Amid Binghamton Gunfire, Pleas to Police and to Heaven
New York Times
April 4, 2009


BINGHAMTON, N.Y. — In a storage room filled with tables used at parties to celebrate passage of citizenship exams, 14 immigrants huddled around a refrigerator in the corner, quietly counting off so their teacher could tell the police how many were hiding there. No. 4, Con Thi Thach, a mother of seven from Vietnam, kept thinking to herself, “Don’t let me die.”
In the basement boiler room, five men guarded the two doors as Katherine Gruss, their English teacher, burned through five cellphone batteries talking to a 911 dispatcher. “We didn’t realize the extent of it,” Ms. Gruss said of the massacre on the floor above them. “We just thought it was one person, maybe two people.”

In a closet-size alcove off a back staircase, Marie Jourdain lay on her stomach next to three people, silently praying as she listened to the gunman pacing and nervously talking to himself. “I listened to him walking and talk, talk, talk,” said Ms. Jourdain, a 47-year-old hospital housekeeper from Haiti. “If he see the stairs, he come in, because there’s no door where I’m in.”

The immigrant students hiding in corners of the blond-brick building here Friday morning were in a sense Americans-in-progress, studying how to be Americans, practicing how to speak American (Ms. Thach’s class was guessing at the meaning of “in the black” when the gunfire erupted). Instead, they learned a darker American lesson, one of sudden, inexplicable violence, when the gunman, Jiverly Wong, an immigrant like them who until weeks earlier had also taken English classes at the American Civic Association, burst in with two handguns.

Mr. Wong, who the police and acquaintances said had been distraught over his unemployment and his inability to speak English, killed 13 students and employees of the association and wounded 4 others before taking his own life. His motive remained unclear.

Binghamton’s American Civic Association was founded by 11 immigrants in 1939. It is a multilingual hub in largely rural Broome County, providing immigration services, English instruction, citizenship classes, ethnic celebrations and refugee resettlement.

In decades past, Binghamton and the surrounding area was built in large part by the immigrant labor of Irish, Italians, Polish and others drawn by the promise of jobs at companies like the Endicott-Johnson shoe company. Though many of those jobs have disappeared, and the county’s population is now only 5.8 percent foreign-born, the association has continued to thrive. It often holds Irish dancing exhibitions. The block letters on the marquee outside on the sidewalk on Friday advertised an Italian luncheon on April 14. Local lawyers called the center when they needed translators.

The Binghamton police said on Saturday that they had been contacted by nine foreign countries and two consulates. Those huddled Friday morning in corners of the building were as diverse as any block in Queens: Russians, Iraqis, Georgians, Vietnamese, Serbs, Cubans, Kurds.

Ms. Jourdain’s English had already improved, though she had been studying at the association for just a few weeks. On the coffee table of her small apartment in a public housing project, she keeps a proud possession: her 10-year-old son’s framed certificate of perfect attendance from Benjamin Franklin Elementary School.

Ms. Thach, 53, failed her first citizenship test, in 2004, and has been taking classes at the association five days a week ever since, carrying the “Daughters of the American Revolution Manual for Citizenship” in her purse. On Friday, she woke up, took her pills and rushed to catch the bus, but still arrived late for her 10 a.m. English class.

While Ms. Thach and her classmates guessed at the meaning of “in the black” — some thought it might relate to the black market, others were puzzled why a color would have any other meaning — Ms. Gruss led her introductory English class of 12 in a lesson on pronouns.

Ms. Gruss, 60, a retired elementary school teacher, had worked at the civic association for one year, and her 9 a.m. class shared space in the basement with another class. “It’s a very safe place,” she said of the association. “They all love to come there. We have weddings, dinners, lunches.”

The glass front doors opened around 10:30 a.m., and Mr. Wong, dressed in a green jacket, stepped inside, shooting two receptionists without uttering a word, the police said.

Ms. Thach re-enacted what she heard in a single breath: “Pop, pop, pop.”

In an instant, she said, the class bolted through a door in the back of the room to the storage area. One student locked the door and they all crowded tightly together, holding their knees to their chests. When the teacher, Megan Lollie, pulled out her cellphone, a student tried to stop her. “Don’t turn on the light! They might see!” Ms. Thach recalled the student saying.

The teacher kept the phone close to her chest as she dialed 911, whispering into it. “Come help us!” Ms. Thach recounted. When the dispatcher asked how many people were with her, they took turns whispering their numbers as if in a game of telephone until they totaled 14. “Help me,” Ms. Thach silently prayed.

Ms. Gruss, midway through the pronoun lesson, said she first thought the pops were fireworks, or maybe somebody hammering loudly above. Soon she was guiding 24 students from the two basement classes into a boiler room. In the chaos, four students went upstairs and tried to escape through a back door, only to find it barricaded by Mr. Wong’s car. They ran downstairs and hid behind a mattress, Ms. Gruss said.

The doors in the boiler room had no locks, so five men — including two brothers from Uzbekistan and a Russian — volunteered to stand guard. Ms. Gruss borrowed a student’s cellphone to dial 911, speaking loudly enough to make her voice heard over the grumbling boilers.

Nobody in the room knew exactly what had happened on the floor above. One student received a call from her son in Florida, who brought the grim news. A Kurdish woman turned to Ms. Gruss and said, “They fire in Iraq. They fire in the United States.”

“She was almost defeated in a way,” Ms. Gruss said. “She couldn’t find a safe haven. She was one of those who had to walk over the mountains from Iraq to Turkey to escape Saddam. Then they’re shooting at her.”

Upstairs in the alcove, Ms. Jourdain lay staring at the floor.

She and three other students fled their classroom when they heard the first shots, hiding in a doorless alcove off a back staircase. She, another woman and a man lay on the floor, shoulder to shoulder. Another man crouched near them because there was no room for him to lie down.

She could hear the gunman’s footsteps, could hear him talking to himself, though she could not understand what he was saying. She kept praying.

“Thank God he did not see the stairs,” Ms. Jourdain said.

Soon, she heard different sounds: the voices of officers, telling them it was safe to come out. “I say, ‘Thank you, God,’ ” she said. “He gives me life again.”

Three hours and 15 minutes after they first entered the boiler room, Ms. Gruss and the students were escorted out by the police. Afterward, several students told Ms. Gruss they would not be returning to class. “Many were refugees, they came to the United States for safety and get attacked here,” she said. “It was just an awful intrusion.”

The police also led Ms. Thach and the others out of the storage room and into the hallway, one by one, hands on their heads, as the officers had instructed.

“Americans are very good people; they love people,” she said. “How could this happen here? They are very good.”

Ms. Thach said she would return to classes. On Saturday morning, in the living room of her small house on Baxter Street, she went to her purse. Her hands shook as she reached for her citizenship manual.