In upstate New York, a tragedy eclipsed, but not forgotten
BINGHAMTON, N.Y. — Before Sutherland Springs and Mandalay Bay, the Pulse nightclub and San Bernardino. Before Mother Emanuel church, the Washington Navy Yard, Sandy Hook, and Aurora. Before Gabby Giffords and Fort Hood, there was Binghamton.
In 2009, a gunman opened fire in an immigrant services center here, killing 13 men and women. At the time, it was the nation’s worst mass shooting since 32 people had been killed at Virginia Tech University in 2007, and one of the deadliest in US history.
Eight years later, the world has largely forgotten about Binghamton, its tragedy turned achingly familiar by the shootings that have followed. This is far from a mournful place, and the little memorial park that residents built by the Chenango River is quiet and tasteful. But the rampage still affects the community and its people in subtle ways.
What is mainly different is inside people’s heads. And while most have recovered as the years have passed, they are changed.
“It was an episode that ripped apart our delusion that we were safe from all that,” said Gerald R. Smith, a 63-year-old historian who works out of the Broome County Public Library downtown.
Yes, it can happen here, Binghamton learned the hard way, in a small city of about 46,000, roughly the size of Attleboro or Leominster.
Smith thinks now about the security of his own office, “in a public building in a downtown setting in a neighborhood that’s marginally OK.” There are no metal detectors. It’s a library. You just walk in.
“We’ve had to rethink how we look at people,” he said.
The attack lingers on in countless other ways, both trivial and profound.
Three or four years ago, Smith visited the American Civic Center, where the attack took place, to look at the agency’s copy machine; the Historical Society was thinking about buying the same model.
“This was an unreal feeling,” he recalled. “An eerie feeling. There were people going about their business and we were standing on the very spot.”
The staff was happy to show off their copier, but Smith’s mind was whirling with thoughts of the bloodshed and suffering. He asked himself: What is the right thing to do?
“Do you say ‘I’m so sorry about what happened here?’ ” he said. Or say nothing? Because life goes on.
Downtown Binghamton is a series of blocks near the confluence of the Chenango and Susquehanna rivers, a few miles from the Pennsylvania border. A wide forested hill of green pine and copper-colored hardwoods in late autumn rises like a wave in the distance. The American Civic Association is on Front Street, in a shoebox-shaped building made of tan brick. Founded during the Great Depression, the nonprofit group helps immigrants assimilate to America, providing English language, GED, and citizenship classes.
Outside the front door sit a pair of black stone benches engraved with 13 names.
On April 3, 2009, Jiverly Wong, a naturalized American from Vietnam who had attended a language class at the association, entered the building with two handguns and fired nearly 100 shots in about a minute. He killed people who had come from all corners of the world — Pakistan, Haiti, the Philippines, China, Iraq, Brazil — before killing himself. In a rambling letter that later came to light, Wong seemed wildly delusional.
It was Matthew Ryan’s instinct, as Binghamton’s mayor at the time, to enter the building once it was safe. He’s still trapped with the memories.
“I saw the carnage that day for a brief moment, and I wish I never did,” Ryan said.
Bodies on top of each other. People who had been shot in the head.
“I just turned around and came out,” he said. “Something I wish I didn’t see.”
Mayra Garcia, director of the American Civic Association, started work there about three months after the shooting, she said, in a brief interview in an association conference room. She took a job there because she wanted to help get the place back on its feet. About 150 to 200 people use the service center each day, she said.
She is not eager to talk to a reporter about the murders, or how they changed the town. The association does tremendous work helping people year-round, she said, and where is the media attention for that?
“But when a shooting happens, everyone wants to talk to the ACA,” she said.
David Stark, an 84-year-old retired Binghamton teacher and principal, used to play piano at the Civic Association’s annual Garlic Festival — a cross-cultural celebration of food and entertainment. It’s an awful irony now, but he remembers keeping a sign nearby that read, Don’t shoot the piano player, he’s doing the best he can. He used to drive past the Civic Association and think about those good times. Now he can’t drive down Front Street without thinking of murder and death.
“Those of us who were here, it will never leave our minds,” he said.
Stark needed a minute to recall when he last played the Garlic Festival. Maybe 2007 or 2008?
After the shooting, “I never went back,” he said.
Was that because of the shooting?
He paused a few seconds, as if considering this for the first time. “It could be,” he said. “Subliminally, maybe, that was in the back of my mind.”
Not long after the massacre, Binghamton receded from public memory. Some residents are upset by this. It’s as if the horror they endured together is being minimized or passed over. Others don’t mind; they would rather their community not be associated with the murders. People here are somewhat reluctant to say it, but many believe the Binghamton slayings get overlooked because most of the victims were immigrants from distant shores.
Perhaps the best known victim of the attack was 72-year-old Roberta King, a prominent local teacher known as Bobbie. She was an authority on collectable dolls and had amassed a big personal collection. She was also the mother of 10 children.
“Ten kids (in) 17 years, and all from the same mother and father,” said King’s son, Jeffrey, an ear, nose and throat doctor. Bobbie King’s oldest child is now 58, the youngest 41.
It seems everyone in town knows Bobbie King’s story. She had not been scheduled to teach at the Civic Association that day, but was called in as a substitute.
“The normal teacher was out celebrating a wedding anniversary,” Jeffrey King said. “Can you imagine the guilt she feels over that?”
Jeffrey King was in his office a few miles away when vague news of a shooting downtown snowballed into a wail of sirens and a chilling call for families to gather at the Catholic Charities building to wait for news. He believes his mother was among the first to be killed. He did not look at her body.
King is 55, a trim, well-spoken man who keeps a packed schedule. The growing number of mass shootings in the years after Binghamton — the litany that opens this story is just a sampling — has driven him to deep frustration. Though he never raises his voice in an hourlong interview at his office, his exasperation is clear.
“I’m sickened that another group of innocent people will go through what we did,” he said last week, with news of the Sutherland Springs shooting still fresh.
“I just know deeply . . . ”
He cut off the thought and began another.
“Those families now — they have no idea the recovery . . . ”
He tapped his fingers over his heart.
“You can’t go to the cinema. Can’t go to the mall. Can’t go to church. Can’t go to school. My temple has had a policeman outside since 9/11,” he said. “It’s sick.”
He noted that the Las Vegas shooter in October killed or wounded nearly 600 people — by himself. Some weapons are just too powerful to be permitted outside the police or the military, King said.
“I’m saddened, disgusted it could happen again,” he said, before correcting himself. “I can’t really say that anymore. I’m a realist, not a pessimist, but you can’t tell me it’s not going to happen again.”
He seemed to lose steam over the hour. By the end he sounded sad, almost resigned.
“It just seems so unfair that someone would kill so easily and we don’t do anything about it in such an advanced country,” he said.
After the shooting, the Civic Association operated temporarily from the First Congregational Church, two doors down. The church’s pastor, Arthur M. Suggs, said he thinks most residents have recovered emotionally, but that scars remain. For Suggs, lingering memories continue to gnaw at him. He was away at the time of the shooting, but saw a photograph of armed SWAT officers looking down on the building from the top of his church’s education wing. He sees a “deep contradiction” in the image of a SWAT team on the roof of a church.
After the shooting, clergy and city leaders wondered how to address the death of the killer, Suggs said.
If Jiverly Wong was clearly out of his mind, wasn’t his death also a tragedy?
“Do we ring the bell for him?” Suggs said, recalling discussions at the time. “No matter what way we chose, there was going to be trouble. We planted tulips for all of the people who died.”
Fourteen tulips, with one for Wong.
“That night someone dug up one of the flowers and threw it away,” he said.
The notion that an anguished community would pause to consider the humanity of the shooter seems old-fashioned today. Suggs has noticed another change since 2009: We are numb, no matter how high the death toll.
“The clergy at the time, we felt an impulse to open up our sacristies for people to gather for prayer and vigils,” he said. “Now these things are so commonplace nobody bothers to do that. The impulse to do something holy in the face of something evil has dissipated. We’re jaded. We’re used to it.”
Binghamton businessman Ron Sall served two years on the board of the American Civic Association after the massacre. He is 66, silver-haired, dressed in a smartly fitting suit and wearing a Bluetooth earpiece. He started working at the Sall-Stearns menswear store downtown as a kid in 1961 and has owned the place since 1973. It is a store for fashionable men who like their clothes custom-fitted. A tailor was at work in the back room.
Leaning against a sales counter in his store, he spun the upbeat, Chamber of Commerce-approved story of Binghamton:
“We accept foreign people and we nurture all who want to become part of our American dream.”
“People care about each other here.”
Later, though, the conversation turned. He thought about whether he ever snaps back — mentally or emotionally — to the Civic Association shooting.
“Oddly enough, I did the other day,” he said. It happened while looking online at photos of the dead from Sutherland Springs, Texas.
“I noticed a little boy who looked just like his father,” he said, quietly.
At that moment, standing there in his store, Sall seemed to snap back in time.
A deep sense of sadness fell over him. His big voice went hollow.
“The kids,” he said softly, almost whispering, “they’re just little kids. Why would somebody have so much hate? What makes somebody do this?”
He fell silent and reached for a brown cardboard box on the counter. He opened it and took out half-a-dozen dress shirts packaged in cellophane. He perused the shipping invoice for a few seconds, and then slid the distraction aside.
He looked up and said in his normal voice, “Don’t know what else I can tell you.”