The killer wore black. "He was like a ghost," recalled Julianna Blank, a 15-year-old student. "He had black clothes, a black hat and black gloves." He was also armed with a pistol and a pump-action shotgun, and he moved methodically through the Johann Gutenberg High School in Erfurt in pursuit of his victims. By the time his two-hour rampage was over, the gunman had killed 16 people and then turned his pistol on himself. After Germany's worst shooting incident since the end of World War II, politicians, parents and pundits were asking last week how a mass murder could happen in this peaceful 13th-century cathedral city in the state of Thuringia in eastern Germany. "It's the kind of thing you expect to happen in America," said a visibly upset presenter on German television.
Police had few clues about what lay behind the shooting. The gunman was identified as a former student named Robert Steinhäuser, 19, who was said to have been expelled from the school in February after forging doctor's signatures on notes to the school to explain his absences. Steinhäuser was hardly the classic loner, though. Popular with other students, he had played handball and belonged to two gun clubs, one called the Police Sports Club. His parents were reported to be separated. He lived with his mother, who works in a local hospital. Police raided his home but found no evidence to suggest what prompted the shootings. "He was a totally inconspicuous individual," said Andreas Förster, 42, a biology and sports teacher. "He was a very calm, reasonable guy who wasn't very brave in sports. When I saw him in front of me, I simply couldn't believe that he's capable of such a crime."
One clue to his actions may be that when the shootings took place last Friday, 12th grade students had begun taking the grueling examination known as the Abitur, which is necessary to graduate from high school and go on to university. Students were taking the first test, in mathematics, when Steinhäuser burst in. There was speculation that the shooting was in retaliation by Steinhäuser for not being able to take part. But it was eerily similar to the massacre of students at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado in April 1999, when 12 students and an instructor were killed by two socially frustrated teens. Only this time, the targets were teachers.
Steinhäuser apparently chose his victims carefully. Students described how he moved from room to room in the four-story school building. He shot a teacher, cast a quick gaze over the terrified students and moved silently down the hall. In the end, the body count was horrific: 12 teachers, two students, a school administrator and a policeman were killed during the siege. Ten people were hospitalized, including at least one wounded teacher, a girl with a minor gunshot wound and students who were injured either jumping from windows or scaling a fence to flee the killer. There was also an enduring mystery: students reported seeing two gunmen during the shooting, and one of the gunmen was reported to have run out the door with other fleeing children. "One of the two followed us to the schoolyard and ran away," said Steffen Holzhäuser. "I didn't see where he went. But not back to the school building." Authorities said they were investigating the possibility of a second gunman but could find no trace of him.
German leaders said they were deeply disturbed by the killings. "We're all shocked," said Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. "Any explanation we can give will be insufficient." The killings came during campaigning for national elections in September and are sure to bolster the already hot issue of law and order as one of the main themes of the campaign. Interior Minister Otto Schily, answering questions about school security, said, "I don't believe we can turn our schools into fortresses now. That would be the wrong result." "It was an unconscionable act and unprecedented," said Bernhard Vogel, premier of the state of Thuringia, whose capital is Erfurt. "But it's regrettably not the only case these days."
Indeed, within the past three years, three similar, though less deadly, incidents have occurred: In Meissen in 1999, a 15-year-old stabbed a teacher to death on a dare. In Brannenburg in 2000, a 16-year-old boy shot and killed the headmaster of a school from which he had been expelled. And near Munich in February, a 22-year-old jobless man murdered his former employer and the principal of the technical college he attended.
Throughout Thuringia church bells tolled dolefully last Friday night, and flags were lowered to half-mast. A day of national mourning was declared for this Friday. Thousands of people crammed into an Erfurt church, where a Protestant pastor and a Catholic priest held a service hours after the shooting. The memorial began with the prayer, "My God, why have you forsaken me?" Protestant vicar Jeremias Treu said he was praying for "those whose body and souls were injured. But also for those who have burdened themselves with guilt."
Even a day after the shooting, the scene at the Gutenberg school was palpable with grief. Dozens of students, parents and surviving teachers stood before the 93-year-old building and wept openly. They were hugged and comforted by friends who gravitated to the scene. Mourners left hundreds of bouquets, candles and toys like teddy bears on the school steps. A small blackboard set up outside had a hastily scrawled message: "Thuringia mourns the senseless victims." A student left a farewell letter propped against two candles. It read: "Forget us not your faithful hearts, Stay true far away, without you all the joy is pain, without you all the stars are dark." As students bent to light candles in front of the school, crime scene investigators dressed in white plastic jumpsuits could be seen moving down the corridors of the building gathering evidence. A hastily scrawled sign reading Hilfe Help was still pasted in a third-floor window.