TARBORO — Edgecombe County Sheriff Clee Atkinson said his deputies had no time to react Thursday when a 32-year-old man with a history of mental illness stabbed one deputy in the back two times before being fatally wounded by another deputy.

The suspect was dead by the time Edgecombe County Emergency Medical Services arrived. The injured deputy was transported to Vidant Medical Center in Greenville and was treated and later released Thursday night.

The deputies had responded to 4328 McNair Road after a woman placed a 911 call at 2:04 p.m. stating a man was chasing her with a knife.

Atkinson told reporters during a Friday morning press conference that the first deputy arrived at 2:07 p.m. and a second backup officer arrived at 2:09 p.m.

“The deputies spoke to the caller in the front yard who then goes to let them in the house,” Atkinson said. “As soon as the caller opened the door, a 32-year-old male lunges out with a knife.”

He described the knife as an “assault-type pocket knife.”

“I tell you guys, watching this on video, my deputy was stabbed within three seconds,” he said. “My deputies had no time to react … three seconds.”

After the suspect stabbed the deputy, he was shot by the second deputy.

Atkinson said a third deputy arrived at 2:10 p.m.

“He was getting out of his truck as the stabbing occurred and witnessed all of this,” Atkinson said.

Atkinson paused, becoming emotional as he called the wounded deputy a “hero.”

“Despite being stabbed, he remained calm, providing instructions to the other two deputies,” he said.

Atkinson, standing in front of a sign with the names of the three Edgecombe County deputies who have died in the line of duty, said, “I thank God he built a tent around him or there could have been a fourth name.”

Atkinson said the entire incident was captured by the officer’s body cameras, which were purchased about a year ago after protracted debate by county commissioners.

“I’m telling you, that’s the best investment we have ever made,” he said.

The sheriff also used the occasion to call for mental health reform.

“We need help,” he said. “We need long-term facilities. Our officers are doing more now than ever before regarding mental illness.”

The sheriff referred reporters to District Attorney Robert Evans for the identities of the deputies and offender, but Evans declined, saying, “They have both potential legal and administrative rights which must be protected pending investigation. I do not comment on any case under investigation until its completion.”

The SBI was called in to investigate the shooting and the three deputies have been placed on administrative leave.

A family member of the deceased man identified him as 32-year-old Jermaine Harris in an interview with WRAL-TV.

Family members told the station that Harris had battled schizophrenia and anxiety since he was 19.

Atkinson had told reporters that his deputies had responded to three calls regarding Harris in the recent past.

The family said Harris was a kind person who had never hurt anyone in the past, but after years of trying unsuccessfully to get him help for his mental illness, it became too much for him to bear.

A cousin, Sotrenota Pettaway, told the station, “It’s not like we’re angry with anybody, it’s more so like we’re trying to cope with what happened. And things that could have been done to avoid this.”