HIGHLAND PARK, Ill. — Letham Burns wanted to arrive at Highland Park’s July Fourth parade early.
Just as he was setting up lookout spots for himself, his friend and their five children to enjoy the festivities, Burns, who is a competitive shooter, heard a distinguishable sound.
“We heard 20 to 30 rounds,” he said. “It definitely was semiautomatic, in a rapid cadence.”
Burns shouted to the kids: “Gunfire! Back to the car! Move!” They were about 150 yards from where the shooter was stationed, atop a business, indiscriminately shooting into the crowd with a “high-powered” rifle, police said.
All of the active shooter trainings the children had undergone at school paid off, Burns said. They remained calm and exited quickly. Back home, they tried going to the pool, but helicopters were hovering overhead. And the shooter was still on the loose.
“It’s a very Jewish area. We’re hoping it’s not something that’s instigated by anything more than mental illness,” Burns said.
Witnesses to the shooting, which left at least six people dead and 24 others injured in Highland Park, an affluent Chicago suburb, described a scene of confusion giving way to mass panic and horror.
Kristen Carlson, who sheltered in place at her mother’s house a few blocks from the scene with her two older children, said that as families and paradegoers fled, she could “see the terror on their faces.” Carlson helped others shelter in place in the backyard of her mother’s house in the 600 block of Highland Park.
“People just ran, and they just left their stuff, and it was terrifying,” she told MSNBC’s Hallie Jackson. “I don’t live here anymore, but I’m afraid to get in my car and go back home, so we’re just hiding here.”
City officials urged people to shelter in place Monday afternoon, calling it an “active shooter incident” as the shooter, described as a white man with dark hair in his late teens or early 20s, remained at large.
Dr. David Baum, who attended the parade, told NBC Chicago the bodies he saw were “not an image that anyone who’s not a physician would have an easy time processing.”
“They had horrific injuries — the kind of injuries you’d probably see in wartime, the kind of injuries that only probably happen when bullets can blow bodies up,” he said. “These bodies were gone. They covered them up immediately and went on to trying to get other people out.”
Baum said several medical professionals stayed behind to help treat victims.
Other witnesses recounted an atmosphere of confusion at the start of the massacre around 10 a.m. Some thought the sounds of gunfire were fireworks.
“I thought it was part of the parade,” Gabriella Martinez told NBC Chicago. “Then, literally like one second [later], we all started getting into a panic mode.”
Larry Bloom said other attendees initially thought the gunshots were coming from a display on one of the floats.
“I was screaming, and people were screaming,” he said. “They were panicking, and they were just scattering, and I, you know, we didn’t know. You know, it was right on top of us.”
Highland Park resident Adrienne Drell didn’t hear gunshots, but she became confused seeing the Highland Park High School band suddenly break formation and flee.
“I thought that was a heck of way to disperse. They went running, and I thought, ‘Huh?’” Drell, a retired journalist, told NBC News.
“And a guy came up to me said, ‘You got to get out of here!’ … Then a cop with a big dog comes up and goes: ‘Get out of here! Get out of here!’”
Amairani Garcia told NBC Chicago she ran with her daughter to a McDonald’s nearby and hid there until a cousin was able to take them to a “secure” place to shelter.
“You don’t expect it,” Garcia said. “Nowadays, we don’t feel safe.”
Another Highland Park resident, Eduardo Gonzalez, said he would have gone to the parade had his wife not had to work.
He dropped her off at her job and then drove back home. Not long after, from inside his house, he heard screams outside and saw a stream of paradegoers sprinting past his home. He said a woman running by screamed to him: “There’s a shooter!”
Gonzalez moved to Highland Park a year ago from Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood.
“Maybe three times a year you’d hear [the] occasional gunshot,” Gonzalez said of his time in Chicago. He gestured to the sea of emergency and military vehicles across the street from his home.
“Never did we have anything like this,” he said.