Up to five people held hostage in Wytheville post office by armed suspect
A several-block radius of downtown Wytheville, Va., has been evacuated while police and emergency officials continue a standoff with an armed man who has reportedly taken as many as five people hostage in a post office. Officials said the suspect may have explosives.
Updated: 8:55 p.m. | Posted: 3:09 p.m.
The latest: Law enforcement has evacuated the area around the post office. The Red Cross and the Wythe County department of emergency management have partnered to provide food and shelter for the people temporarily displaced from their homes. Food is available at the fire station on Spring Street in Wytheville. The Red Cross will provide temporary shelter in a local motel. Emergency management official Ikey Davidson said they expect between five to 10 people, at most, using the services. The public can call Davidson at (276) 724-6000 for more information.
-- Wytheville Baptist Church near the post office has opened its doors for the families of hostages. By 7:30 p.m., authorities had not escorted anyone there, said pastor Rusty Mullins. He said they would wait through the night with water, lemonade and cookies.
-- At 7:08 p.m., a law enforcement officer approached the post office and left a bag at the front door. A man in a blue sweatshirt and cap picked it up and went back inside.
-- Authorities negotiate with unidentified suspect, who asked for pizza, AP reports
-- Police surround downtown Wytheville post office shortly after 2:30 p.m. after at least one shot was fired; as many as five people held hostage, authorities say. Two hostages reportedly make contact with family members.
-- Authorities said the man reportedly strapped what appeared to be 5 pounds of C-4 to his wheelchair, The Wytheville Enterprise reported
-- Post office employee: Suspect fired at police, had hand grenades, The Wytheville Enterprise reported
-- Sheriff's office: suspect has grenades on his truck, The Wytheville Enterprise reported
-- Officials unsure if anyone has been shot; local hospitals on standby
-- State police: Unsure if suspect acting alone with with others
WYTHEVILLE, Va. -- An armed man in a wheelchair reportedly took as many as five hostages Wednesday afternoon at the downtown Wytheville post office, authorities said, and the unidentified man may be in possession of C-4, a military-grade explosive.
A Wytheville Department of Public Safety official said that five hostages were inside the building shortly after 2:30 p.m., including three employees and two customers. Virginia State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller would not confirm that.
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Police at the scene said the suspect was an armed man who had reportedly strapped what appeared to be five pounds of C-4 to his wheelchair, The Wytheville Enterprise reported.
The Wytheville Department of Public Safety official said explosives may be in the building. It was not clear what kind of gun the suspect was carrying.
According to The Associated Press, the man made no demands other than to ask for a pizza, said Pete Rendina, spokesman for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. Rendina said the man was in a wheelchair and missing part of his leg, but he had no other information. Postal inspectors from Roanoke and Charleston, W.Va., were at the scene.
State police spokeswoman Geller told The Associated Press authorities are negotiating with the suspect.
"Basically it’s a standoff," said State Police Sgt. Mike Conroy. "It takes as long as it takes."
He added that police were in no hurry and had no plans to storm the building.
A customer who was leaving the post office as the gunman entered said the suspect was driving a red truck with Marine Corps stickers, the Enterprise reported. She said that he had fired at police and had hand grenades. A sheriff’s office employee confirmed that there were grenades on the man’s truck.
State police spokeswoman Geller said the agency has "all resources" at the scene, including dogs, a bomb technician, a tactical, or SWAT, team and aircraft.
Geller said police don't know if anyone has been shot. "We've got ambulances on stand-by just in case," she said.
Wytheville is the county seat of Wythe County, a southwest Virginia locality with fewer than 30,000 people.
Several hospitals around the region have been alerted to the hostage situation. Eric Earnhart, spokesman for Carilion Clinic, said authorities have been in touch with the New River Valley Medical Center and Roanoke Memorial hospitals. Carilion sent one of its helicopters back to its New River Valley base this afternoon and alerted Wythe County Community Hospital that it had two helicopters available if they're needed.
Police have evacuated houses along Stiller Street, several blocks from the post office, while bystanders milled around West Franklin and South Sixth streets to watch the situation. At least one police sniper had taken up position atop the Schewels Furniture building, in the same block as the post office.
Walt Korndoerfer, a postal employee, said he was doing paperwork in an office about 2:20 p.m. when the suspect came in. He heard a gunshot and heard the postmaster yell, "Call 911."
Korndoerfer said he called police and then ran out of the building.
"You hear a shot, you get out," Korndoerfer said.
He said a postal supervisor, Margie Austin, was the only postal employee he knew of still in the building.
Carlton Austin, Margie's father, said that shortly after 4 p.m., she sent a text message to a relative saying she was alright. Family members hoped that meant she was out of the building, but then learned she was still inside, Carlton Austin said.
Austin said his daughter has worked for the postal service for six or seven years, starting as a mail carrier in Cana, then working at the Galax Post Office before being coming to Wytheville.
Niki Oliver told the Enterprise that her brother, Jimmy Oliver, was one of the hostages and had been able to phone family members.
"We love you," she yelled to him as his mother was speaking to him on the phone.
Niki Oliver said her brother went to the post office to mail a Christmas gift to his son.
Earlier, Christine Korndoerfer, Walt's wife, said her husband told her there had been a robbery there this afternoon.
Her husband and the postmaster made it out without injury before the building was locked, she said.
Richard Formato, CEO of Sales Edge, three blocks from the post office, said police evacuated the 14 people from his office at 2:40 p.m.
"The state police came up and said, 'Get out now. Leave the computer on, just go. We've got a situation and you need to leave immediately,'" said Formato. "It was pretty amazing in terms of how fast the response was. When we left, they had cars broadsided at every intersection along Main Street and adjacent intersections, with their lights flashing."
Marvin Butler, owner of the downtown tattoo shop Lucky Tatu said he wasn't evacuated but closed anyway because the blocked streets kept out all potential customers. "It's usually a quiet town," he said, "but it's not today."
Donna Brunner, an employee of the ABC store in the 300 block of Main Street where the post office is located, said the incident apparently started around 2:30 p.m.
"The officer came by a few minutes ago and told us to lock the door and stay away from the windows," Brunner said.
Brunner said she did not hear any gunshots.
"There are police everywhere," said Jason Northridge, vicar of the Holy Trinity Lutheran Church next door to the post office, earlier in the afternoon. "They have their guns drawn, and they are ready to fire, I believe."
Northridge added that police were using the church parking lot as a staging area.
Geller, the state police spokeswoman, said authorities don't yet know if the suspect is acting alone or with others.
Rusty Mullins, pastor of Wytheville Baptist Church located three blocks from the post office, said authorities told him to evacuate the building.
Town Manager Wayne Sutherland, speaking from his office four blocks from the scene, told the Associated Press dozens of officers had circled the freestanding, brick post office.
"It's completely surrounded by police in every direction," Sutherland said. "All I can see is blue lights."
Sutherland said the streets of the town of 8,500 were filed with holiday shoppers.
"It's Christmas and all the stores are busy," he said.
The Associated Press and The Wytheville Enterprise contributed to this report.