For loved ones, rampage in upstate New York a year ago leaves behind anger, haunting grief

By Ben Dobbin, AP
Thursday, April 1, 2010

Lives altered by mass shooting a year ago in NY

BINGHAMTON, N.Y. — Layla Khalil survived breast cancer, a bus hijacking and a suicide bombing in Iraq. Yet even in the chaos of war, the mother of three never tired of reciting her magic recipe for a fulfilling life: “Just focus on your studies!”

Khalil and her husband relocated to upstate New York weeks before their daughter, Ban, graduated from Binghamton University on a Fulbright scholarship in 2008. In keeping with her passion for learning, the 57-year-old librarian soon enrolled in an English-language class to renew her career.

It was at an immigrant services center where the class was taught that Khalil could not escape tragedy, delivered in a manner as horrific as it was implausible. A year ago Saturday, she was one of 13 people killed in a frenzy of gunfire by a fellow immigrant.

“She was such a devoted, wonderful mother, and she was my best friend,” her daughter says with a deep sigh. “She sacrificed everything to care for us. Sometimes she comes in my dreams. She tells me to move forward. She won’t be happy if I just quit, so I’m doing that for her.”

The killer, Jiverly Wong, 41, barged into the American Civic Association and fired 97 shots from two handguns in less than two minutes before killing himself.

Doctors and police say mockery of Wong’s poorly spoken English, anger over losing a factory job and a severe, undiagnosed mental illness led the embittered Vietnam native to strap on a bulletproof vest and target people who, like him, had traveled from afar in hopes of bettering their lives.

With their worlds utterly altered, family, friends and classmates of the victims — 11 students, a teacher and a part-time caseworker — push on through waves of anger, wistfulness and haunting grief.

For Abdulhak Ettouri, 50, a barber from Morocco who blocked a door with his feet for fear the gunman would try to hunt down a dozen people taking shelter in a storeroom, the curse of that day lingers in frequent episodes of sleeplessness, headaches and uncontrolled fear in crowds.

“I heard a shot. I think, fireworks?” Ettouri says. “I heard the second shot, the third. I peeked my head out the door, saw a body on the floor. At this moment, I think it’s the last day of my life.”

When Wong arrived at the center, he barricaded the rear door with his car and rushed in the front entrance. Without a word, he wounded receptionist Shirley DeLucia — she played dead under a desk — and killed caseworker Maria Zobniw, a Ukrainian with a gift for languages who helped immigrants with citizenship papers.

Wong moved swiftly, entering a small classroom he’d attended sporadically before dropping out a month earlier. He shot everyone multiple times, killing substitute teacher Roberta “Bobby” King, 72, and immigrants from China, Vietnam, Haiti, Pakistan, Iraq, the Philippines and Brazil.

Long Huynh, a fellow Vietnamese who tried in vain to protect his wife, Lan Ho, was seriously wounded along with a visiting scholar from China and a young South Korean mother.

The scholar returned home after he left the hospital. But Huynh and the Korean — plus a dozen of the 34 students who escaped unscathed from the civic center — re-enrolled when the four English as a Second Language classes resumed at a church.

Khalil’s daughter was at work the day of the shootings. When colleagues alerted her, she called her mother’s cell phone. “Then I thought, ‘Maybe they’re hostages; I might be drawing attention to her.’ I hung up,” she said.

She rushed to Binghamton to be with her father and teenage brother. They learned only the next day that their mother had died.

After so many close calls, it was the cruelest irony. In 2007, a man tried to board a packed Baghdad bus Khalil was riding in and was turned away. He was a suicide bomber. “He got on the next bus and boom!” her daughter recalls. Months later, on a bus ride home from Jordan, her mother watched in horror as male passengers were herded off at gunpoint and executed.

In the tranquility of Binghamton, a careworn city of 42,000 residents where two rivers meet, life’s promise was renewed. Khalil, a talented cook, mulled opening an Iraqi restaurant. But to achieve her primary goal of library work, a job center employee recommended she strengthen her English.

It hurts that Wong destroyed her promising future, her daughter said.

“I’m thankful he killed himself. God has helped us take revenge,” she said. “We are really angry, but we have to keep our promise to our mother, do our part to try to make it a better world.”

The center reopened in September. Classes will resume April 14 in renovated basement rooms, each with multiple exits. Metal posts prevent the rear door from being blocked.

In the compact front room — converted into a meeting place with French doors — the wall-size window looks out on a porch now graced with two black granite benches inscribed with the victims’ names.

A few traumatized students never came back. Even after moving classes across town, fear simmered. A car backfired last fall. “Oh my goodness, we all jumped,” said Elisabeth Hayes, one of the teachers. “It was instantaneously uncomfortable and a good bonding experience afterward.”

Working at the center will never be the same for Hayes, who was driving to South Carolina to celebrate her 40th wedding anniversary the day of the shooting. But in small ways, she’s trying to hasten the return to normalcy. She still uses the world map from her old classroom; it belonged to Roberta King, a longtime friend. She also uses a blackboard with a dent from a bullet ricochet.

“What I see most,” she says, “is hope in survival. … Death took so many around me and in my room, where I had been for 15 years. It reminds you that life in tenuous. No matter how well you plan, it can be all over very shortly.”

For loved ones, what happened “was horrific,” said fellow teacher Katherine Gruss. “But these students were in the United States and living their dream. It was a happy time. And then they died quickly. I believe they’re in their spiritual world now.”

Ettouri said his mother pleaded with him to return home to Morocco or move to Europe.

“I say, ‘No, Mommy.’ America is the first economy in the world. Everybody dream to come to America.”

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