LEWISTON, Maine — It was supposed to be a night of fun competition.
A group of young people gathered at a bowling alley in Lewiston on Wednesday evening for youth league matches. Four miles away, members of a cornhole team for deaf people hosted an evening of games.
But before long, the revelry was interrupted by gunfire.
A shooter unleashed a barrage of bullets on the bowling event at Just-in-Time Recreation, where he killed seven people, before he moved on to Schemengees Bar and Grille about 12 minutes later, where he killed eight more. The death toll stands at 18, including those who died later at hospitals.
“They’re just innocent people out for a night of bowling,” said Kim McConville, whose cousin and his 14-year-old son were killed at the bowling alley. “This was a children’s event. Who expects a shooter to go into a children’s event?”
An American pastime turns deadly
Two sisters were bowling together when they heard loud noises. With the constant sound of bowling balls and pins dropping, they didn't realize what was happening at first, their mother said.
When it became clear the sounds were gunfire, one of the sisters, Tricia Asselin, 53, tried to call 911 as people ran for an exit on one side of the building, Alicia Lachance told NBC News. Asselin worked part-time at the bowling alley concession stand and was there on her night off with sister Bobbi-Lynn Nichols.
“Tricia decided to go get her phone so she could call the police and dial 911 because she cared about people,” said Lachance, who wasn't there that night but spoke with Nichols afterward. “A lot of them were her customers.”
She was shot and killed crossing the room.
Asselin “had a great passion for life,” and she was a loving mother and “the most caring person there was," Lachance said.
Another bowler thought a balloon was popping, but when he looked toward the door, he saw a man holding a large gun. The bowler scrambled down the length of an alley and crawled up into the bowling pin machinery as the gunman fired randomly.
“I was putting on my bowling shoes when it started,” the bowler, who identified himself only as Brandon, said Wednesday night. “I’ve been barefoot for five hours.”
He said he heard about 10 shots.
“I had my back turned to the door, and as soon as I turned and saw it was not a balloon — he was holding a weapon — I just booked it,” he told The Associated Press.
Survivors and families whose loved ones were killed or are missing said they are desperately trying to piece together what happened Wednesday night in this quiet town just north of Portland, where shooting deaths are rare.
The alleged gunman remained at large Thursday, and police issued a warrant for his arrest on murder charges.
McConville on Thursday was trying to track down Bill Young, her cousin, and his 14-year-old son, Aaron, who were last seen at the bowling alley.
“It’s total chaos. People aren’t getting any of the information they need,” she said. “They’re not telling them any more than we’re getting off a news conference.”
McConville said family members had been to the hospital and the reunification center with no luck, and Young’s cellphone indicated that it was at the bowling alley. They called multiple times with no response.
Later in the day, police informed McConville’s family that Young and his son were among the dead.
Just-in-Time Recreation said Thursday on Facebook that “none of this seems real, but unfortunately it is.”
“We are devastated for our community and our staff. We lost some amazing and whole hearted people from our bowling family and community last night,” the post said. “There are no words to fix this or make it better. We are praying for everyone who has been affected by this horrific tragedy. We love you all and hold you close in our hearts.”
A community hit hard
Joseph Walker, the manager of Schemengees Bar & Grille, was among the dead, said his father, Leroy Walker. His son died a hero after he picked up a butcher knife from the bar and tried "to go at the gunman to stop him from shooting anybody else," Walker said.
But the gunman shot Joseph twice, Walker said before he broke into tears.
Walker described his son as someone who “loved thousands of people” and “thousands of people loved him.”
“He’d help anybody, work with anybody, put on any kind of a tournament that they wanted,” Walker said. “Raise money for many, many groups. He was actually going to do a cornhole tournament on Nov. 11 to raise money for the veterans.”
Joseph and his wife had two grandchildren and a stepson living at home with them, and Joseph's wife is “just torn apart,” Walker said.
The shooting hit Maine’s deaf community especially hard. Several of its members were participating in a cornhole event at the restaurant organized by American Deaf Cornhole, a group that organizes tournaments across the country.
Catherine Dunn was still waiting for official word on what happened to her stepson, Bryan McFarlane, 41, who is deaf.
“I don’t know if he’s alive or dead,” she said, adding that she's concerned about McFarlane's dog.
“He takes his dog everywhere,” she said. “I don’t know if his dog is in his truck at Schemengees’ bar still. Or if he’s at his house or if he’s still alive.”
Schemengees Bar & Grille posted an unsigned Facebook message: “My heart is crushed. I am at a loss for words. In a split second your world gets turn upside down for no good reason. We lost great people in this community. How can we make any sense of this. Sending out prayers to everyone.”
The suspect, Robert Card, 40, remained at large as of Thursday, and police have issued a warrant for his arrest on murder charges.