Five gunmen shooting at one another ran through a West Baltimore schoolyard where 20 children and four teachers were rehearsing a skit yesterday afternoon. None of the children or teachers was hit.
As they fled, some of the gunmen then tried to get into the school -- Steuart Hill Elementary School at 30 S. Gilmor St., across from Union Square -- but were kept out by locked doors. There were about 700 children in the school at the time of the 2:30 p.m. incident.
"My first reaction was disbelief," said Goldye J. Sanders, Steuart Hill's principal. "But it happened. We still have to go on."
Moments before the shooting began, close to 100 other students had been playing in the schoolyard, which opens onto Mount Street in the rear of the school. But at the time the gunmen ran shooting down Mount Street, only about 20 pupils and four teachers were left outside, practicing a skit to be performed tomorrow at a playground dedication.
"We heard what we thought were fireworks," said Patricia F. Sheafor, a speech instructor at the school, who was in the schoolyard at the time. She said that when she and the other teachers looked to the rear of the school on Mount Street, they saw the gunmen running across the schoolyard firing at one another.
Mrs. Sheafor and the three other teachers in the schoolyard immediately hustled the children into the school, and custodians locked the doors as soon as all the children were inside.
Some of the gunmen, apparently trying to escape danger, tried to run into the school through other doors, but they were locked, in accordance with the Baltimore school system's normal security practice. One of the men shoved aside a teacher who was still in the schoolyard as he ran away.
Mrs. Sheafor said she believes at least six shots were fired. She said that when the shooting began she heard another teacher say they had to get the children into the building.
"I don't think it took more than a couple of minutes," Mrs. Sheafor said. "One doesn't expect that to happen during the school day."
The police said last night they did not know who the gunmen were or what the gunfight had been about. During evening hours the schoolyard is taken over by drug traffickers despite police patrols, according to police and residents.
Capt. Howard F. Parrot of the Southern District said when the police arrived at the school after the shooting there was a large crowd of parents hurrying to get their children.
"It was chaotic for a while," he said.
Mrs. Sanders, the Steuart Hill principal, said she held the 700 school children -- 4 to 7 years of age -- beyond the scheduled end of the school day to make sure that they left safely with their parents. Steuart Hill is a primary school for prekindergarten to second-grade pupils.
"We have done everything we can to make this a safe environment," said Mrs. Sanders. "This is unfortunately what happens in an urban setting."
She said her concern now was that the incident would effect the attitudes of not only the youngsters but the teachers -- most of whom have less than four years' experience.
"I don't want fear to set in," Mrs. Sanders said. "Hopefully, we can put this behind us. This is a wonderful school. There are a lot of positive things happening at this school."
One of those things, she said, is the dedication ceremony for their playground -- constructed with a $20,000 Neighborhood Impact Program grant from the mayor's office -- scheduled for 1:30 p.m. tomorrow.
Despite the gentrification that has gone on in Union Square, the police say the school is in a high crime area. "There's a lot of drug trafficking, prostitution, burglary problems and purse snatchings," Captain Parrot said.
After the incident, police cars patrolled the block around the school -- bounded by Hollins, Lombard, Mount and Gilmor streets -- while a police helicopter searched overhead in a futile effort to find the suspects.
The police said they have little in the way of leads to explain the gunfight.
"Until someone walks in and reports being shot or tells us something else that's all we have," he said.