LITTLETON, Colo. — The gunman was walking through a middle school parking lot and taking shots at students with a hunting rifle as terrified teenagers ran for their lives. He had just wounded two students and seemed ready to unleash more violence when a math teacher named David Benke sprung into action.
Benke confronted the 32-year-old gunman, tackled him and pinned him to the ground with the help of another teacher, stopping what could have been a much more violent encounter in a city all too familiar with tragic school shootings. The shooting occurred in the same city where the Columbine High School massacre happened nearly 11 years ago.
"Unfortunately he got another round off before I could grab him," Benke said. "He figured out that he wasn't going to be able to get another round chambered before I got to him so he dropped the gun and then we were kind of struggling around trying to get him subdued."
The two students survived Tuesday's shooting and one remained hospitalized.
Police said they aren't immediately sure about what motivated Bruco Strongeagle Eastwood to target Deer Creek Middle School just after classes had ended for the day. Eastwood has an arrest record in Colorado dating back to 1996 for menacing, assault, domestic violence and driving under the influence, and he is believed to have a history of mental issues.
Jefferson County Sheriff Ted Mink praised Benke and called him a hero. Benke, the father of 7-year-old twins and a 13-year-old girl, fought back tears after Mink thanked him.
"Believe me when I say, I think he stopped what could have been a more tragic event than it was this afternoon," Mink said.
The victims, students Reagan Webber and Matt Thieu, were both treated at Littleton Adventist Hospital, where spokeswoman Christine Alexander said Webber was treated and released to her home. Thieu was transferred to The Children's Hospital, where he was listed in critical condition late Tuesday.
Benke, a 6-foot-5 former college basketball player who oversees the school's track team, was monitoring the parking lot in the afternoon when he heard what he thought was a firecracker and began walking toward the noise.
"At first when I was walking over there, it was kind of what a teacher does," Benke said, still shaken hours after the shooting. "'Hey kid, what are you doing,' you know that kind of thing."
He said another teacher was quickly on the scene and both of them pinned the gunman to the ground. Eastwood was armed with a bolt-action rifle.
"I basically have my arms and legs wrapped around him, (the other teacher) has his forearm around his front and we were basically trying to get the guy to quit struggling."
"I talked to him while we were on the ground," Benke added. "I was underneath him and his face was pretty close to mine. I asked him, 'Why did you do this? Were you a student here?'
"He either didn't respond or his responses didn't make a whole lot of sense," Benke said.
Investigators said Eastwood visited the school previously and was inside shortly before the shooting. He is expected to make his first court appearance Wednesday and may face at least two counts of attempted murder.
Denver station KUSA-TV reported that Eastwood attended Deer Creek Middle School in the early 1990s.
In 2005, Benke participated in a NASA-funded medical study in which he spent 10 days in a hospital bed so scientist could study muscle wasting, an affliction experienced by astronauts during long flights, according to a story in the Rocky Mountain News at the time.
He told the newspaper that he had a lifelong dream of being an astronaut and described his occupation to the newspaper as horse trainer working at his father's Eagle's Nest Ranch in Hudson.
A man who answered the phone Tuesday night at a number listed for Eastwood identified himself only as "Mr. Eastwood" and said he was Bruco Eastwood's father. He was at a loss for words.
"There's nothing you can say about it. What can you say?" the man told The Associated Press. "Pretty dumb thing to do. I feel bad for the people involved." He wouldn't comment further.
As for Benke, he said he still wishes he could have done: "It bugs me that he got another round off" before Benke tackled him to the ground.