A rifle-toting U.S. Army trainee hijacked a busload of children in South Carolina on Thursday before letting the kids off, abandoning the vehicle and surrendering, officials said.
The trainee from Fort Jackson left the base with a rifle — later found to be without ammunition — at about 7 a.m. ET and tried flagging motorists on Interstate 77 before spotting a school bus stop, authorities said.
He "told the bus driver that he didn't want to hurt him, but he wanted him to drive him to the next town," Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said.
Lott identified the suspect as 23-year-old New Jersey native Jovan Collazo.
The sheriff released brief video clips taken from inside the bus during the hijacking, showing a man holding a rifle and dressed in a dark T-shirt with "ARMY" spelled out in capital letters.
He could be heard ordering the driver, "Close the door, drive, drive!"
The suspect brought all 18 children to the front of the bus, where they "started asking lots of questions to the suspect, if he was going to hurt them or the bus driver," Lott said.
That questioning "frustrated" the intruder before he let the children and driver off, drove himself a short distance, abandoned the bus, left the rifle on board and was captured without incident, according to the sheriff.
The total time the man was on the bus with the kids and driver was six minutes, Lott said.
“It was six minutes of a bad guy on a bus with a gun who was very desperate," the sheriff said.
The base commander, Brig. Gen. Milford Beagle Jr., said he believes the young man was homesick, leading him to scale a tall fence and navigate a thick wooded area to leave Fort Jackson.
“As he left the bus, one thing he was trying to do ... was trying to acquire new clothes and a ride, which we assume would have been to a bus station, the airport, train station in order to make it home," Beagle said. "There is nothing that leads us to believe — through his counseling, through anything in his screening records coming in — that this had anything to do with harming others, harming himself."
The bus driver and the students, who were headed to Forest Lake Elementary School in Columbia, were not harmed.
"We're very thankful that we had a situation this morning that ended very peacefully where we didn't have anyone that was hurt," Lott said. "Probably one of the scariest calls that we can get in law enforcement ... that a school bus has been hijacked with kids on it with someone with a gun, and that's what we had this morning."
Some students had cellphones and called their parents, alerting them to the hijacking, officials said.
The driver had recently undergone active shooter training, and Lott gave the man and those students full credit for keeping their composure.
"I’ll give the bus driver credit," the sheriff said. "He kept his cool. He didn’t overreact. He didn’t get excited. He kept his cool enough that kept the situation calm. And I will tell you his main concern was the safety of those kids.”
Richland School District Two Superintendent Baron Davis thanked sheriff's deputies, Columbia police officers and the South Carolina Highway Patrol for their work.
"This incident could have ended very tragically," Davis said. “I’ve never been as scared in my life upon receiving that call.”
The trainee was in his third week of a 10-week basic combat training at Fort Jackson, officials said.
He's been charged with 19 counts of kidnapping in addition to a slew of other charges including armed robbery and carjacking, Lott said.
He'll also face military discipline for theft of a rifle and being absent without leave, or AWOL, according to Beagle, who doesn't expect the suspect to continue his Army training.
“Rarely do you see anyone that goes AWOL admitted back in," he said.