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First word of the attack came Friday at 11:05 a.m., when the school custodian telephoned police and said, "Come quick. There is shooting here." To many students the events that followed seemed unreal. "We were waiting in front of a room for the next lesson, when we heard several bangs," said Denise Hoffmann, 15, a ninth grader. "There is construction work going on in our school, so at first we thought workers had dropped something. But suddenly out of the room, a masked person appeared. We thought, 'This is just a joke,' but then he opened the door to another room and shot the teacher. We thought we were in a movie."
The account of 17-year-old Felix Vater was particularly graphic. "Three pupils came into our classroom with shocked faces, saying, 'This cannot be true,'" Vater recalled. "I followed them out and found one of my teachers lying on the floor. At first I said to the others that this was a joke. I felt his pulse and tried to talk to him but he wasn't there anymore. You know the blood from TV, and you just can't believe this is real. There was a second teacher lying three meters away being tended by other pupils. He was still shaking. Shots followed and I said, 'Get out. Get out.' I grabbed my rucksack and ran out. It was only when we were in the schoolyard did we realize what was happening."
At 11:12 a.m., the first police car arrived at the school. As the policemen, wearing bulletproof vests, approached, Steinhäuser leaned out of the window and shot one policeman in the head. The officer, Andreas Gorski, 42, was killed instantly. Before he responded to the distress call, Gorski had been preparing to leave work to attend his daughter Caroline's 16th birthday party. "We had a funny feeling when we heard a policeman was killed," said Andreas Ratz, 42, a friend of Gorski's. "We called his wife Kerstin and drove to her house. It was gruesome."
At 11:15, a student identified as Maggie managed to make a cell phone call to a local radio station. "We were all taken into a room," she said. "Everybody is crying and all are scared. He shot a teacher one meter away from me and then just looked into my eyes." Julia Schneider, 14, said she heard two loud bangs in a corridor. "The door was thrown open. A man dressed totally in black with a storm mask, a rifle and a pistol shot into the classroom. He shot Mr. Schwarzer, our physics teacher. There was blood everywhere. Everybody cried. Then he pointed at us, didn't shoot, but ran away. We hid in different classrooms. Suddenly, the man in black tore this door open too, pointed his gun at us again and ran away."
One of those who responded to the scene was an emergency service doctor named Simone Biereige. She attended the Gutenberg school when she was young and knew most of the teachers. "My homeroom teacher was among the dead," she recalled. "There was blood everywhere, on floors, on walls." She said that Steinhäuser didn't act impulsively. "Everybody who was shot was killed," she said. "Our teacher for German and art just wanted to take our class out of the room," said Dana, a 16-year-old student. "The masked man killed her at very close range with five shots." Confronted in a hallway by history teacher Rainer Heise, Steinhäuser took off his mask and said, "That's enough for today." Heise shoved him into a classroom, where he took his own life.
Police revealed that Steinhäuser fired about 40 pistol rounds and had 500 unused bullets, indicating he planned an even bloodier massacre. Manfred Ruge, mayor of Erfurt, said the killings were a careful execution of teachers: "The wounds indicate he was quite selective. He executed them rather than running amok. It shows he planned the entire thing."
Steinhäuser's acquaintances expressed astonishment that their friend could be capable of such a horrible crime. "This doesn't fit into the picture I have of him, because he was a very open-minded young man," said Isabell Hartung, a former Gutenberg student who said she knew him well. "I didn't think he was up to something like this. He was insubordinate in school, attracting attention. Students loved it. Everybody got on with him and everybody liked him. I remember that he once told me that one time he wanted everybody to know him and just be famous. This is probably macabre but his dream seems to have come true." Hartung said she doubted the attack was in response to bad grades: "I think the teachers got on his nerves." She described Steinhäuser as someone who was "full of life," meeting friends daily and going to the disco at weekends. Norbert Hieltscher, a fellow member of the handball team, recalled that Steinhäuser had quit the team at the beginning of the season in August 2001. "He said he had too much to do for his Abitur," Hieltscher said. "Nobody thought he was capable of this."
Paradoxically, at the same time the grisly shooting was unfolding in Erfurt, the German parliament was in the process of passing new legislation intended to strengthen the nation's already tough weapons laws. But officials said Steinhäuser had obtained his guns legally by joining a shooting club and getting a license from the police. In the wake of this tragedy, the country is likely to ask if the laws on owning a gun are strict enough.