False active shooter reports spark high tension at University of Michigan

Monika Paliwoda was working on a design project in the “Fishbowl” of the University of Michigan’s Mason Hall on Saturday afternoon when the people next to her alerted her to reports of an active shooter in the building.

She and five others headed for a classroom from the Fishbowl, a giant glass-encased room full of computers. They slammed the door shut and hid in a corner. For an hour, they hid in the classroom.

“We kept hearing random doors open,” she said. “I wasn’t sure who was going to open our door. I thought I was going to have a heart attack each time I heard a door open. We finally heard police down the hall yelling, ‘Police’ as they came in.”

In the end, police couldn’t find any evidence of any shooting, but went room by room in buildings that ring the Diag, a large open area in the middle of campus. The search tied up the center of the campus for hours on Saturday.

More: Active shooter reports on U-M campus appear unfounded, sheriff’s office says

Rumors spread that the calls were prompted by people popping balloons. U-M Deputy Chief Melissa Overton said police were investigating that, but couldn’t confirm it.

Mason Hall is at one end of multiple interconnected buildings, including Angell and Tisch halls. The buildings are full of classrooms, offices and other spaces.

The reports — 10 calls to police dispatch at the same time around 4:30 p.m. saying multiple shots had been fired — came as a group had gathered on the Diag for a vigil for those killed in two mosques in New Zealand last week.

State Rep. Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor, Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, and Rep. Donna Lasinski, D-Scio Township, were all in attendance at the rally and sheltered in place with others.

More: Death toll rises to 50 in New Zealand mosque shootings

Girish Shivakan, a junior, was at the rally. He said police told everyone to hustle inside buildings and seek shelter.

“They said to go into Hatcher (library) and not Mason Hall, because there was something going on in Mason,” he said. Shivakan didn’t hear any shots.

Students were held in Hatcher before being escorted by rifle-toting police across the Diag.

“It was really intense,” Shivakan said while trying to catch his breath from his run across the Diag. “They weren’t telling us anything.”

MaryAnne Wilson, 54, of Ann Arbor was walking back to her car with her husband after having coffee nearby on campus when police cars came flying up.

“I’ve never seen anything like that before,” he said. “Police were telling us to go inside a building and stay inside. I’m glad they responded so fast.”

The reports prompted a massive response of local law enforcement, including representatives from nearly every law enforcement agency in the county. There were also FBI agents and ATF agents seen walking around campus.

Thanks to social media, word spread quickly throughout campus and across the city. Residents who didn’t receive a U-M alert found out through other means.

Christopher Ciavattone, a 50-year-old Uber driver from Livonia, said he had been stopped by police in front of the university art museum on State Street. Around 5:30, he heard unconfirmed reports the shooting report may have been a false alarm. 

“That’s the world we live in today,” Ciavattone said. “It’s what we’ve come to expect, even when it’s not the worst.”

Contact David Jesse: 313-222-8851 or djesse@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter: @reporterdavidj. Contact Matthew Dolan: 313-223-4743 or msdolan@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter at @matthewsdolan. Reporter DeJanay Booth contributed.

Published 7:52 PM EDT Mar 16, 2019