By Johnny Clark and Phillip Lucas
SUWANEE, Ga. — It's a call that firefighters routinely respond to — a report of a medical emergency.
But when five firefighters answered one in a neighborhood north of Atlanta on Wednesday afternoon, authorities said, they encountered an armed man who demanded that his cable and power be turned back on at the house, which was in foreclosure.
A group of people huddle together after an explosion and gunshots were heard near the scene where a man was holding four firefighters hostage Wednesday. (AP Image)
The firefighters were held for hours, with one firefighter allowed to leave to move a fire truck. But with police later fearing the remaining firefighters were in immediate danger, SWAT teams set off a stun blast and stormed the house, and the gunman was shot dead during an exchange of gunfire, authorities said.
One SWAT team member was shot in the hand or arm but was OK afterward, and firefighters suffered only minor injuries, authorities said.
Gwinnett County police on Wednesday night didn't immediately release the name of the dead man or discussing details of the operation. However, the firefighters and a wounded police officer were treated at a nearby hospital and in good condition. Some had already gone home.
"In talking to the firefighters and their families just now, they're relieved," Gwinnett County Fire Capt. Tommy Rutledge said at a news conference late Wednesday outside the hospital, according to video posted by Atlanta station WSB-TV. "They're simply relieved that the situation is over, that their family members are with them and that they're safe."
He went on to say "firefighters are resilient people and so they're brave and they're daring and they have a passion to help people" and that the five will be back on the job when they're able to.
The incident began with what seemed like a routine medical call for the five firefighters, who also have training as EMTs and paramedics.
Dozens of police and rescue vehicles surrounded the home and a negotiator was keeping in touch with the gunman, police said. The situation remained tense until the blast rocked the neighborhood of mostly two-story homes and well-kept lawns. Residents unable to get into their neighborhood because of the police cordon flinched and recoiled as the enormous blast went off.
Soon after the stun blast, officers exchanged gunfire with the suspect and a SWAT member was shot in the hand or arm, said Gwinnett County Police Cpl. Edwin Ritter. Ritter would not saw how the gunman was fatally shot, saying it was being investigated.
"The explosion you heard was used to distract the suspect, to get into the house and take care of business," Ritter said in a news conference minutes after the resolution. He said the situation had gotten to the point where authorities believed the lives of the hostages were in "immediate danger."
The gunman demanded several utilities be restored, Ritter said. According to public records, the home is in foreclosure and has been bank-owned since mid-November.
"It's an unfortunate circumstance we did not want to end this way," Ritter said. "But with the decisions this guy was making, this was his demise."
Firefighters were able to use their radios to let the dispatch center know what was going on, the fire department's Rutledge said, and Ritter said officials decided to "get control of the situation" and do it swiftly.
The incident took place about 35 miles northeast of Atlanta, in the Interstate 85 corridor, and Rutledge said firefighters did not believe there was any danger in responding to the initial call. One engine and one ambulance responded. Ritter said authorities didn't yet know if the suspect may have faked a heart attack or some other problem to bring the firefighters to his home.
"Our firefighters responded to a call they respond to hundreds of times, and that's a medical emergency," Rutledge said.
Two ambulances could be seen leaving after the gunfire ended.
Asked what kind of weapon or weapons the suspect had, Ritter said he didn't immediately know. He said investigators were in the house where the suspect's body remained.
A spokeswoman for Gwinnett Medical Center said Wednesday night that five firefighters and a wounded police officer were treated at the hospital and all were in good condition.
This was the second time in recent months that firefighters have been targeted.
On Dec. 24, a man in upstate New York set his house ablaze and shot and killed two firefighters as they arrived, then himself. Two other firefighters and a police officer were wounded.
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