‘I freaked out and ran’: How the Prague shooting unfolded for students

An American student at Charles University in Prague has relived the moment he heard the gunman open fire in the attack that killed 14 people, saying he “freaked out and ran”.

James Truax was on the street outside the Faculty of Arts building on Thursday afternoon heading home when he heard gunshots ring out.

He told i: “There was these pops and bangs and people started running away… There was a lot of confusion. People had no idea what was going on.

“That’s when I began to freak out and run. I ran from the street to the beginning of Charles Bridge.”

The mass shooting, the worst in Czechia’s recent history, came as the city was packed with tourists visiting the Christmas markets.

The 18-year-old, from Montana, USA who is currently in his first semester at the university studying politics, philosophy and economics, said he ran with a crowd and met two of his friends as headed to the bridge. They were all texting other students to try to find out what was going on at the university.

James Truax says he ‘can’t rationalise’ what he saw (Photo: James Truax)

“There were police coming to the street with assault weapons and that provoked a lot of fear for me,” he said. “The police pushed us all back and I could see a lot of ambulances and fire trucks arriving – it was a chaotic situation.”

The attacker, a 24-year-old student of history, entered the university building in the centre of the Czech capital at about 3pm local time (2pm GMT) and started shooting.

So far the death toll stands at 14 people including the gunman, with a further 27 in hospital – 12 of whom are in a serious condition and at least one critical.

Authorities released more details of the tragic events on Friday, saying the gunman appeared to have shot himself when cornered by officers on a balcony. Police body-camera footage revealed special armed units storming the university building, searching corridors and rooms and administering first aid to victims.

Magdalena Sucha and Jakub Kos provided help to make contact as friends and family desperately searched for loved ones (Photo: Magdalena Sucha)

Officers were also seen on the roof carrying what appeared to be a body.

Mr Truax said he and fellow students are in a state of shock after the events on Friday afternoon and there is a feeling of fear about returning to campus where there is “little or no security”.

“After you get home from something like this it’s just something you can’t rationalise, it’s extremely unsettling,” he said, adding: “Now I wish I could see my parents.”

For Magdalena Sucha and her colleague Jakub Kos, the harrowing events at the university meant a sudden change of role.

They are co-ordinators for the student association, a joint project between the university and the city council, to organise cultural and social events for students.

But as reports of dead, wounded and missing students and staff began to emerge, they were inundated by calls and messages from friends and families trying to find out what had happened to people.

People take shelter underneath a window of the Philosophical Faculty of Charles University in downtown Prague, Czech Republic, Thursday, Dec. 21, 2023. A lone gunman opened fire at a university on Thursday, killing more than a dozen people and injuring scores of people. (X/elirozic via AP)
People sought shelter under a window on a ledge as the gunman opened fire (Photo: elirozic/X via AP)

Ms Sucha told i: “We started offering free help to find and contact students. They would message us and say, we are missing five friends, can you help us?

“We were the only platform where they could share the names.

“It escalated very quickly, we started the day with 4,000 followers and now have over 15,000.”

The rapid police evacuation of the university meant many students left the building without mobiles, laptops, or keys to get home and could not be reached for a couple of hours.

“There was a lot of desperate people, we had parents checking for missing kids,” she said.

Mourners bring flowers and candles outside the building of Philosophical Faculty of Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic, Friday, Dec. 22, 2023. A lone gunman opened fire at a university on Thursday, killing more than a dozen people and injuring scores of people. (AP Photo/Denes Erdos)
Mourners bring flowers and candles to the university in tribute to the victims of the shooting (Photo: Denes Erdos/AP)

They worked until 3am trying to make contacts and reassure people and were back at their desks at 7am on Friday morning. Now that people have been accounted for, the organisation is working with the university to ensure people know where they can get help and counselling and information.

“It feels good to be able to do something when you can,” she said. “We can sort of give people hope.”

The gunman, who authorities have requested not be named, is believed to have killed his father at home outside Prague before travelling to the capital and is suspected of shooting a young father and his two-month-old daughter in the woods near a village outside Prague last week.

On Thursday, police had information from a friend of the gunman that he planned to kill himself and were searching for him at another university building where he was due to attend a lecture. Instead, he went to the Faculty of Arts building just a few hundred metres from the main tourist destination of the Old Town Square.

Officers are also investigating the 24-year-old’s possible connection to a social media account that claimed he was inspired by a mass shooting in Russia, although this had not been verified.

The university issued a statement on Friday saying it was now collaborating with a security expert on protection of “soft targets” such as the university.

It said only security personnel and technicians had been allowed in to assess the damage to the Faculty of Arts building and students and staff would be notified when they could enter to collect personal belongings.

All lectures and events at the university were cancelled on Friday. Instead, a growing crowd gathered at the campus, including Prime Minister Petr Fiala, to pay tribute to the victims. While a university fundraiser to support the families of the victims, teachers and students affected by the shooting has already raised more than 16m Czech crowns (£564,000).

Saturday has been designated a day of national mourning.