By Richard Valdmanis
LEWISTON, Maine (Reuters) - Residents of Lewiston, a hard-bitten former mill town in central Maine, struggled on Thursday with a new reality: the scourge of American mass shootings had arrived.
Eighteen people were killed in gunfire in Maine’s second-largest city on Wednesday night, rocking a tightly knit community and shattering the state’s image as a haven from the types of violent crime seen elsewhere in the country.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Mike Asselin, 66, a lifelong resident of Lewiston, who was smoking outside of his home a few miles from the bowling alley where police say seven of the victims were shot dead.
The normally bustling city, perched on the banks of the Androscoggin River, was unusually quiet on Thursday morning with schools and businesses shut and most residents adhering to a shelter-in-place order as police searched for the suspect.
Police cordoned off the roads leading to the shooting sites, the bowling alley and a bar. Security agents in bullet-proof vests carrying automatic rifles guarded the entrances to the Central Maine Medical Center hospital in town, where many of the shooting victims had been taken.
Asselin said his heart sank when he first heard about the shootings Wednesday night, and he was anxious to hear if he knew any of the victims. He said he had watched as police cars rushed in the direction of the Just-in-Time Recreation bowling alley and ambulances sped back the other way toward the hospital.
“Those people were just out to have a nice time,” he said.
Other residents said Lewiston, which has struggled economically due to de-industrialization in past decades, was accustomed to small-time crime and fighting, but that the shooting brought it into a new and painful reality.
“We never used to have to worry about getting shot up like this," said Roger Lussier Jr., 55, another lifelong Lewiston resident, who was smoking with friends outside the apartment building where he lives.
“This is no longer a safe community. Now we’re just like all those other places you read about.”
Another resident, who asked not to be named, said he had been helping his sister prepare for a driving test near the bowling alley Wednesday night when the streets suddenly filled up with police cars, sirens and heavily armed agents.
“It was crazy," he said. "Sure, we have fist fights outside the corner store or whatever, but never something like this."
Maine Governor Janet Mills said in a press conference the shooting had undermined Maine’s reputation as one of the safest states in the country.
"This attack strikes at the very heart of who we are and the values we hold dear," she said, adding she had lived and worked in Lewiston, met her husband and raised her children there.
“This city did not deserve this terrible assault on its citizens, on its peace of mind, on its sense of security,” she said. “No words can truly or fully measure the grief of Maine people."
(Additional reporting by Rich McKay; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Alistair Bell)