LEWISTON, Maine – The first loud noise 10-year-old Toni Asselin heard sounded like the thwack of a ball being hit hard across a pool table. She thought the second might have been someone dropping a bowling ball.
“The third one, when I walked over to see if someone was hurt, I saw a person get shot and fall off their stool,” Asselin said.
It was just before 7 p.m. Wednesday at Just-in-Time Recreation, a 34-lane bowling alley where the $75 “Pizza, Pins and Pepsi” special included a large pizza, a pitcher of soda and two hours of bowling for six people.
One bowler had just removed his shoes when he thought he heard a balloon popping some 15 feet (4.5 meters) behind him. He turned toward the door, saw a man holding a gun, and took off running down one of the lanes.
“I slid basically into where the pins are and climbed up into the machine,” he said.
The gunman, Robert Card, was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot Friday, two nights after he destroyed an innocent night of bowling and socializing and turned it into tragedy. People gunned down bowling for strikes and spares, throwing beanbags, shooting pool, having beers with friends, working the night shift.
For Asselin and her mother, Tammy, the situation was especially gut-wrenching. A coach hustled the 10-year-old and several of her youth league teammates outside. An employee hid some of the children in a backroom office while other workers barricaded themselves in a freezer. She became separated from her mother, who initially stood frozen as others fled.
Turning to run, Tammy Asselin tripped over some bowling ball bags and took a hard fall before hiding behind a flipped over table and calling 911. Authorities said the first of multiple calls came in at 6:56 p.m. Four plainclothes officers who were at a nearby shooting range arrived a minute and a half after the first call, followed by uniformed officers less than three minutes later.
At one point, a young boy turned to Asselin. “Don’t cry,” he told her. “It will be OK.”
Several more shots were followed by a strange silence.
“Is he hunting or is he dead?” Asselin thought. “Is it safe? Are the police here?”
“Does anyone see Toni?” she shouted before being hushed by others who worried the shooter was still there.
“I had thought maybe the last shot we heard, he had taken his life,” she said.
Instead, the shooter headed 4 miles (6.44 kilometers) south to Schemengees Bar & Grille, where workers from other bars and restaurants could get 25% discounts every Wednesday night and employees were collecting Halloween-themed cocktail recipes for a cornhole tournament planned for later in the week.
The restaurant was hosting an event for members of the deaf community, and cornhole games were underway when a man entered and started shooting. In total, 18 people would be killed at the bowling alley and restaurant. Thirteen others were wounded.
Peyton Brewer-Ross, who enjoyed the game of cornhole so much that he brought out the angled boards and bags at family gatherings, had a spot next to the door and was likely one of the first at the bar to die, according to his brother.
“When he was shot, he was doing the thing he loved,” Wellman Brewer said.
Bar manager Joe Walker picked up a butcher knife and tried to stop the gunman, Walker’s father told multiple media outlets.
“And that’s when he shot my son to death,” Leroy Walker told WGME-TV.
Walker said his son was shot twice in the stomach.
“He died as a hero,” he told NBC News.
Authorities received multiple calls from Schemengees at 7:08 p.m., and the first officers arrived five minutes later.
An hour later, they released a photo of the suspected shooter. By 9:30 p.m., they had received a call identifying him as Card, 40, of Bowdoin. Lewiston residents were urged to stay inside with their doors locked.
Fern Asselin and his wife were waiting outside the bowling alley Wednesday night for word about their daughter and granddaughter. Finally, after two hours he got a call from his granddaughter, Toni.
“And the words that came out were four words I’ll never forget,” he said. “It was: ‘I’m not dead, Pepere.’”
Just before 10 p.m., police found Card’s car at a boat launch in Lisbon, about 8 miles (13 kilometers) from Lewiston. Those who had been in the bowling alley were taken to the city’s middle school to be reunited with their families.
“Now it’s midnight and I’m just getting home,” the bowler who hid in the bowling pin machinery told The Associated Press, identifying himself only as Brandon. “All my stuff’s there, no shoes, just ready to go home. I’m tired.”
At a late-night news conference, officials said more than 350 law enforcement personnel had joined the search for Card, a U.S. Army reservist they described as a “person of interest.”
By morning, authorities were calling Card an armed and dangerous suspect who should not be approached. Authorities launched a multistate search on land and water, including patrols along the Kennebec River. Schools as far away as Kennebunk, more than 50 miles (80 kilometers) from Lewiston, closed out of caution, as did public buildings in Portland, the state’s largest city.
Much of the search Thursday focused on property owned by Card’s relatives in Bowdoin. Two law enforcement officials told The Associated Press that investigators found a note at a home associated with Card on Thursday addressed to his son. The officials described it as a suicide note, but said it didn’t provide a specific motive for the shooting. On Friday night, authorities found Card’s body at a recycling plant where he once worked.
Tammy Asselin, who later learned that her cousin Tricia was killed at the bowling alley, wondered Friday if the gunman was thinking of someone he hated as he opened fire. She said her daughter also has been asking questions.
“Why the bowling alley?” Asselin said. “Why us? Why good people? And that’s what we don’t know.”
Associated Press writer David Sharp contributed to this report.