Survivors, victims' families and law enforcement tell of the deadly mass shooting at Excel Industries in Hesston, Kansas on Feb. 25, 2016. Video by John Albert/The Wichita Eagle jalbert@wichitaeagle.com
Survivors, victims' families and law enforcement tell of the deadly mass shooting at Excel Industries in Hesston, Kansas on Feb. 25, 2016. Video by John Albert/The Wichita Eagle jalbert@wichitaeagle.com

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Excel workers give their accounts of how shooting unfolded (+video)

March 05, 2016 05:57 PM

UPDATED March 06, 2016 09:50 AM

Several Excel Industries employees who were on the job during the Feb. 25 shooting that left four dead and 14 wounded said they were not aware of any plan or drill for how to respond to an active shooter.

In their own words: Kansas mass shooting and its aftermath

Survivors, victims' families and law enforcement tell of the deadly mass shooting at Excel Industries in Hesston, Kansas on Feb. 25, 2016. Video by John Albert/The Wichita Eagle

jalbert@wichitaeagle.com

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Here are their accounts and perspectives.

Chris Gadd, Excel welder, 44: He worked with Josh Higbee, one of the three people killed by shooter Cedric Ford.

Gadd, who has worked at the Hesston plant since Dec. 1, said he went through a two-day orientation that included information about what to do in a tornado but never got information about how to react to a shooting and never heard of a code word for a shooter. There are daily safety meetings dealing with such things as wearing safety glasses, Gadd said.

It’s loud in the welding area. Sometimes the welders can hear backfiring from mower engines being tested in the assembly area, Gadd explained. The afternoon of Feb. 25, Gadd said he heard “all of the sudden, eight to 10 ‘pops.’ And I thought, ‘Well, that’s not a backfire.’ ”

There is a long, wide hallway from the assembly area spilling into the area where Gadd worked. He recalled “just this rush of people coming through” the hallway into his area.

“You could see bullets flying,” with sparks flashing all over. For a moment, he thought maybe it was a fire drill and someone was throwing firecrackers.

At first, someone shouted “fire.”

Then, as more people rushed through the hallway, he heard “Shots fired!”

“He was shooting all over the place. … It was unbelievable all the people, all at once, trying to come through that hallway.”

It seemed to Gadd that Higbee and two others were shot as they tried to help the people in the hallway or aid one another.

Gadd saw two women standing, talking, “physically shaking” and crying. “What do we do? What do we do?” they said.

“I said, ‘Come on. Let’s get outside,’ ” and along with about 15 other people, they left through a door 40 to 50 yards from where Gadd worked.

Gadd said he wishes that in addition to a warning system for a fire or tornado there could be a “third siren for an active shooter” so everyone would immediately know the threat.

Later, Gadd said, he spoke with a man who had been shot at the entrance to the plant as soon as the shooter came in.

“I’m not opposed to supervisors and leads and those of authority ... to be allowed to carry concealed weapons” in the plant, he said. “I’m not saying everyone (should) have a gun.”

John Price, Excel welder, 47: Price had been working at the plant for 10 days when the shots rang out.

“Everyone was yelling ‘fire,’ ” he recalled.

Price had been a firefighter in the Navy, so when he heard the word, he took it literally. When he detected popping noises, he thought something was exploding in a fire. He had never been told that “fire” was code for “shooter,” he said.

He was looking around for smoke or flames, so he hesitated before he ran, thinking he had time to get out.

The shooter “literally followed me out. I was about 50 feet ahead of him.” Price crouched down and took cover behind vehicles.

Price said he has a license to carry a concealed handgun, and one of the first things he did was unlock the gun from his vehicle and hold it in his hand, ready to protect himself if needed.

He didn’t think anyone saw him holding the gun. “I’m not out waving it around.”

Earlier, when he had seen the shooter, Price thought the gunman had only a pistol. There was a moment after the gunman holstered the handgun that Price thought about going after the shooter.

But then Price saw the gunman raise a rifle to his shoulder and fire at least four to five rounds at a police SUV no more than 200 yards away, speeding forward with lights and sirens. “I probably wasn’t 100 feet from him when I saw him do that.”

Other workers had run across the street and gathered in a group 200 to 300 yards away. If the shooter had turned on them, “he really could have done a lot of damage,” Price said. “But fortunately, he wasn’t looking that way at all.

“I did have some cover,” he said. And although he was ready to use his handgun to protect himself, Price said, “I would have been no match for that rifle. I’m glad I didn’t make a move. It happened so quick.”

Excel is a “gun-free” plant, so guns aren’t allowed inside, Price said. The rule, he said, is “if you’re carrying a gun, leave it locked in your vehicle.”

Cameron Rankin, Excel assembly worker, 20: Rankin, who had worked at the plant for about a week and a half before the shooting, said Excel told him what to do in a fire or tornado and provided a map of where to go in those emergencies but gave no information about how to respond to a shooter.

Rankin was working in the assembly area on the east side of the plant, where the gunman entered. He remembers hearing “strange popping noises” and assumed it was part of the manufacturing process.

“I heard the pops, but I just kept on working,” concentrating on keeping pace with the work on the line.

Because of the noise made by machinery and tools during manufacturing, he has to wear earplugs. Workers yell to each other because of the noise.

He didn’t realize something was wrong until a supervisor ran up, telling workers to run. The supervisor put his hand on Rankin’s shoulder, urging him to flee.

“I just saw him running for his life, so I started running. … I saw his panic.”

He heard someone say there was a shooter, so he kept running until he felt safe. Only after he got outside did he pull out his earplugs.

He saw police vehicles coming up the road “superfast. They were all coming at once, so we knew that we’re going to be taken care of.”

Rankin never saw the gunman.

He said he wonders what would have happened if someone would have been monitoring the plant with cameras and had activated an alarm when the shooting began.

“Maybe some lives could have been spared,” he said.

“But, of course, it is an unexpected situation” unlikely to happen again, he said. “But you never know.”

Tim Kasper, Excel laser operator, 48: Kasper said he doesn’t think he received any information on how to react in a shooting, although the plant has fire and tornado drills, with designated places to go.

He said he would favor having a drill on how to handle a shooting, including a code word that is passed on to everyone.

When the shooting occurred, Kasper said, it was “chaos.”

“People were just trying to get out of his way.”

He heard “pop” sounds, but he works in fabrication, where similar sounds occur all the time.

He then heard “three-round bursts” and recognized it was a rifle.

When he saw “big guys moving fast,” he knew it was not a drill. People ran past him; his laser sits next to an exit on the southwest end of the plant. Outside, Kasper took cover behind a berm.

At one point, from about 100 yards away, he saw the shooter walk out next to the main office area, come down some steps, then turn toward the office entrance on the west side.

Kasper heard more shots. It looked as if the gunman was shooting his way into the offices, where a badge key is needed to get in.

On a normal day, workers come and go during shift changes, without guards, Kasper said.

“We’re one big family,” he said.

“Unfortunately, one of our family members lost his ... mind. … We’re a family. You don’t expect that.”

Contributing: Gabriella Dunn of The Eagle