BINGHAMTON, N.Y., AND LOS ANGELES — For immigrants in chilly Binghamton, the doorway to America opens through the friendly building on Front Street. But Friday, the American Civic Assn. -- a place crowded with recent arrivals taking English classes and citizenship exams -- became a killing zone.
A gunman barricaded the back door of the immigration services center with a car, thwarting escape, then entered through the front door. Opening fire, he killed 13 people and seriously wounded four others before apparently committing suicide.
Binghamton Police Chief Joseph Zikuski said the gunman gave no warning. "I don't think there was any conversation," he said.
As the gunman entered the building, he killed one receptionist and shot another in the stomach. She pretended to be dead, hiding under a table and waiting for a chance to call 911, while he moved down the hall. In a nearby room he opened fire on a group taking a citizenship class.
Police arrived less than two minutes after receiving the receptionist's call at 10:31 a.m., Zikuski said. Amid the carnage, they found a body believed to be the shooter's, along with two handguns, body armor, ammunition and a magazine. He apparently shot himself.
"We have no idea what the motive is," Zikuski said, but added that the shooter was "no stranger to the Civic Assn."
An anonymous law enforcement source told the Associated Press that the gunman had an identification card that said he was Jiverly Voong, 42. Authorities searched his home in nearby Johnson City on Friday and confiscated computer hard drives, a rifle case and luggage.
A second law enforcement official said the two handguns found with the body were registered to Jiverly Wong, another name the man used. He once lived in Southern California.
Paulus Lukas, human resources manager for Kikka Sushi in Inglewood, said Jiverly Wong worked for the company as a deliveryman for nearly seven years, until July 2007. Kikka Sushi is a caterer serving supermarkets and corporate and school cafeterias.
Wong was a good worker, Lukas said, but quiet. It was only in talking to co-workers Friday afternoon, Lukas said, that he learned Wong was Vietnamese.
When the staff at Kikka heard about the shootings, Lukas said, "we didn't really think this person could do such a thing. He was really good at doing his job -- we respected him for that. He's never late, he's always punctual. And when he finishes his job, he goes home. He doesn't complain, he doesn't argue with people. He gets along."
The only blemish he could recall was that Wong sometimes drove the company van too fast. But after being reprimanded, Lukas said, he improved his driving.
He said that Wong earned $9 an hour by the end of his employment, and that he never formally quit but just failed to show up for work one day, leaving co-workers speculating about what might have happened. In early 2008, Lukas said, Wong called to ask that his W-2 forms be sent to an address in New York state.
Binghamton Mayor Matthew Ryan, who described Friday as "the most tragic day in Binghamton history," said the gunman reportedly had been laid off from his job nearby at IBM. "I believe he was trying to get assistance [at the center] for obtaining employment," Ryan said.
"The word was he lost his job and was pretty distraught. . . . If the story checks out, it's obvious that he was very concerned about being unemployed and not dealing with it well."
An IBM employee said Jiverly Wong did not work at IBM.
After the shooting, the SWAT team removed 37 people from the building, four of them critically injured; 26 of them had taken shelter in a boiler room. Many were immigrants who spoke little or no English.
As officers sought to determine who might be a shooter, they led some people from the building in flex cuffs, but they were ruled out as suspects, authorities said.
Binghamton is a town of about 46,000 people, located at the junction of two rivers some 140 miles northwest of Manhattan. Ryan described it as "a very proud city," with 30 languages spoken at local schools and a long history of welcoming immigrants -- from Europe in the past and from Asia more recently. About 1 person in 4 is nonwhite, according to a demographic estimate.
The city's main street features old four-story brick buildings in the classic style of the industrial Northeast, with a sprinkling of ethnic restaurants and food marts and a nearby Martin Luther King memorial promenade. The Binghamton area is the birthplace of IBM, which has suffered job cuts in recent years.
"We really celebrate all the cultures here," Ryan said. "Because there has always been a strong immigrant population here, I just think it's been somewhat of a natural fit."
New York Gov. David Paterson noted that Friday's violence followed other mass gun slayings in the last month. He cited the case of a man who fatally shot 10 people in Alabama before killing himself, and the Oakland slayings of four police officers.