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Immigration-center shootings: Police delayed, and it doesn't matter

After a gunman entered the New York center and shot 13 people, officers waited 45 minutes for SWAT to arrive. Even if they'd gone right in, no victims would have been saved, authorities say.

April 06, 2009|My-Thuan Tran
  • People gather with flowers in front of the American Civic Association to pay their respects to the 13 shooting victims.
People gather with flowers in front of the American Civic Association to… (Spencer Platt / Getty Images )

BINGHAMTON, N.Y. — Two days after horror struck their adopted home, shaken Vietnamese immigrants gathered Sunday in a crumbling brick house that served as a Buddhist temple to send peace to the suffering.

The chief monk of Quan Am temple pulled a brown robe over his gray sweat shirt and black slacks and tapped a gong, signaling that it was time to sit. Facing an altar, he began to hum melodic incantations.

"Today, we chant for those who died on Friday," said the monk, Tuu Van Nguyen, as 12 people sat cross-legged on small yellow cushions. "We hope that the people in the hospital recover. We hope the suffering find peace."

He cradled yellow joss sticks in his hands and lowered them to a flame. Smoke swirled around his bowed head, the scene of peace contrasting with the terror that beset Binghamton on Friday when a gunman attacked an immigrant services center and killed 13 people before taking his own life.

With reports that the gunman, Jiverly Wong, 41, was an immigrant from Vietnam, this small community that had lived anonymously found itself thrust into the spotlight.

As details emerged about Wong's life -- recently laid off, troubled by poor language skills, unable to find a toehold in the United States -- many Vietnamese here saw their own struggles in his travails. It was a reminder, as if they needed one, that their transition from war-torn Vietnam to Binghamton has not always been easy.

The first Vietnamese immigrants in Binghamton came after the Vietnam War ended in 1975, but the city saw its biggest influx in the early 1990s, residents said. Local resettlement agencies sponsored hundreds of families of former South Vietnamese soldiers and political prisoners, as well as Amerasian children and their caretakers.

At the population's height in the mid-1990s, about 600 Vietnamese families lived here, according to Nguyen, the monk. But many moved away for better jobs or warmer weather, he said, estimating that about 200 families remain.

The Wongs came under these programs, as did Be Nguyen -- no relation to the monk -- who prays at the Quan Am temple every Sunday. When she arrived in 1990, Nguyen said, she knew no English, so she fell into assembly line work, as did many other Vietnamese.

Over the years, she has been laid off from various factories. Nguyen said the slumping economy had reduced her prospects. Despite being in a similar situation as Wong, Nguyen said she could not fathom how it would push an individual to commit such horrific acts.

"It's very hard to find jobs here," she said. "But life itself is not difficult. We Vietnamese, perhaps we don't know a lot of English, but we find ways to endure and make it work."

Binghamton's tiny Vietnamese community stands in stark contrast to the massive enclaves in California, which drew the bulk of refugees after the war. Orange County is home to about 150,000, the largest population of Vietnamese living outside their homeland.

Unlike Little Saigon's 3 square miles of Vietnamese businesses, Binghamton's Vietnamese community has few gathering spots: the temple where Be Nguyen prays -- one of two in the city -- and the Hang Phat Market, which stocks fish sauce, bean sprouts and Vietnamese pop music DVDs. There is just one Vietnamese restaurant. A Vietnamese priest from nearby Syracuse comes to a Catholic church twice a month to deliver sermons in Vietnamese.

In this tight-knit community, the Wong family was well known. Many recalled Wong's father, Duong, helping them fill out citizenship paperwork, even taking them to the doctor to translate. But the younger Wong was a mystery, rarely seen about town. His first language was a Chinese dialect; he spoke neither English nor Vietnamese well. The family immigrated from Vietnam, but their ethnicity was unclear.

Sam Quach, who works at the Hang Phat Market and ran into Jiverly Wong at the gym two weeks ago, said Wong struggled to fit into the English-speaking community, as well as the Vietnamese one.

Wong said that when he first immigrated to America, he would go to parties but other Vietnamese would make fun of him because he did not understand certain Vietnamese phrases, Quach recalled. Eventually, Wong stopped trying to socialize, Quach said.

Police say Wong immigrated from Vietnam in the late 1980s or early 1990s. At some point he moved to California, but returned to New York in 2007. He had recently dropped out of English classes at the civic center, which he attacked Friday.

On Sunday, officials released a list of his victims. A Vietnamese mother of two, Lan Ho, 39, was killed; her husband, Long Huynh, was injured. Other victims came from China, Haiti, Pakistan, the Philippines, Iraq, Brazil and the United States.

Some Vietnamese in Binghamton feared that the killings would reflect badly on their community. Thanh Huynh, who owns the Hang Phat Market, said Binghamton had welcomed all cultures; he hopes that won't change.

"I am afraid that other people think that us Vietnamese are bad personalities," he said. "The Vietnamese community is so small, I hope others don't think we are not good people. Every group has its bad people."

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my-thuan.tran@latimes.com

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