Vigil attendees, students recall false-alarm 'active shooter' scare on UM campus

ANN ARBOR, MI – It wasn’t supposed to end like this.

The vigil held on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor on Saturday afternoon, March 16, was to honor the victims of two mosque shootings in New Zealand and to stand up against Islamophobia.

But when police ran through the UM Diag shortly before 5 p.m., yelling for the crowd to clear out, chaos ensued.

People panicked and scattered, as word spread that an active shooter may be on campus, possibly in nearby Mason Hall.

“It was a fairly chaotic situation,” said Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, who was among several state lawmakers attending the peaceful vigil with dozens of other community members.

Irwin recalls people being knocked over, including state Reps. Donna Lasinski, D-Scio Township, and Laurie Pohutsky, D-Livonia.

“I don’t think people knew where to go or what was happening,” Irwin said, adding he found a place to duck before trying to help a worried mother find her lost child. He then took cover in a nearby library building and eventually left the scene.

Social media lit up when the university issued an official “run hide fight” emergency alert and warned of a possible active shooter.

Police from various agencies, including K-9 units, swarmed the area and combed through multiple campus buildings, following up on 911 reports of shots fired, but they were never able to find a shooter or anyone shot and later determined there was no threat.

There were reports of balloons popping possibly causing the scare, according to UM police.

Irwin choked up Saturday night as he reflected on how much fear of gun violence there is in today’s culture, so much that the sound of balloons popping may have led to such a panic.

“It was a sad ending to an otherwise positive event,” he said, adding a goal of the vigil was to try to uplift people in the community and make them feel safer, and it didn’t have that result. “The part of it that’s sad is that people are so fearful, and the racialized violence you see all over the world has gotten people on edge, even here.”

Jabir Ahmed, 20, a junior at UM, said he was was attending the vigil when he heard screaming.

He thought someone was firing gunshots into the crowd.

“We just ran,” he said. “I was scared for bullets hitting me.”

Ahmed and a group of friends hid during the scare.

“It’s just shocking,” he said after emerging from the Hatcher Graduate Library. “It’s not even shocking. I can’t believe it’s a normal thing.”

Suspected active shooter on campus of University of Michigan

While listening to a police radio scanner on his phone, hoping for updates, Ahmed described running from the Diag in the panicked crowd. He said a woman in a stroller was knocked to the ground. She was helped up and appeared uninjured, he said.

UM police frequently practice for these types of situations, said Deputy UM Police Chief Melissa Overton.

“We train ‘run hide fight,’ which is run out of the building if you can, hide if you have to, and fight if you must,” she said Saturday night as police were still clearing campus buildings where people were hiding.

There were more than 10 emergency calls of multiple shots fired at Mason Hall, Overton said.

Police later received reports of a potential shooter on the move to other areas around State Street and South University Avenue, with callers giving different suspect descriptions, including at one point a description of a white man in a black trench coat on State Street.

Various law enforcement units responded to assist UM’s Division of Public Safety and Security, including the FBI, Border Patrol, Ann Arbor Police, Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office and others.

By about 5:30 p.m., UM police determined there did not appear to be an active threat to the community but were still investigating and encouraged people to stay clear of the area.

Shortly before 8 p.m., UM police issued an updated alert saying the scene was all clear and all campus buildings were reopened.

Ann Arbor News reporter Darcie Moran contributed to this report.