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.