B O N N, Germany, April 26, 2002 -- An expelled student opened fire today in a school in the eastern city of Erfurt, killing 17 people and wounding six others before killing himself in Germany's worst school shooting incident.
The dead included 14 teachers, two students and a policeman — one of the first officers to enter the building.
The gruesome rampage began at around 11 a.m. local time, when the 19-year-old former student, dressed all in black and armed with a pistol and a shotgun, stormed into the Johann Gutenberg Gymnasium and opened fire. Police commandos rushed to the scene in an attempt to free about 180 students trapped inside the building.
The gunman killed himself as commandos closed in on him, police said. Four hours after the siege began, Erfurt police Chief Manfred Grube told a news conference the situation "was over."
Police did not immediately release the name of the gunman, but said he had been expelled from the school. It was not clear why, but he had apparently been prevented from taking the exam required for entering a university.
As the drama unfolded, local television stations broadcast an image of a sign reading "Hilfe" — "Help" — held up in a school window.
"We are stunned in the face of this horrible crime," German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder told reporters. "All explanations we could give right now don't go far enough."
The government ordered flags around the country flown at half-staff.
The rampage came just days after the third anniversary of the Columbine High School killings in Colorado. Fifteen people, including the two teenage assailants, died in the April 20, 1999, massacre.
The death toll of today's incident matched that of the 1996 shooting at an elementary school in Dunblane, Scotland, where 16 children, a teacher and the gunman died.
Man in Black Roaming the Halls
Police arriving at the school found bodies strewn in hallways, classrooms and even toilets.
"We found a horrible scene," police spokesman Manfred Etzel told Germany's N-TV television.
Distraught witnesses told of a man dressed in a "ninja suit" roaming the hallways with a gun.
He was "all in black," said one girl. "I could see only his eyes."
A 12-year-old girl said she was with a teacher in a classroom when the assailant stormed into the room, looked at her and then shot the teacher dead.
"I heard shooting and thought it was a joke," 13-year-old Melanie Steinbrueck, told The Associated Press, choking back tears. "But then I saw a teacher dead in the hallway in front of Room 209 and a gunman in black carrying a weapon."
"The guy was dressed all in black — gloves, cap, everything was black," Juliane Blank, 13, told The AP. "He must have opened the door without being heard and forced his way into the classroom.
"We ran out into the hallways," she said. "We just wanted to get out."
Nation Reels From Tragedy
As distraught parents rushed to the scene, a police official with a megaphone urged parents to register their children's names before leaving the scene. Several teenage students were being treated for shock inlocal hospitals, medical officials said.
Groups of dazed and shocked students huddled in the street, crying and calling their friends and family on mobile phones.
The school has about 700 students in grades five through 12. Most of the pupils were evacuated from the building at an early stage in the incident.
As the nation reeled, Schroeder canceled election campaign events planned for Saturday.
"We cannot find words for what we feel in Germany right now,"said President Johannes Rau. "Germany is in mourning in the faceof these incomprehensible events."
Germany has strict gun-control laws, but experts say illegal weapons from Eastern Europe are available across the country. Police said they found 500 rounds of ammunition near the school shooter's body.
Today's attack was the second in just two months. In February, a 22-year-old man who had recently lost his job shot his old school's principal and two of his former bosses near Munich. The assailant committed suicide.
ABCNEWS' Jim Wooten, Christel Kucharz in Bonn and Andrew Morse in London contributed to this report.