OAK CREEK, Aug – A gunman opened fire at a Sikh temple in the midwestern United States on Sunday, triggering a shootout which left him and at least six others dead, police said.
There were reports of several more people wounded in the shooting, which was the second such massacre in under three weeks, after last month’s attack on cinema-goers in a suburb of Denver, Colorado.
Police said that the shooter in Wisconsin had been killed by one of their officers.
“An officer arrived on the scene, engaged the shooter and was shot multiple times,” police Chief Brad Wentlandt told reporters at the scene in Oak Creek, outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “That shooter was put down.”
Dozens of members of the Sikh community descended on the area after reports of the shooting and were held back behind a police cordon, anxiously scanning their cell phones for news of friends and relatives in the temple.
Balbir Saraina, 50, rushed up from Chicago after hearing what happened but he had been unable to get in touch with his sister, Gurpreet Dulai, who had been in the temple and was being held back by police.
“Everybody’s praying and somebody’s shooting. 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,” he told AFP.
Harinder Kaur, a 22-year-old student, was getting ready to go to temple when she heard and quickly headed to the scene, where she joined fellow Sikhs at a yellow police tape marking the perimeter of the crime scene.
“Our priest, he’s dead. One of my friends’ grandfathers, he’s dead. We would never have expected it would have happened to us,” she told AFP. “It’s a very close-knit community. No matter who’s hurt, we’re all family.”
Nearby, 42-year-old factory worker Navreet Raman told how she had been watching the Olympics when first reports of a shooting at a Sikh Temple 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.
In Washington, a White House official said US President Barack Obama had been notified of the shooting and was being kept updated.
Relatives and well-wishers were spooked by early reports there may have been multiple shooters and that worshippers could still be hostage inside a besieged temple, but police said this was not the case.
“At this time, we have not identified any additional gunmen,” he added, contradicting reports of multiple shooters but stressing the situation was “extremely fluid” and that officers were still securing the scene.
Four people were killed inside the temple and three others outside. Wentlandt had said earlier that a suspect had been “put down” outside the temple after shooting a police officer.
He said the officer was being treated at a local hospital and was expected to survive.
Three adult men in critical condition were being treated at Froedtert Hospital, a spokeswoman told AFP.
“We’ve heard the scene is still unfolding, so we’re prepared for more” victims, the hospital’s chief medical officer Lee Biblo told CNN.
Police tactical units were on the scene, along with officers from multiple law enforcement agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The president of the temple, Satwant Kaleka, was shot and was taken to a hospital, according to The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. It said there were believed to be as many as 20 to 30 victims.
The newspaper said that at one point the head priest of the temple, which had a congregation of between 350 and 400 people when it was formally established in 1999, was locked inside a restroom with a cell phone.
Suni Singh told Newsradio 620 WTMJ: “My friend called and said ‘I heard the shot, and two people falling down in the parking lot.’ He saw the shooter reloading the gun again.”
According to religious tradition, Sikh Indians wear turbans to cover their uncut hair and sport long beards.
In the United States they have often been mistaken for Muslims and have been targeted by anti-Islam activists, particularly after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
Sunday’s shooting also bore some similarities to a March 2005 incident in Brookfield that saw a gunman kill seven worshippers and himself during a church service at a hotel.