An armed soldier who ran off Fort Jackson was arrested Thursday morning after he boarded a bus with 18 elementary school children, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said.
None of the students were injured, and neither was the school bus driver, Lott said at a news conference Thursday morning at the intersection of Alpine and Percival roads in Columbia.
“Very scary situation this morning,” Lott said. “Fortunately it turned out well.”
The soldier, whose name has not been publicly released, was armed with a rifle when he got on a bus headed for Forest Lake Elementary School in the Richland 2 district.
Fort Jackson Commander Brig. Gen. Milford Beagle said the trainee is a 23-year-old from New Jersey.
Because he was in his third week of training, the soldier’s weapon, an M4 carbine, did not have any ammunition because neither live rounds nor blanks are issued at that stage, according to Beagle.
Beagle said that does not lessen the severity of the trainee’s actions, because there was no way for anyone to know the gun had no bullets.
At about 7 a.m., the trainee left the base dressed in PT clothes, escaping military officials, according to Lott.
Beagle said the trainee found a weak point in the fort’s perimeter fence and jumped it.
Initially, the soldier tried to flag down cars on Interstate 77 before heading to Eagle Park Drive and Percival Road, where he saw a bus picking up children at a bus stop, Lott said.
Along with the children, the trainee got onto the bus and told the driver he didn’t want to hurt anybody and wanted to be taken to the next town, according to Lott.
With the bus on the move, the trainee brought all of the kids to the front of the bus, where they began to frustrate him with lots of questions, Lott said.
The trainee soon had the driver stop near the intersection of Alpine and Percival roads and let the kids and driver off, the sheriff said. The trainee drove off a couple miles, but soon abandoned the bus and left his rifle on board at the intersection of Quincy and Old Percival roads. The trainee had difficulty driving the bus, according to the sheriff.
Lott said the area was quickly flooded by officers from his department, in addition to Columbia police officers and South Carolina Highway Patrol troopers.
After leaving the bus on Old Percival Road, the trainee tried to get rides and clothes when he was spotted on I-77 and was taken into custody without incident, according to Lott.
“All the kids are safe. The bus driver is safe, and the bad guy has been apprehended, so there’s not any threats anymore,” Lott said of the incident that lasted about an hour. “I think God looked down on these kids this morning and wrapped his arms around them and took care of them.”
The trainee is facing multiple counts of kidnapping and other charges, according to Lott. In addition to the driver, there were 18 students on board the bus, the sheriff said.
Information about why the trainee left Fort Jackson was not made available.
Joyce Jennings, the manager of Wash N Go Laundry on Old Percival Road, said she had a hard time getting to work by 8:30 a.m., because of the large law enforcement presence.
“They were just coming by me, zooming by me,” Jennings said of the police cars with their lights on, noting that others were blocking several roads in the area.
At about 8:40 a.m., Alpine Road resident Tricia Kim said she saw the bus pulled over and police cars on Percival Road.
Following the incident, Lott said authorities were working on addressing the needs of the kids on the bus.
“You can just imagine they were scared to death, along with that bus driver,” Lott said. “I will give the bus driver credit. He kept his cool. He didn’t overreact. He didn’t get excited and kept his cool enough that kept the situation calm. His main concern was the safety of those kids, and he did his job.”
Counseling services were sent to Forest Lake Elementary to help the students recover, Richland 2 Superintendent Dr. Baron Davis said at the news conference. The school district said it also notified parents about the incident.
“Once we learned all students were accounted for, and all students were physically safe, we wanted to immediately begin our social and emotional wellness protocol, which is to ensure that our students were receiving support, counseling support immediately upon arriving at school,” Davis said. “... I have never been as scared in my life upon receiving that call. A father of three daughters myself, and children who attend schools in our district. Every child is a precious child.”
Richland 2 school board chairman James Manning said the district “unfortunately” has practiced for a crisis situation, and those protocols were successfully used Thursday morning to keep open lines of communication.
“I’ve never received a call that scared me as much as the call I got this morning that a bus had been hijacked with our students and staff,” Manning said. “We are so happy that the students and the staff are safe.”
State Sen. Mia McLeod, D-Richland, said on Twitter she was grateful no one was hurt, but also made a political point following the hijacking which took place the same day the state Senate is scheduled to debate open carry of firearms.
“THIS MORNING IN MY DISTRICT: Fort Jackson trainee arrested after hijacking a school bus full of children, and yet the Senate GOP, is forcing us to debate and (probably) pass yet another expansive gun bill,” McLeod tweeted.
Molly Spearman, the state Superintendent of Education, echoed the sentiment about all the students being safe.
“I am relieved that no students were harmed during this alarming incident in Columbia. Thankful for the bus driver and law enforcement for responding quickly,” Spearman said on Twitter.
This is a developing story, check back for updates.