The familiar rituals of a Wednesday night were playing out at Just-In-Time Recreation, a bowling alley in Lewiston, Maine, with 22 lanes of tenpin and a restaurant serving nachos and wings.
Parents and children were there for a children’s bowling league. Regulars were midway through their weekly games, unwinding after work.
Then a man wearing a brown hooded sweatshirt and carrying a military-style semiautomatic rifle walked in.
Tricia Asselin, 53, was there with her sister, Bobbi Nichols, when they heard a bang — and then another from the lanes reserved for children’s night. As they sprinted for the exit, with Ms. Nichols in the lead, Ms. Asselin — who worked at the alley and was there on a night off — peeled off into the kitchen to grab her cellphone so she could call 911.
Ms. Nichols bolted through the door, thinking her sister was behind her. When she realized she wasn’t, it was too late.
“Bobbi tried to get back. She said, ‘my sister’s in there, my sister’s in there,’” their mother, Alicia LaChance, said by phone from her home in Okeechobee, Fla. Ms. Asselin had not been officially identified as among the victims on Thursday, but the family was expecting the worst. “They told her nobody in there is alive anymore,” her mother said.
Minutes after attacking the alley, the armed man showed up at Schemengees Bar & Grille, a few miles away, where people were playing cornhole and billiards, and opened fire again.
By the time he finished shooting, at the bar and the bowling alley, 18 people had been killed and 13 others had been injured, Gov. Janet Mills of Maine said.
Afterward, the gunman fled, forcing a major lockdown across the region as hundreds of law enforcement officials searched on Thursday for a suspect they identified as Robert R. Card, 40, of Bowdoin, Maine. The authorities warned that he should be considered armed and dangerous.
The rampage made Lewiston, a scrappy working-class city of nearly 40,000, the latest scene of America’s mass shooting crisis. It also put the region on edge, as the police warned residents of Lewiston and several other nearby towns to stay home as they searched for Mr. Card.
“We believe this is someone that should not be approached,” Col. William G. Ross of the Maine State Police said.
It was the deadliest mass shooting in the United States since May 2022, when a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.
Although the details provided by the authorities were sparse, including whether any children were killed, the familiar outlines of the massacre — a lone gunman snuffing out innocent lives with a powerful weapon — pushed Americans and their leaders into familiar corners.
President Biden, who ordered flags at federal buildings to be flown at half-staff to honor the victims, urged Congress to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and to enact universal background checks, among other steps.
“This is the very least we owe every American who will now bear the scars — physical and mental — of this latest attack,” Mr. Biden said in a statement.
Representative Jared Golden, whose district includes Lewiston, had been one of the few House Democrats who opposed an assault-weapons ban, citing the strong tradition of gun ownership in the area. But at a news conference Thursday evening, he said he would now support a ban.
“The time has now come for me to take responsibility for this failure,” he said, adding: “I ask for forgiveness and support.”
When asked if she, too, would support a ban, Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, said it was more important to ban “very-high-capacity magazines,” which let shooters fire more rounds without stopping to reload. She added: “Certainly there’s always more that can be done.”
But Republicans who adamantly defend the right to bear arms were not expected to back such measures. Representative Mike Johnson of Louisiana, the newly elected House speaker, did not mention any legislative response as he answered questions about the shooting.
“This is a dark time in America,” Mr. Johnson, a Republican, told reporters in Washington. “We have a lot of problems and we’re really, really hopeful and prayerful. Prayer is appropriate at a time like this — that the evil can end, and this senseless violence can stop.”
Ms. Mills called it “a dark day for Maine.” With 18 dead, the largely rural state recorded as many homicides in a few minutes on Wednesday night as it had in some recent years. The state had 29 homicides last year, 20 in 2021 and 18 in each of the previous two years.
“Our small state of just 1.3 million people has long been known as one of the safest states in the nation,” Ms. Mills, a Democrat, said. “This attack strikes at the very heart of who we are and the values we hold dear for this precious place we call home.”
As the police sought the suspect, government buildings, local school districts and universities in the southern part of the state were closed. Businesses across a vast swath of Maine, from beach towns close to the New Hampshire border to towns in the woods nearly 200 miles north, also shut down.
The streets of Lewiston were nearly deserted on Thursday morning. Nearby, at a middle school where families waited on Wednesday night for news of loved ones, only one car was parked in the lot. Bates College, in Lewiston, locked down its campus and postponed the inauguration of its new president, Garry Jenkins.
Residents said they were on guard as a growing contingent of local, state and federal officers swarmed the region.
After spending the night indoors, afraid to even open the curtains, Traelynn Smith, 19, and Serenity Moczara, 18, ventured out around lunchtime Thursday to get something to eat. Ms. Smith was carrying a knife in her pocket.
“Even talking about it gives me goose bumps,” she said. “I’ve never seen my state like this.”
Colonel Ross said on Thursday that a vehicle found at a boat landing in Lisbon, Maine, about eight miles from Lewiston, had been connected to Mr. Card. He gave no other details about possible developments in the manhunt.
Details of Mr. Card’s life were scarce on Thursday. Military officials said that he was a sergeant first class in the Army Reserve, assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 304th Infantry Regiment in Saco, Maine, and had enlisted in 2002. He had no combat deployments and served as a petroleum supply specialist, shipping and storing vehicle and aircraft fuel.
Investigators were looking into a run-in Mr. Card had with officials during a recent visit to Camp Smith, a National Guard training facility not far from West Point in New York, a senior law enforcement official said on condition on anonymity because the official was not authorized to discuss the incident. The official said that Mr. Card was later evaluated at a mental health facility.
The first 911 call reporting gunfire at the bowling alley on Wednesday came in at 6:56 p.m., Colonel Ross said.
Chad Vincent was in the fifth frame of his weekly game when he heard what sounded “like a table crashing on the floor or something.” There were 30 to 50 bowlers in the alley, he said, in addition to about 26 people from his league.
“Nobody really screamed,” Mr. Vincent said. “Nobody knew what it was.”
But about five seconds later, he heard another bang and one of his bowling partners shouted, “‘Hey, that’s a gun! That’s gunshots!’”
Mr. Vincent, 45, ran toward a back exit and dialed 911.
He and other bowlers from his league ran through the woods to an Italian restaurant and locked themselves inside until loved ones came to pick them up.
Mr. Vincent said they were in disbelief.
“We’re going: This is Maine,” he said. “This is not happening. This stuff doesn’t happen in Maine. Everybody’s nice. We usually don’t have problems.”
About 12 minutes after the 911 calls reporting gunfire at the bowling alley, the police received calls that a gunman was inside Schemengees Bar & Grille.
Bryan MacFarlane, 41, was part of a gathering of deaf people there when the shooting started, his mother, Janette Randazzo, said. On Thursday, two police officers came to her home to confirm her worst fears: that her son was dead.
“I have a picture in my head of my kid lying there with gunshot wounds somewhere on the body,” she said. “It’s traumatic to me just imagining it.”
Joseph Walker, 57, a manager at the bar, was also fatally shot, according to his father, Leroy Walker Sr., 74, a city councilor in Auburn, Maine.
Mr. Walker said the police had told his son’s wife that the younger Mr. Walker “died a hero” because he picked up a nearby butcher’s knife “and tried to go at the gunman.”
“My Joey will be missed by thousands,” Mr. Walker said on Thursday, as he sat outside his apartment, crying. Mr. Walker said he did not feel angry toward the man who killed his son.
“There’s so much hate in this world, and people who have a sickness or a mind that’s a little off tilt, they go to hate,” he said. “If he’s sick in the head, I can’t hold anything against him.”
Kristy Strout said Thursday afternoon that she had not heard from her husband, Arthur, since about a half-hour before the shooting at the bar. He had been playing pool with friends in preparation for a game he had on Thursday, Ms. Strout said.
She thinks one of his teammates was shot, but she had not received any news or information from the authorities. She said she was waiting for the medical examiner to tell her more.
“I have three kids. I want closure,” she said. “We don’t want to sit here and wonder.”
Colbi Edmonds, Billy Witz, Patricia Mazzei, Gaya Gupta, Adeel Hassan, Katie Benner, Glenn Thrush, Eduardo Medina and Erica L. Green contributed reporting. Susan C. Beachy and Kirsten Noyes contributed research.