NY Rampage Victim Recalls Horror


 
 

Carolyn Thompson | | Tuesday, May 5, 2009


SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- For an hour, the Asian man cowered amid the chaos of what had been his adult English class. Blood soaked through his jeans where a bullet had fractured the bones of his lower right leg. More blood flowed into his eye from a bullet wound on his temple; a hole in his sweater sleeve marked the path of another shot.

His teacher and 11 fellow students lay dead around him. Two other students were critically wounded.

Finally, he heard police voices outside the classroom. "Help me," he cried.

Suddenly, a gun was pointed at his head.

Three Binghamton Police SWAT officers responding to a receptionist's frantic 911 call - looking for an Asian gunman at the immigrant services center - were taking no chances of mistaking the killer for a victim.

"Hands up!" "Stand up!" ordered the officers, guns drawn, as the chemistry scholar from China propped against a classroom wall. One officer kept his gun trained on him, approaching cautiously.

"It was aiming toward my head," recalled the survivor, who described through an interpreter the April 3 Binghamton shooting rampage for The Associated Press.

He was one of only three people in the American Civic Association classroom who survived the inexplicable rampage by Jiverly Wong.

From his Syracuse hospital room, the doctoral candidate - in New York as a visiting scholar - spoke only on condition that his name not be used. He explained through the translator that he does not want attention here or back home.

The 31-year-old newlywed has been hospitalized since he was struck by three of the misfit gunman's 98 bullets. His wife of nine months flew in from China to be by his side.

The scholar randomly chose to drop in for that morning class in English as a Second Language to improve his spoken English. With him were students from Haiti, Pakistan, the Philippines, Iraq, Brazil, Vietnam, and the United States, many of them striving to become U.S. citizens.

Wong's barrage of gunfire lasted just over a minute, he recalled, knowing almost the instant it stopped how deadly it was.

The room that had been full of life was now deathly silent.

Just how deadly was evident when police entered the room with their hands-up orders.

"Only three of us could," said the wounded man, demonstrating from his wheelchair how he raised his hands above his shoulders.

Police Chief Joe Zikuski said officers entering the room did not know whether the shooter was dead or alive - only that he was an Asian male. The survivor became an immediate suspect: Zikuski had officers go with him to the hospital.

"Did they go in there with their guns drawn, point at him? Absolutely yes," the chief said. "... It wasn't until he got to the hospital and we had the chance to interview him that we decided he wasn't a suspect."

The survivor said he did not realize police thought him a suspect; he thought instead that he was being protected.

Good-natured despite painful injuries, the survivor spent more than an hour revisiting the tragedy that has turned upside-down his one-year stay in the United States, shifting his focus from honing his mind to healing his body.

He traced with his finger where one bullet grazed his right temple and another his upper right arm. A third broke the bones in his lower right leg, now bandaged and propped on a foot rest of his wheelchair. Doctors took muscle from his back and skin from his thigh to repair the badly damaged limb, but there is still no feeling in some of his toes and he worries about nerve damage.

"My big thing is whether I can get back on my feet and fully recover," said the boyish and athletic scholar, who once swam and played pingpong and basketball. He said he still hopes to finish the research that brought him to Binghamton before his scheduled stay ends in October.

Through his interpreter, he explained that he considers himself lucky for surviving when so many other ESL students did not: The Iraqi mother, Layla Khalil, who had escaped car bombings in Baghdad; Marc and Maria Bernard from Haiti, whose deaths orphaned two young children; Lan Ho from Vietnam, who died as her husband Long Huynh futilely tried to shield her, and others.

Police said the 41-year-old Wong, unhappy over losing a job and his inability to learn English, barged into the center that day and without a word, shot two receptionists, killing one and seriously wounding the other. He turned to his left, entered the main-level classroom and sprayed the 9 a.m. English class with bullets from a 9mm Beretta and a .45-caliber handgun.

Thirty-seven people made it out of the building, including 26 who scrambled into the basement boiler room. They would stay there for three hours as police - trying to determine whether the gunman was still alive and holding any hostages - waited outside the building and then methodically searched it.

The scholar did not recognize the initial pops as gunfire.

"I thought of it as firecrackers going off in the hallway," he said. "That is my Chinese background."

But by the time Wong entered the room from behind, other students tried frantically to hide.

"It became disorganized very quickly because there were some students who understood what those sounds were and so they were very disturbed by it. So by that time, they already knew there was something dangerous taking place," he said.

With the gunman in the only doorway, there was nowhere to run, he said.

"People were ducking and trying to get down on the floor as fast as possible," he said.

The scholar was too late. Before he could get to the floor from his desk near the door, one of Wong's first bullets slammed into his leg.

He pulled a metal folding chair in front of him and froze.

"I didn't move once I got underneath there so he would think I had been shot to death," he said.

He did not know Wong, an ethnic Chinese from Vietnam, before the attack. He caught sight of the gunman three times - once when he entered the room and again as stood in the doorway and changed guns or cartridges. The last time, Wong went to another corner of the room and shot again. He was expressionless and said nothing.

Amid the gunfire no one spoke. The survivor remembers a young woman screaming three times. He thinks she might have seen Wong aiming his guns at her.

Then it was quiet.

"You couldn't hear anybody else speaking. After a few minutes I knew (the extent of the carnage). There was no movement and it was pretty clear," he said.

Four other Chinese students were among the dead.

"There were bodies everywhere," Zikuski said. "The room was small and there were desks tipped over. Obviously once the shooting started, people were panicking."

All but one of the victims who died had been shot at least four times, some as many as 11 times, the chief said.

A coroner said many of the victims died almost instantly. The survivors - the wounded receptionist, Huynh and an unidentified woman - continue to recover.

The injured were brought out about an hour after the attack, but it was hours more before police were certain that Wong, who was found dead with a satchel full of bullets slung around his neck, was the gunman, acting alone.

Amid the uncertainty and their search, officers led at least two Asian men out of the building in plastic restraints while they tried to sort out what had happened.

The wounded scholar later explained how he thought the police were protecting him as a "victim and witness."

"Police not only followed my ambulance to the hospital, but they guarded me until my surgery was finished," he recalled. "I felt so safe and happy at that moment for being protecting. I did not think police look me as a suspect. So funny!"

Police say Wong had been a student at the center. In a rambling letter to a Syracuse television station received after his death, he blamed his problems on perceived police harassment.

Associated Press Writer William Kates contributed to this report.


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