MURRYSVILLE, Pa. (AP) — Flailing away with two kitchen knives, a 16-year-old boy with a ‘‘blank expression’’ stabbed and slashed 21 students and a security guard in the crowded halls of his suburban Pittsburgh high school Wednesday before an assistant principal tackled him.
At least five students were critically wounded, including a boy whose liver was pierced by a knife thrust that narrowly missed his heart and aorta, doctors said.
The rampage — which came after decades in which U.S. schools geared much of their emergency planning toward mass shootings, not stabbings — set off a screaming stampede, left blood on the floor and walls, and brought teachers rushing to help the victims.
Police shed little light on the motive.
The suspect, Alex Hribal, was taken into custody and treated for a minor hand wound, then was brought into court in shackles and a hospital gown and charged with four counts of attempted homicide and 21 counts of aggravated assault. Authorities said he would be prosecuted as an adult.
The attack unfolded in the morning just minutes before the start of classes at 1,200-student Franklin Regional High School, in an upper-middle-class area 15 miles east of Pittsburgh. It was over in about five minutes, during which the boy ran wildly down about 200 feet of hallway, slashing away with knives about 8 to 10 inches long, police said.
Nate Moore, 15, said he saw the boy tackle and stab a freshman. He said he going to try to break it up when the boy got up and slashed his face, opening a wound that required 11 stitches.
‘‘It was really fast. It felt like he hit me with a wet rag because I felt the blood splash on my face. It spurted up on my forehead,’’ he said.
The attacker ‘‘had the same expression on his face that he has every day, which was the freakiest part,’’ Moore said. ‘‘He wasn’t saying anything. He didn’t have any anger on his face. It was just a blank expression.’’
Assistant Principal Sam King finally tackled the boy and disarmed him, and a Murrysville police officer who is regularly assigned to the school handcuffed him, police said.
Doctors said they expect all the victims to survive, despite deep abdominal puncture wounds in some cases.
King’s son told The Associated Press that his father was treated at a hospital, though authorities have said he did not suffer any knife wounds.
‘‘He says he’s OK. He’s a tough cookie and sometimes hides things, but I believe he’s OK,’’ Zack King said. He added: ‘‘I'm proud of him.’’
‘‘There are a number of heroes in this day. Many of them are students,’’ Gov. Tom Corbett said in a visit to the stricken town. ‘‘Students who stayed with their friends and didn’t leave their friends.’’
He also commended cafeteria workers, teachers and teacher’s aides who put themselves at risk to help during the attack.
As for what set off the attack, Murrysville Police Chief Thomas Seefeld said investigators were looking into reports of a threatening phone call between the suspect and another student the night before. Seefeld didn’t specify whether the suspect received or made the call.
The FBI joined the investigation and went to the boy’s house, where authorities said they planned to confiscate and search his computer.
While several bloody stabbing rampages at schools in China have made headlines in the past few years, schools in the U.S. have concentrated their emergency preparations on shooting rampages.
Nevertheless, there have been at least two major stabbing attacks at U.S. schools over the past year, one at a community college in Texas last April that wounded at least 14 people, and another, also in Texas, that killed a 17-year-old student and injured three others at a high school in September.
On Wednesday, Mia Meixner, 16, said the rampage touched off a ‘‘stampede of kids’’ yelling, ‘‘Run! Get out of here! Someone has a knife!’’
The boy had a ‘‘blank look,’’ she said. ‘‘He was just kind of looking like he always does, not smiling, not scowling or frowning.’’
Meixner and Moore called the attacker a shy boy who largely kept to himself, but they said he was not an outcast and they had no reason to think he might be violent.
‘‘He was never mean to anyone, and I never saw people be mean to him,’’ Meixner said. ‘‘I never saw him with a particular group of friends.’’
Michael Float, 18, said he had just gotten to school when he saw ‘‘blood all over the floor’’ and smeared on the wall near the main entrance. Then he saw a wounded student.
‘‘He had his shirt pulled up and he was screaming, ‘Help! Help!'’’ Float said. ‘‘He had a stab wound right at the top right of his stomach, blood pouring down.’’
Float said he saw a teacher applying pressure to the wound of another student.
The security guard was wounded after intervening early in the melee, police said. He was treated and released.
About five minutes elapsed between the time the campus police officer summoned help over the radio at 7:13 a.m. and the boy was disarmed, the police chief said.
Someone, possibly a student, pulled a fire alarm during the attack, Seefeld said. Although that created chaos, the police chief said, it emptied out the school more quickly, and ‘‘that was a good thing that that was done.’’
Also, a girl with ‘‘an amazing amount of composure’’ applied pressure to a schoolmate’s wounds and probably kept the victim from bleeding to death, said Dr. Mark Rubino at Forbes Regional Medical Center.
Public safety and school officials said an emergency plan worked as well as could be expected. The district conducted an emergency exercise three months ago and a full-scale drill about a year ago.
‘‘We haven’t lost a life, and I think that’s what we have to keep in mind,’’ said county public safety spokesman Dan Stevens.
___Associated Press writers Mike Rubinkam in Allentown and Jesse Washington in Murrysville, Pa., and AP news researchers Judith Ausuebel and Barbara Sambriski contributed to this report.