Popping balloons led to UM alert, campus police confirm

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News
University of Michigan police officers respond with Washtenaw County Sheriff's deputies and the FBI, ATF and U.S. Border Patrol to a report of an active shooter on the University of Michigan campus near Mason Hall in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, March 16, 2019.

The University of Michigan's public safety director confirmed Sunday that reports of a shooter on campus were related to balloons popping in the area, which sounded like shots being fired.

"Even though this was a false alarm, we are grateful for members of our community who made the call to police to report it," said Eddie L. Washington, executive director of the Department of Public Safety and Security, in a statement.

"The news of a shooter on campus was a terrifying and traumatic experience for members of our community — both for people near Mason Hall when the reports were coming in as well as anyone who received the alert from afar," Washington said.

The incident reconfirms the importance of making sure students, staff and others are signed up for the UM Emergency Alerts and the importance of being prepared for such situations, Washington said.

"We are incredibly thankful for the multi-jurisdictional response and coordination with our numerous local, state and federal law enforcement agencies that responded and immediately provided support to our officers’ efforts to respond, investigate and ensure the safety of our university community," Washington said in the statement.

UM president Mark Schlissel tweeted on Sunday: "I want to acknowledge the feelings of fear and confusion caused within our community by the series of events yesterday."

"I would like to thank our responders along with everyone who helped ensure safety and offered support," the tweet continued.

But for thousands across Michigan, a 4:40 p.m. alert Saturday from the University of Michigan, apparently sparked by the popping balloons, set off three hours of fear and anguish on the Ann Arbor campus.

Those who scrambled in light of the alert barricaded themselves in classrooms and bathrooms and were finally assured at 7:50 p.m. that the threat was false.

Campus counselors were made available Sunday because of any trauma during the episode.

"UM EAlert Ann Arbor: Active shooter in Mason Hall. Run, hide, fight," the initial alert that was sent by the University of Michigan public safety said.

That alert was followed 37 minutes later by another that, for the first time, said the report was unconfirmed. Many had already scrambled to hide.

University of Michigan law student Sam Rubinstein was attending a campus vigil for victims of the New Zealand mosque shooting Saturday when he heard someone yelling, “MOVE! MOVE!”

He turned to see a police officer running toward the group. Panic set in as the crowd started moving away and up the stairs of the UM Hatcher Graduate Library. He and others he was with ended up huddling in a third-floor bathroom for an hour.

“There could have been no real threat at all or it could have been a very real threat,” said Rubinstein, 24, of New Jersey.

University police said they received as many as 20 reports at 4:35 p.m. of shots fired in Mason Hall. Officers said a short time later that they had found no evidence of shots fired or an active shooter. Mason Hall is on The Diag in the middle of the central campus.

Students were advised to run, hide and fight, if necessary. Many barricaded themselves in bathrooms and rooms in the Hatcher library. 

At 7:50 p.m., the school gave the all-clear saying the active-shooter alert was a false alarm.

Officers had secured the building and the situation remained under investigation by campus police and Washtenaw County Sheriff's Office, the school said.