‘I have no idea what’s going on’: Pitt students confused, scared during hoax active shooter incident amid delayed ENS alerts


Pamela Smith | Visual Editor

A police officer walks outside of Hillman Library after evacuating students from the building.

By Punya Bhasin, News Editor

Amelia Aceves, a sophomore geology major, was sitting in a study room on the fourth floor of Hillman Library Monday night wearing noise-canceling headphones, when Aceves suddenly saw people running. 

“I didn’t hear anything, I just so happened to look up at the right moment, and everyone was just sprinting,” Aceves said. “I thought it was a fire drill at first, but then I realized there were no alarms, and then I saw police everywhere and they had their big rifles out and were yelling for everyone to get out, so I left my stuff and just ran.”

Pitt and City police responded to reports of an active shooter at Hillman Library around 11:15 p.m. on Monday, which ended up being a hoax. Hundreds of students evacuated the library, sprinting down Forbes Avenue, while others jumped off a side wall to get out quicker. This is the second report of an active shooter near campus that has turned out to be false in two weeks. 

At a press conference Tuesday afternoon, Chief James Loftus said City police received a call on an “untaped line” reporting a shooting at Hillman Library. He said this call had sounds of gunshots in the background. He said police then received two other calls from separate numbers also reporting the incident. They arrived at the library about five minutes after the initial call.

It took more than an hour after police evacuated the library for Pitt to send out an ENS alert, a decision that students criticized. Shortly after the incident, a petition started circulating demanding that Pitt hold Emergency Notification Service accountable to keep students safe. The petition, which has more than 3,000 signatures as of Tuesday night, wants Pitt to send out ENS alerts as the “threat is ongoing” and send frequent updates.

Clarisse Lin, a sophomore psychology major and the creator of the petition, said although she was not in Hillman during the incident, she felt “frustrated and helpless” getting information about the incident through social media instead of through ENS alerts, and wanted to take a stand. 

“I think the thing that was most frustrating for most of us, was just the lack of communication from the University, and the fact that so many of my friends had to call their parents and just be like, ‘Hey, Mom and Dad, like I’m safe, but I have no idea what’s going on because the University has not said anything.’”

Aceves didn’t find out until 35 minutes after evacuating the library that it was a hoax shooter threat. They didn’t find out from an ENS alert though, but from the Pitt subreddit. 

Loftus said about 12 minutes after police entered Hillman, they determined there was no active shooter. Loftus said Pitt Police was about to send an “all clear” ENS message, until they were dispatched to a potential active shooter incident at Mervis Hall. They determined that Mervis Hall was safe shortly after midnight. 

Loftus said police decided to send an ENS message once they determined both Hillman and Mervis were safe, calling it “irresponsible” to send a message before knowing that the Mervis reports were false. They sent out a blank alert at 12:36 a.m. before sending out another one at 1:01 a.m. that clarified that the active shooter threat was “unfounded and false.” 

“The scene was clearing at Hillman and we were getting ready to put out an emergency notification message we didn’t do that, we held off on that message, it would have been quite frankly irresponsible to put out that message, not knowing what was going on at Mervis Hall at that time,” Loftus said. “That was my call, it’s my responsibility. So we waited until Mervis was clear, and then the ENS message went out.”

Loftus said while he’s “proud” of Pitt Police’s response to the incident on the operational side, he “regrets” not sending an ENS alert out sooner. 

“My regret and my responsibility is that we didn’t get the ENS message out as quickly as I feel we could have or should have, and that rests with me,” Loftus said. “We want to stabilize the scene, we want to deal with the threat if there is a threat, identify if there was not a threat, and then we want to message folks because, frankly, when you think about it, and you don’t have to think about it too deeply, this is terror for everybody involved.”

Chancellor Patrick Gallagher sent out an email to the Pitt community Tuesday evening saying the University has started “a major review of the procedures, policies and tools that we use to respond to and address a disinformation attack.” This review will include reassessing the ENS system, revisiting its standard for sharing information, further educating the Pitt community on how to respond and aggressively pursuing who is responsible for the attacks. 

Aceves said it seemed like police evacuated the fourth floor last, and that they funneled students “like sardines” through a door on the ground floor that a Pittsburgh police officer shot through to gain entrance to the building. 

“And every time we passed a landing with the glass that we could see in, we could just see police completely covering the floor and just these barren floors,” Aceves said. “So it kind of dawned on us as we were going down that we’re the last ones out and that everyone was completely evacuated by the time that they got up to tell us to leave.”

In Hillman, Loftus said three exits were locked and chained. Two of them, he said, are exits that have been locked since Dec. 17 due to construction. Loftus said students did a “good job” going to other exits after encountering some locked exits. 

“We’re looking at systems and we’re looking at people to see what led us down in this,” Loftus said. “Was this a technical problem or was this a training problem, it may have been, was it a practical problem, we don’t know we’re working our way through that.”

Pitt spokesperson Jared Stonesifer declined to comment about whether the University will keep these doors unlocked in the future.

Mikayla Bernhard, a junior computer engineering major, was studying for finals with her roommate on the second floor of Hillman when police swarmed the floor telling people to run. Bernhard said she smelled gunpowder as she fled to Sennott Square, where she then frantically searched social media for answers.

“We knew absolutely nothing,” Bernhard said. “We were just seeing all the police officers running down, and still people walking around like nothing was wrong. It was crazy, you could tell no one knew what was going on, because everyone was just everywhere.”

Bernhard said she wished the University would have “said at least something” during the incident on Monday night. 

“I absolutely wish they would have at least told us something, even just something along the lines of there’s an emergency, avoid Hillman, or like avoid the area, like get inside the buildings are on lockdown,” Bernhard said. We didn’t need all the information, just some kind of notification.”

Loftus acknowledged that Pitt police don’t have to wait until an incident is cleared before sending out an ENS message, and they are currently “working on some interim messaging.” Loftus pledged to send out this type of messaging in the future. 

“Maybe there’s something that we could have done at some point to say, ‘Hey, we have an unconfirmed report of an active shooter, in such and such area, please avoid the area, stay clear of the area or something like that,’” Loftus said. “And that’s my pledge, is we will do things like that in the future, if we are put in that circumstance.”

While comments circulated online that neighboring universities received alerts before Pitt, Loftus said Carnegie Mellon University didn’t issue an alert and he couldn’t comment on Duquesne. 

When asked if the University will start requiring people to swipe their Pitt ID before entering a University building, like they did during the pandemic, Loftus said they aren’t considering it currently but might in the future. He added that police aren’t currently considering implementing active shooter drills, but there will be a heightened police presence on campus in the coming weeks.

Zachary Shafer, a sophomore physics and astronomy major who was in the first floor of Hillman, said he ended up being a “source” for students passing by who “had no idea that anything was wrong.”

“While I was outside of Hillman, I see people sobbing and trying to scroll Reddit threads to try and figure out what was going on, just so they have something to tell their parents, and I think that’s unacceptable,” Shafer said. 

Shafer said what was even more “horrendous” was that he evacuated Hillman, waited in Towers, returned back to Hillman to pick up his stuff and then returned home — all before Pitt sent out the ENS alert.

Aceves, Bernhard and Shafer each said they wouldn’t return to Hillman anytime soon. 

Shafer said while he believes the police who responded to the incident did a good job, he said the University’s lack of communication was “abysmal.” He referenced the Tuesday morning email from Ted Fritz, the vice chancellor for public safety and emergency management, which acknowledged that the messages were both “delayed and flawed.” Shafer called it a “flimsy apology.”

“I know many students who didn’t attend class because they were shaken up,” Shafer said. “Personally, I couldn’t fall asleep till 3:30 in the morning, and the fact that they gave us a flimsy response was unacceptable and they should have stepped up taking responsibility, showing that they care about their students, showing that they’re willing to take action to change what went wrong last night, and I don’t think that they did any of that.”

The University Center for Teaching and Learning encouraged professors to be “flexible and responsive to students,” including by avoiding administering tests and considering canceling class. Stonesifer declined to comment about why the University didn’t cancel all classes Tuesday.