Raleigh_A young police officer who stopped a shooting rampage that killed eight people in a North Carolina nursing home said Monday that searching the building alone for the gunman was "very scary."
Justin Garner, 25, was the only police officer on Sunday morning duty in the town of Carthage when emergency calls came in about shooting at Pinelake Health and Rehab on March 29. He told NBC's "Today" show on Monday that he first thought the report was a misunderstanding.
"When they gave me the call, they said there were some shots had been fired at the building, and I was thinking maybe somebody could be nearby shooting," possibly for target practice, Garner said.
Then he saw a car in the parking lot with the driver's window shot out and realized "something serious was going on."
He entered the nursing home alone and saw a woman in a wheelchair who had been shot.
"When I went in, like you said, there were doors, hallways, there were rooms everywhere. I was just going through. I didn't know where he was at. It was very scary. Very scary," said Garner, a past winner of his department's Officer of the Year award.
Garner said he was standing in one hallway when the gunman emerged from another hallway, about 35 yards away. He told the gunman three times to put down the shotgun that was in his hands before opening fire himself.
"He managed to get a shot off, apparently about the same time I did, because I never heard it, I never heard his gun go off," Garner said, adding that he did feel the shotgun pellets hit his leg.
Seven patients and a nurse were killed in the shooting, which ended four minutes after Garner entered the home. Robert Stewart, 45, was wounded and is charged with eight counts of first-degree murder and a single charge of felony assault of a law enforcement officer.
Stewart's estranged wife worked at the nursing home and survived the shooting by hiding in a section of the home for Alzheimer's patients that was behind a locked door. Authorities have declined to speculate on a motive but say they are looking into whether the shooting was "domestic-related."
Carthage Police Chief Chris McKenzie, who appeared on the "Today" show with Garner, said more people certainly would have died if Garner hadn't acted so quickly.
"Certainly, had Justin not done what he did, the loss of life would have been a lot greater," McKenzie said.
Garner said that realization didn't hit him until he got home that night.
"When it all first initially happened, it didn't really dawn on me until later on that night when I was home and got ready to go to bed, it really hit me pretty hard," he said.