The two receptionists at the US community center barely had time to react when a gunman stormed in the front door and shot them at close range before firing on a roomful of immigrants taking a citizenship class.
One receptionist survived, playing dead, before crawling under a desk and calling 911.
Police Chief Joseph Zikuski said she stayed on the phone for 90 minutes “feeding us information constantly” despite a serious wound in the abdomen.
“She’s a hero in her own right,” he said.
The attacker massacred 13 people and left four more fighting for their lives at the immigrant center in New York state before turning the gun on himself, police said.
Police said the killings took place at the American Civic Association in Binghamton, 215km northwest of New York City.
The gunman, reportedly of Vietnamese origin, blocked the back door of the center with his car, entered the building and opened fire.
Dozens of people spent four hours cowering in the center’s basement, waiting to be told by police that they were safe to leave.
Zikuski said that there were “14 confirmed dead in the building” and that he had “very good reason to believe that the shooter is among the dead at the scene.”
“We removed safely 37 people. Four people we removed are wounded,” Zikuski told a news conference.
All four were listed in critical condition.
Zikuski said that receptionist who made the emergency call had been shot in the stomach.
Two handguns were recovered at the scene.
The gunman was identified as Jiverly Wong, in his early 40s, who came from Johnson City, near Binghamton, where he lived with his mother. Police have searched his home.
Zikuski said Wong had been “recently terminated from a job. He didn’t speak English very well.”
US President Barack Obama, on a visit to France, said that he was “shocked and deeply saddened to learn about the act of senseless violence.”
Many of those in the center, which helps clients prepare for citizenship tests, were apparently of Vietnamese origin and did not speak good English.
New York state Governor David Paterson said victims were there to pursue “the American dream.”
“There still is an American dream and all of us who are Americans will try to heal this very, very deep wound in the city of Binghamton,” he said.
In the basement, English teacher Priscilla Pease called her husband from her cellphone to say that she and a fellow teacher and 24 students were afraid but alive in the furnace room.
The police chief said he had “no idea what the motive is.”
In Pakistan, a militant Taliban leader wanted by the government claimed responsibility for the Binghamton massacre.
“Whatever happened in America yesterday was done by our men,” Baitullah Mehsud told reporters by telephone, but Pakistani security officials dismissed the claim.
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