A sign is seen in front of the American Civic Association, where a gunman opened fire in Binghamton, N.Y., Friday. The gunman opened fire on a room full of immigrants taking a citizenship class, killing 13 people before apparently committing suicide.AP PHOTO
People embrace outside a Catholic Charities office where counselors tend to relatives of victims of the shooting in Binghamton N.Y. A gunman barricaded the back door of a community center and then opened fire on immigrants taking a citizenship class Friday.AP PHOTO
BINGHAMTON, N.Y. — The community center was filled with people from countries as far off as Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, all working to become more a part of their new home — learning English, taking a class to gain U.S. citizenship. The gunman may have walked a similar path to become an American decades ago.
He parked his car against the back door, stormed through the front and shot two receptionists, apparently without saying a word. Then he fired on a citizenship class while terrified people, their only escape route blocked, scrambled into a boiler room and a storage room and prayed he wouldn’t follow.
“I heard the shots, every shot. I heard no screams, just silence, shooting,” said Zhanar Tokhtabayeva, a 30-year-old Kazakh who was in an English class when her teacher screamed for everyone to go to the storage room. “I heard shooting, very long time, and I was thinking, when will this stop? I was thinking that my life was finished.”
The gunman killed 13 people — all but one of them in the classroom — before apparently killing himself Friday morning at the American Civic Association building in Binghamton. Four people were critically wounded.
One of the receptionists survived; shot in the abdomen, she played dead before crawling under a desk and calling 911. Police Chief Joseph Zikuski said she stayed on the phone for 90 minutes, “feeding us information constantly,” despite her serious wound.
“She’s a hero in her own right,” he said.
Investigators said they had yet to establish a motive for the massacre, which was at least the fifth deadly mass shooting in the U.S. in the past month alone.
Police said they arrived within two minutes at the American Civic Association, an organization that helps immigrants settle in this country. The gunman was believed to be a Vietnamese immigrant himself.
The man believed to have carried out the attack was found dead with a self-inflicted gunshot wound in an office, a satchel containing ammunition slung around his neck, authorities said. Police found two handguns — a 9 mm and a .45-caliber — as well as a hunting knife, authorities said.
Thirty-seven people in all made it out of the building, including 26 who hid in the boiler room in the basement, cowering there for three hours while police methodically searched the building and tried to determine whether the gunman was still alive and whether he was holding any hostages, Zikuski said. Those in the basement stayed in contact with police by cell phone, switching from one phone to another when their batteries ran out, Zikuski said. Others hid in closets and under desks.
Police heard no gunfire after they arrived but waited for about an hour before entering the building to make sure it was safe for officers. They then spent two hours searching the building.
At one point, police led a number of men out of the building in plastic handcuffs while they tried to sort out the victims from the killer or killers.
Most of the people brought out couldn’t speak English, the chief said.
Alex Galkin, an immigrant from Uzbekistan, said he was taking English classes when he heard a shot and quickly went to the basement with about 20 other people.
“It was just panic,” Galkin said.
Counselors tended to relatives of victims at a Catholic Charities office. Outside, Omri Yigal waited for word on his wife, Delores, who was taking English lessons when the gunman attacked.
He left hours later, with no answers.
“They told me they don’t have much hope for me,” the Filipino immigrant said before going home to wait for a telephone call.
Dr. Jeffrey King, speaking at Catholic Charities, said he was certain his mother, 72-year-old Roberta King, who taught English at the community center, was among the dead.
Authorities read a list of survivors and his mother’s name wasn’t on it, he said.
King, one of 10 children, described his mother as a woman brimming with interests ranging from the opera to the preservation society to collecting thousands of dolls. He recollected a recent conversation in which he told her to enjoy her retirement.
“I said, ’Mom you’re in your 70s,”’ King said. “She said, ’What? You don’t think I enjoy working?”’
They were talking about taking a trip to the Jersey shore this summer.
Gov. David Paterson said the massacre was probably “the worst tragedy and senseless crime in the history of this city.” Noting mass killings in Alabama and Oakland, Calif., last month, he said: “When are we going to be able to curb the kind of violence that is so fraught and so rapid that we can’t even keep track of the incidents?”
The community center was holding class “for those who want to become citizens of the United States of America, who wanted to be part of the American Dream, and so tragically may have had that hope thwarted today,” the governor said. “But there still is an American dream, and all of us who are Americans will try to heal this very, very deep wound in the city of Binghamton.”
The suspected gunman carried ID with the name of 42-year-old Jiverly Voong of nearby Johnson City, N.Y., but that was believed to be an alias, said a law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
A second law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity for the same reason, said the two handguns were registered to Jiverly Wong, another name the man used.
Initial reports suggested Voong had recently been let go from IBM. But a person at IBM said there was no record of a Jiverly Voong ever working at the company.
The police chief would not confirm the name of the dead man with the ammunition satchel, saying authorities were still trying to establish with certainty that he was the gunman.
“We have no idea what the motive is,” Zikuski said. He said the suspected gunman “was no stranger” to the community center and may have gone there to take a class.
Friday evening, police who searched the suspected gunman’s home carried out three computer hard drives, a brown canvas rifle case, a briefcase, a small suitcase and several paper bags.
A woman who answered the phone at a listing for Henry D. Voong said she was Jiverly Voong’s sister but would not give her name. She said her brother had been in the country for 28 years and had citizenship.
“The police just called me and said he got shot,” she said. Asked if she was aware that he might have been involved in the shooting, she said: “How? He didn’t have a gun. I think somebody involved, not him. I think he got shot by somebody else.”
“I think there’s a misunderstanding over here because I want to know, too,” she said.
The American Civic Association helps immigrants in the Binghamton area with citizenship, resettlement and family reunification. The shootings took place in a neighborhood of homes and small businesses in downtown Binghamton, a city of about 47,000 situated 140 miles northwest of New York City.
The Binghamton area was the home to Endicott-Johnson shoe company and the birthplace of IBM, which between them employed tens of thousands of workers before the shoe company closed a decade ago and IBM downsized in recent years.
A string of attacks in the U.S. in the last month left 44 people dead in all.
A gunman killed 10 people and himself in Samson, Ala.; shootings that began with a traffic stop in Oakland, Calif., left four police officers and the gunman dead; an apparent murder-suicide in Santa Clara, Calif., left six dead; and a gunman went on a rampage at a nursing home Sunday, killing seven elderly residents and a nurse who cared for them.