But he succumbed to his injuries.
The shooting took place shortly after 4 p.m. within the sprawling Virginia Beach Municipal Center, a campus of city offices and agencies, including the Police Department. The attack unfolded on multiple floors in Building No. 2, which includes offices for planning and public works, among others, and is adjacent to City Hall. At the scene, bystanders fled for safety and officers converged in large numbers.
“This is the most devastating day in the history of Virginia Beach,” Mayor Bobby Dyer said at an evening news conference.
“The people involved are our friends, co-workers, neighbors, colleagues,” he continued before his voice trailed off and he bowed his head.
Dale T. Gauding, a spokesman for Sentara Healthcare, said five patients were taken to Sentara Virginia Beach General Hospital.
Another patient at Sentara Princess Anne Hospital was being picked up by helicopter and transferred to a trauma center at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital, he said. Details on their conditions were not immediately available.
“This day will not define Virginia Beach,” a City Council member, Aaron Rouse, said at the news conference. “We will show the strength of our city.”
Another Council member, Barbara Henley, told The Virginian-Pilotthat she had been pulling up to City Hall when she heard police sirens and saw police cars. After initially thinking it was an accident, she heard a male voice shout “Get down!” and saw people scattering.
“I was scared to death,” she said.
All over Virginia Beach, residents were trying to process such horror on what had been the close to a normal week. “Pleasantville is no more,” said June P. Kates, a former teacher and resident of Virginia Beach who lives in a retirement community nearby. She said she had been to the municipal center many times.
“It’s so sad. It’s just so sad,” she said. “I just think it’s the saddest thing I can imagine.”
Eerily, the police had scheduled a community workshop for Saturday morning on how to prepare for a mass shooting. The “active threat citizens defense” event had 36 people scheduled to attend, according to the department’s Facebook page.
“Having to face an armed individual with bad intentions is every person’s worst nightmare. You can’t stop crazy, you can only respond to it,” said a brochure for the workshop published by the local ABC News affiliate.
“You don’t prepare for something like this,” said Mayor Dyer. “It’s a nightmare no one wants to actually live through.”
Nothing like this has happened in Virginia Beach in the 40 years that Guy King Tower, a City Council member and retired lawyer, has been living there. “Nothing remotely like it, certainly in my memory,” said Mr. Tower, who has been living in the city since the 1970s but just joined the council a month ago.
He was at the municipal center early Friday afternoon, but left before the shooting. He said that Building 2 — where the shooting occurred — is connected by a tunnel to Building 1, which is the main administrative office.
He said that in addition to a dominant Navy presence, the area also has Marine, Army and Air Force bases. “This is a military town, and people deal with the wages of war on a pretty regular basis,” Mr. Tower said. “There are a lot of people here who have had loved ones in harm’s way. But certainly a mass murder had never happened that I can recall.”
Earlier on Friday, Wave Church, one of the largest evangelical churches in the area with about 6,000 members, hosted a blood drive. Steve Kelly, the pastor, hoped that some of the blood from the congregation might be used to help victims.
“One of our staff, his sister-in-law was in the building, hiding under a desk, texting us to pray for her,” he said. “She is traumatized, but she wasn’t injured.”
The Kempsville Mennonite Church was hosting a graduation celebration for its high school seniors on Friday evening as the chaos unfolded just a few minutes up the road.
William Yoder, 28, was one of the few people there to have heard about the shooting, because members of their community do not have televisions and many do not have smartphones.
“It’s semirural in this area,” Mr. Yoder said. “The civic center is pretty close to farmland, a few neighborhoods. Most times it is fairly quiet.”
“It is pretty shocking,” he added.