DEKALB, Ill. – With minutes left in a class in ocean sciences at Northern Illinois University yesterday afternoon, a tall skinny man dressed in black stepped out from behind a curtain on the stage of the lecture hall, said nothing, and opened fire with a shotgun, the authorities and witnesses said.

The man shot again and again, witnesses said, perhaps 20 times. Students in the large lecture hall, stunned, dropped to the floor.

Five people, all of them students, were killed, John G. Peters, the president of Northern Illinois University, said at a news conference yesterday evening. Sixteen others were injured. Hospital officials said several of the students had been shot in the head.

The gunman, whom the authorities did not immediately identify, also died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, Peters said, noting that the man’s body was found on the stage of the lecture hall. Police from the campus, which sits in a snow-filled, rural community 65 miles due west of Chicago, said three weapons were found with the man’s body — two handguns, including a Glock, and the shotgun. He had ammunition left over, the police here said.

The gunman had been a graduate student at the university in 2007 but was no longer enrolled, Peters said.

Desiree Smith, one of the public university’s more than 25,000 students, said she saw students fall down around her as the gunman opened fire. She tried to crawl away, she told a local television station, CLTV, thinking she was going to die, then wondered if she should play dead before getting up to run out of the classroom.

Smith said the gunman was wearing a black beanie cap or ski cap. She said he aimed, right off, for one person: the classroom instructor.

Other students told of a chaotic scene in which panicked students dropped to the floor, the blood of victims spattering on those who escaped injury.

“This thing started and ended within a matter of seconds,” said Donald Grady, the chief of police at the university.

The class in Cole Hall had been an introductory offering, and most of the 162 students registered for the course had likely been freshmen or sophomores, said Jonathan Berg, chairman of the department of geology and environmental geo sciences.

Berg, who was about two blocks away from Cole Hall in his office when the shooting began, ran over and found injured students sitting on sidewalks outside waiting for ambulances. Some had bandages on their heads, he said.

Berg said an instructor and a teaching assistant were inside the classroom along with students; he said he believed the instructor had been wounded, but not seriously.

In the moments after the shooting, university officials put into action a detailed security plan created for just such an incident, Peters said. Many universities and colleges around the country designed elaborate lock-down and notification plans in the days and weeks after a student at Virginia Tech killed 32 people on that Blacksburg campus, the worst shooting rampage in modern American history.

“This is a tragedy,” Peters said. “But from all indications we did everything we could when we found out.”

Shots rang out inside Cole Hall shortly after 3 p.m. (Central Standard Time), Peters said. At 3:07 p.m., the campus was ordered into a lockdown, he said. At 3:20 p.m., he said, the university posted an alert on its Web site, through its e-mail system, and through another campus alarm system: “There has been a report of a possible gunman on campus. Get to a safe area and take precautions until given the all clear. Avoid the King Commons and all buildings in that vicinity.”

By 4 p.m., Peters said, the police had determined that there was only one gunman, now dead, and issued another message to students at 4:14 p.m.: “Campus police report that the immediate danger has passed. The gunman is no longer a threat.”

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