No place is safe, shocked mourners said as they waited for news of their friends and family after a gunman opened fire inside a Sikh temple during a Sunday prayer service.
They stood for hours in the hot Wisconsin sun, pressed up against the yellow police tape lining a road leading up to the temple where hundreds of people had gathered every Sunday to celebrate their faith and their community.
A place of peace and prayer transformed in a few horrifying moments into a deadly crime scene, where at least six people were killed and three critically wounded before police were able to take down the gunman.
Jasmine Singh’s mother hid in the temple’s pantry for two hours until police gave the all-clear.
“She’s in shock, she can’t speak,” Singh, 16, told reporters. “We’re just trying to calm her down and take her home.”
Police offered few details, except to say it was being investigated as a possible case of “domestic terrorism,” feeding fears that the temple was targeted by an outsider with an ugly grievance.
Those who were inside the temple were kept far from prying eyes, but Japal Singh was eventually able to speak with a few of them after police finished interviewing witnesses who had been taken to a nearby bowling alley.
They told him it was “a horrible place, a lot of blood and basically screams of everybody. Children, women, everybody. It was chaotic inside. People didn’t know what was going on.”
A man who dropped his father off said he saw the shooter — described as a white man with a bald head — kill two people in the parking lot.
“Then he went down inside the temple and then went into the room where the holy scripture is kept and basically shot more people there, multiple people there,” said Singh, a combat medic in the US Army reserves.
One man told Singh that he believed there was a second gunman because he heard shots elsewhere in the temple while he watched the gunman shooting people in the kitchen, but police said they thought there was a single shooter.
“It was a tragic story to hear what we went through,” Singh, 29, told reporters.
Balbir Saraina, 50, rushed up from Chicago after hearing what happened but it took him hours to get in touch with his sister, Gurpreet Dulai, who had been in the temple when shots rang out.
“Everybody’s praying and somebody’s shooting,” he told AFP. “It makes no sense. This is a place for prayer, but not for anything like this. Our people keep peace, but some people are crazy.”
Harinder Kaur, a 22-year-old student, was getting ready to go to temple with her mother when she heard the news. They rushed to the temple, but were stopped by a police cordon and were sent to wait anxiously in a nearby parking lot.
“Our priest, he’s dead. One of my friends’ grandfathers, he’s dead,” she said as she clutched her cell phone — the only source of news so far.
“We would never have expected it would have happened to us,” Kaur said.
“It’s a very close-knit community. No matter who’s hurt, we’re all family.”
At some point, somebody thought to buy fruit and snacks and drinks. Then the Red Cross and Salvation Army arrived with more water, but had little else to do as the painful wait continued.
People clumped together, many in their Sunday finest, the women in beautiful saris, the men in colorful turbans, seeking what comfort they could.
Jagmeet Singh, 26, was supposed to be getting married in the temple next weekend.
He’s determined not to let the shooting stop his nuptials, even if he needs to marry in a different temple. And he will not let the tragedy sully a place where he has so often found peace.
“If we walk away this will not do any good,” he told AFP. “It’s a place people should come again.”
Navreet Raman, 42, told how she had been watching the Olympics when first reports of a shooting at a Sikh Temple in Oak Creek flashed up on the bottom of the screen and she thought: “That’s me.”
“It’s terrorizing. It’s our worship place. If church is not a safe place, what is? Nothing is safe,” she said.
There is one thing to be grateful for, she said, explaining that if the shooting had happened just a few hours later far more people could have been hurt. It’s the afternoon services that are the busiest.
The fact that anyone would bring such violence into a house of worship is what troubles Sharanjit Singh the most.
“It’s just terrible. It doesn’t matter if it’s a church or a temple or a mosque it’s a place of God,” said Singh, 26, who was driving to temple when he heard the news.
“Nobody’s supposed to do that.”