• 52°

Arrest made after gunfire at Oakboro Fourth celebration

Chaos erupted after cries of a shooter swept through a Fourth of July celebration in Oakboro on Wednesday night.

A shooting near the festivities led to confusion and fear for many of those partaking in the holiday activities. As a result, a number of visitors fled the celebration.

Thursday night police arrested Nyquarious Garner, 18, for the shooting. He was charged with assault with a deadly weapon, discharging a weapon into an occupied dwelling/vehicle and injury to personal and real property.

Oakboro police Chief T.J. Smith said a dispute two blocks away from the celebration caused the panic. Garner, one of the two individuals involved, allegedly fired a gunshot with the bullet traveling north, away from the event. The bullet struck a car and went through an exterior and interior wall. No one was injured, Smith said.

At least one individual began yelling about a shooting, causing panic that began at the midway, Smith said.

While fireworks masked the shot, word still spread quickly.

“What caused it was, I guess the folks that did see it, the few people that did see the incident, ran and said, ‘Shots fired,’ and that caused a ripple effect,” Smith said.

People ran for exits, with many heading for Main Street, where cars were packed in spaces along the street and nearby parking lots. Many screamed that there was an active shooter, as some suffered minor injuries while trying to escape.

A 911 call about a shooting was placed at about 11:40 p.m., Smith said, and officers already on site at the celebration responded in less than a minute. In addition to Oakboro police, officers from Locust, Badin and Albemarle were already present.

Smith said his officers worked to safely lead people out of the celebration.

The only injuries were related to the panic, Smith added.

“Once they said that there was shots fired, people started running this way (toward Main Street),” Smith said.

While there were no major injuries, he heard that there were “kids who got scraped up and small injuries from the rush of people.”

Katie Wilson, owner of the B&K Carnival that has served the annual celebration since 2002, preferred the incident would have been handled differently.

“Ride operators were doing what they were told by the police department,” Wilson said. “I didn’t shut the midway down, the police came through and told people there was something going on with a gun or a shooting and that everybody had to leave the midway.”

Wilson said she wished officers had never mentioned a gun, since she felt it caused a panic.

“At first, it was just a group of kids that cleared the midway, and then the police came back through after the majority of the crowd left and were telling them about what possibly happened,” Wilson said.

“I just feel like there wasn’t any training on their part, like for crowd control or active shooter situations,” she added. “I was standing here when officers came through to speak to us as the owners and told us what was going to happen. One of my operators was standing right there and overheard, and I did this with my ride operator, ‘You don’t repeat that.’ And the next thing I know, the police were going around telling the patrons about it. I witnessed it. I watched it, I heard it. I was beside myself that they were doing that. I was in disbelief.”

Wilson said it took awhile for her to establish what happened.

“(The radios were) dead quiet,” she said. “I was working the funnel cake, and the next thing I know everybody’s running out of here screaming and yelling, and I kept waiting for a call that there was a fight or something, and nothing.”

When she heard nothing from her staff on the radio, she realized the midway was likely safe.

She didn’t learn any information until after closing when carnival staff spoke with the fire department.

Wilson said she has seen fights and kids running screaming at other events, but nothing like what happened in Oakboro.

“I’ve never seen people move that fast,” she said. “I think it’s just because of what’s happening in the world today. Everybody took it more serious than it actually was. I don’t blame them for being scared, but I think it’s just the way the world is today.”

Staff members cleared the rides and followed police instructions quickly, Wilson said, and none of them seemed to panic, she said.

Next year, she said she’ll talk with the fire department to make a solid plan.

“We’ll all be on board,” Wilson said. “If something happens like this again, it’ll be handled differently.”

Oakboro Fire Chief Rodney Eury was setting off fireworks in the nearby lumberyard when the scare happened. He and others couldn’t see or hear what was happening at the event, and continued shooting fireworks. It wasn’t until later that they learned about the scare, and not until about 12:30 a.m. that he received more accurate details.

“If we had known what was going on, we could’ve stopped the fireworks, paused and seen what was going on, and then resumed,” Eury said.

The panic started at the midway. Tickets were sold in the fire department bay near the stage.

Initially, event staff in the department didn’t know what was happening when part of the crowd began to run into the fire station, with many going through the department to escape downtown.

At first, staff thought it was likely a prank or someone shooting into the ground to celebrate the Fourth. The individual running the sound system made an announcement to try to calm the crowd, specifically avoiding the word “gun,” and saying that the situation was under control, Eury said.

Many were knocked over and “all but trampled on” as they tried to escape, he said. After the initial panic, those left began to calm down when they realized there was nothing to fear.

Both Smith and Eury said that at least 15,000 to 20,000 people or more partake in the Oakboro celebration, which magnified the situation.

Smith stressed that the dispute had nothing to do with the celebration, adding that his department responded appropriately and timely.

“It was very secure,” he said. “We got folks out of here safely. There were no accidents or major problems.”

His department has never responded to a crowd panic before, and he hopes it never will again, but he has had training in how to respond.

“I think that what we had was very sufficient,” he said. “We had officers on point within seconds of everything.”

He said the evacuation and traffic control went smoothly, adding that officers walked the perimeter to escort visitors out safely.

The department had “tabletop” plans for a worst-case scenario, but nothing “necessarily written,” Smith said.

Next year, he plans to add more patrols in the area.

Eury said next year, the fire department and carnival workers will have even closer communication. A carnival radio will likely be placed in the fire department to facilitate communications.

The committee is also working on “policies and procedures” on how to handle future similar scenarios.

Not everyone panicked. Even while many ran, others hung around to see if there was an actual emergency or to continue watching the fireworks. According to Wilson, one woman even stopped to ask for ride ticket refunds since they had been shut down prematurely.

Smith said his department was assisted by the State Bureau of Investigation, adding that his officers have personal as well as professional motivation.

“My family was there,” Smith said. “My daughter was there with her boyfriend. A lot of the guys — this is personal for all of us. We had police officers working amongst the crowd. We are the crowd.”

Smith and Eury said they hoped the scare will not deter people from attending next year.

“There’s stuff you can’t control,” Eury said. “You don’t want to live life in fear or not go anywhere.

This is the world we’re living in.”

The rest of the event went smoothly. This year set a new record for ride ticket sales, Eury said.

The fire department will receive a percentage of the sales, proceeds to go toward a new $518,000 fire engine.

Anyone with information about the incident is asked to call the Oakboro Police Department at 704-485-4214.

Imari Scarbrough is a freelance contributor for The Stanly News and Press.