Two journalists for a local television station in the US state of Virginia have been shot dead during a live broadcast, by a disgruntled former employee who later shot himself and died in hospital.
WDBJ7 journalist Alison Parker, 24, and cameraman Adam Ward, 27, were shot at close range while conducting an on-air interview.
Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe said the gunman was a disgruntled former employee of the television station.
He was identified as Vester Flanagan, 41, according to a dispatcher for the Augusta County Sheriff’s Department. Stills pulled from Ward’s camera helped identify him.
Parker was talking to Vicki Gardner, head of the Smith Mountain Lake Chamber of Commerce, on a balcony at the lakeside Bridgewater Resort in the town of Moneta near Roanoke when the attack occurred.
- Two WDBJ7 journalists shot dead during live broadcast
- Gunman was disgruntled former employee
- Video of attack taken by gunman surfaces on Twitter
- Suspect dies in hospital after shooting himself
The pair were talking about tourism development for WDBJ’s early-morning newscast when the gunman seemingly closed in from behind the cameraman.
Several shots were heard, as well as screams, as Ward’s camera fell to the floor, capturing a fuzzy and chilling glimpse of the gunman, dressed in dark clothing.
The station then cut away to a startled anchorwoman back in the studio.
Gardner was “seriously injured,” said one of the US senators from Virginia, Tim Kaine.
Later, a video posted under the Twitter account @bryce_williams7, showed the shooter brandishing a weapon at Parker, who was interviewing Ms Gardner and unaware of his presence.
Ward has his back to the apparent shooter and also apparently did not see him.
The shooter seems to briefly lower the camera.
Multiple shots are then heard, and screams. Parker runs away.
The shooter’s hand is clearly visible. He appears to be wearing a blue checkered shirt.
None of the victims are seen wounded. There is no blood in the footage.
Flanagan shot himself as Virginia State Police were closing in on a rental car on Interstate 66 in Fauquier County, WDBJ7 said.
Virginia state police said the suspect refused to stop when spotted by troopers and sped away.
“Minutes later, the suspect’s vehicle ran off the road and crashed. The troopers approached the vehicle and found the male driver suffering from a gunshot wound,” police said in a statement.
He was taken to a nearby hospital where he died, police said.
Photo: Police surrounded the suspect’s car off Highway I-66 in Fauquier County, Virginia. (Reuters: David Manning)
Obama: ‘It breaks my heart’
The killings once again highlighted fears about gun violence in America, and a quick call for action from the White House.
“It breaks my heart every time you read or hear about these kinds of incidents,” president Barack Obama told ABC America.
“What we know is that the number of people who die from gun-related incidents around this country dwarfs any deaths that happen through terrorism.”
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said she was “heartbroken and angry”, and promised to “take it on”.
“We have got to do something about gun violence in America,” she said.
“I will take it on. There are many people who face it and know it but then turn away because it’s hard.”
Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe said the incident highlighted the need for tighter gun controls.
“There are too many guns in the hands of people who should not have guns,” he said.
“There is too much gun violence in the United States of America.”
Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Australia’s gun laws help prevent tragedies like those seen in the US.
“I have over the years certainly discussed this kind of thing with American friends and it seems that there is just a different way of thinking about guns there,” he told Channel Seven.
“Thank God we don’t have it in this country.”
Photo: Footage filmed by Vester Flanagan as he approached journalist Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward. (ABC News)
WDBJ general manager Jeffrey Marks — who earlier confirmed the deaths to viewers — told CNN: “You send people into war zones and into dangerous situations, into riots and you worry that they’re going to get hurt.
Correspondent Nick Harmsen at the scene
It is very sombre here, but also very professional. I have spoken to one of the cameramen at WDBJ and these people have just lost friends, colleagues, in some cases lovers in this building and yet they are continuing to work.
They know it is difficult, but they believe that what they are doing is something important, and they believe that this reporter and cameraman were carrying out their jobs right up until the final moment.
Their job is a difficult one; it is to mourn and remember their colleagues, but also to represent them and to continue doing their job.
The partner of the journalist Alison, he anchors the nightly news — he is not on air tonight, but he was out tweeting about her today.
The producer of the breakfast program, who was the fiancee of the cameraman who was shot, she continued to put the program to air after her fiancee had been shot, and she didn’t know what was going on. So some remarkable professionalism.
And when you consider that the cameraman managed to capture a fleeting shot of this gunman as he approached — as he turned and the camera fell — he has helped identify this man for his colleagues and for the authorities, and so the news director here put it that it was perhaps his final act of journalism.
“You send somebody out to do a story on tourism, and this — how can you ever expect something like this to happen?”
Mr Marks said Parker and Ward were “both in love with other members of the team” at the station.
“I am numb,” Parker’s boyfriend, WDBJ anchor Chris Hurst, said on Twitter.
“We were together almost nine months. It was the best nine months of our lives. We wanted to get married.”
On her Facebook page, Parker — whose birthday was just a week ago — described herself as the “mornin’ reporter” at WDBJ and a ballroom dancing enthusiast.
“She worked with Adam every day,” Hurst said.
“They were a team. I am heartbroken for his fiancée.”
Ward’s fiancée, Melissa Ott, a producer at the TV station, was in the control room when the shooting occurred and watched it unfold, Mr Marks told CNN.
Ott was working her last day at WDBJ before moving on to another station in another city, and looking forward to a farewell party with her colleagues.
“This was going to be a day of celebration for her time here and wishing her good luck,” Mr Marks said.
Photo: Tributes are left outside WDBJ, the TV station that journalist Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward worked for, in Roanoke, Virginia. (ABC News: Nick Harmsen)
Gunman worked for station two years ago
Mr Marks said the gunman had worked for WDBJ and then about two years ago, managers “had to separate him from the company,” adding that they knew he still lived in the area.
A few statements were posted on the unverified Twitter account @bryce_williams7 before the video of the shooting, including one that said: “Alison made racist comments” and another claiming Ward had reported Flanagan to human resources.
When asked about the tweets, Mr Marks said: “He did make some accusations against people some time ago.”
Flanagan had sued another station where he worked in Florida, alleging he had been discriminated against because he was black.
Flanagan said he was called a “monkey” by a producer in a lawsuit filed in federal court against a Tallahassee station, WTWC, in 2000.
He also said a supervisor at the station called black people lazy.
The Florida case was settled and dismissed the next year, court records show.
Media watchdog group Reporters without Borders (RSF) said initial reports seemed to indicate the reporters “were personally targeted in an act of revenge and not because of their jobs”.
RSF secretary general Christophe Deloire called the killings an “unprecedented tragedy”.
Mr Marks said station staff were very emotional and planning a memorial gathering later Wednesday.
Of the shooter, an emotional Mr Marks said: “If he dies, he took the coward’s way out… if he lives, he’s due due process and this could be a mistake. I doubt it.”