KANSAS CITY, MO (KCTV) - Kansas City Zoo goers described Tuesday afternoon running for their lives after hundreds of teens were involved in fights inside the zoo and shots were fired in a zoo parking lot.
"It was very scary," Liberty resident Jaimi Heckadon said. "All hell broke loose."
As she and her group bolted for the exit, Heckadon said she heard people screaming about officers using pepper spray.
"The problem was these teenagers. None of them were escorted by an adult," she said.
Extra security was already on hand, but dozens of Kansas City police officers responded to the zoo after the issues erupted about 3:30 p.m. The zoo closed at 4 p.m. as scheduled.
No serious injuries were reported because of the issues. Police say 10 arrests were made.
Marc Hoefer said the zoo and police response "was outstanding." But he like many other zoo goers said Tuesday that they would not return for a free zoo day.
Zoo and park officials said they will immediately look at what changes need to be made in response to Tuesday's problems.
Residents of Jackson and Clay counties could get into free to the zoo on Tuesday because of voter support for a zoo tax. The day coincided with mild weather and spring break for many area districts.
One zoo goer told KCTV5 that he saw 20 police cars. He said he was at the zoo with his toddler and felt unsafe. He said he saw multiple fights involving individuals and large groups break out inside the zoo and in the parking lots.
Heckadon, who is a season ticket holder, said she had gone to the zoo with her 9-year-old son, a friend and her friend's 10-year-old son. They were in the Africa section about 3:30 p.m. headed toward the tram when they saw four teen girls get into an argument.
"They were screaming. They were yelling. One threw a punch," she recalled. "Their boyfriends came around and ended up in it. Then there was about 20 kids."
She said the closest worker sprinted to the area and yelled into her walkie talkie for help.
"That's when all hell broke loose," Heckadon said. "A stampede of teens came storming toward us. We had to shield the boys with our own bodies. It was that tense. Hundreds of teens were flying down there."
As they were fleeing, they saw three Kansas City Police Department officers rushing to the melee.
She had parked on the grass near Starlight Theatre. She said as they were heading to their vehicle that they heard shots ring out. They got to the vehicle as quickly as they could and got ready to leave.
"My 9-year-old said, 'We were just in a riot.' And my friend and I were still speechless at that point," Heckadon said.
She said she immediately thought of the issues at the Country Club Plaza where large groups of unsupervised teens and young adults have been involved in fights and shootings.
"There were hundreds of teens and they were coming in groups with no adult presence. It's exactly like the Plaza," Heckadon said. "They have no adult presence and it's a free-for-all. The zoo is a place for families and small children."
Jimmie Todd was leaving the zoo amidst the gunfire and screaming.
"Everybody got scared when they started firing shots," he said. "A bunch of fights and a lot of arguing and the cops tackling the kids. They tackled them on the ground. They sprayed mace."
Marc Hoefer was at the zoo with his wife and 11- and 8-year-old children. An 11-year-old friend joined them.
"It was crowded. It was a different crowd. There was not a lot of courtesy. It was very packed and very tense," he said. "There was a strong police presence. There were a lot of pockets of youth. You could see there was a lot of tension. I didn't expect to walk about and see what I saw but I wasn't surprised."
As he was leaving, zoo employees directed him and his group to use a different exit. As he was moving toward his car in the parking lot, he could see a large group of youth gathering and bickering occurring. That's when he heard the shots fired from about 100 yards away.
"There was a lot of chaos. The zoo response and police response was outstanding," he said.
Another attendee told KCTV5 she was there with her husband, daughter and two grandchildren. As they were leaving the zoo for the day, they saw a number of police officers in the parking lot and people on the ground in handcuffs.
The woman said as they continued on to their car, they saw a large group of people on a hill above the parking lot. They then heard four to five shots fired and saw smoke from a gun. The witness said they got into their car as quickly as they could, got the children down and drove off, terrified.
"I was scared. I thought I was gonna get shot or somebody was going to hit me. I don't know if they'll ever have a free day again," Diamond McEwe said.
Issues with a previous free admission day on a Sunday in April 2013 had prompted changes, including moving from weekends. The changes had seemed to prevent subsequent issues in 2013.
Zoo Director Randy Wisthoff officials said Tuesday that they were not expecting such large crowds on Tuesday. KCTV5's Nikita cam earlier Tuesday showed crowds packing the glasses overlooking Polar Bear Passage where Nikita and Berlin play and swim.
Wisthoff said more than 19,000 showed up, which was more than the 15,000 zoo officials had prepared for over the course of the day.
"What really compounded it was it started out kind of cool and windy. We only had about 6,000 in," Wisthoff said. "But at about 3, 3:30, that number jumped to 19,905 and we're just putting 4,000 an hour into the zoo, which is just way more than what we can handle."
Nearly 30,000 showed up when issues arose in April 2013.
Wisthoff said the issues had primarily been pushing and shoving when thousands showed up in a short period of time, and zoo workers asked for extra officers, who were moving many to the parking lot when the shots were fired.
"It ended up we had a lot of people concentrated toward the front," he said. "They moved some of the disturbances out to the parking lot and told the kids to leave."
The last free zoo day had been Dec. 30. There are four free zoo days per year.
The next free zoo days in 2014 are scheduled for June 24, July 15 and Aug. 5.
Wisthoff said he doesn't want to eliminate free days or only have them in the dead of winter.
"There are some zoos in the country that may have all their free days in January or February," he said. "We try to really reach the needs of the voters to have free days when school was out so we could get people here to see what they put their money into. That was part of the reason why people voted for it."
He said the zoo must "make sure we have our free days and to figure out what we can do to make them safer." He said attendance should not exceed 15,000. He said one option is requiring an adult to come with a teen, adding that all options will be considered.
"It just got a little bit out of control and young kids were pushing and shoving," Wisthoff said. "It's hormones. It's spring. We'll have to figure out how to fix the problem."
He said there were numerous children who were at the zoo on Tuesday who had never been to a zoo before.
"There were a lot of kids here today who had never been to the zoo before, and that's what really makes you feel good," he said. "I had little kids tells me they'd seen the penguins for the first time and were blown away by the exhibit. So we have got to make sure we protect that and the people who come to the zoo who helped pay for it."
A spokeswoman for Mayor Sly James said the mayor will work with zoo and park officials and City Manager Troy Schulte "to ensure the free day benefit remains something our residents can feel safe enjoying."
But some of those who were there on Tuesday said they won't return for a free zoo day.
"I feel safe going back to the zoo but not on a free day," Hoefer said.
The zoo posted this information on their Facebook page:
"Today the KC Zoo hosted well over 19,000 guests at the first of four Zoological District Free Days in 2014. It was amazing to see all of the families enjoying the zoo on this beautiful spring day. Unfortunately, a handful of unruly guests marred the day when pushing and shoving created disruptions inside the zoo. A majority of the events covered by the media took place outside of the zoo, particularly the shot which was fired west of Starlight. KCPD has commented that no injuries occurred and at least 10 were arrested in separate incidents.
"Our goal is to ensure that every guest enjoys a family-friendly atmosphere, even on free days. We will again revisit our free day process with all vested parties. While we wish these unfortunate events had not happened, we will work internally and externally to accommodate free days as they continue.
"We welcome your feedback and hope to see you soon at the Kansas City Zoo."
Posted by Greg Palmer