(Reuters) - Women at the Sikh Temple in Wisconsin were busily preparing lunch in the community kitchen on Sunday when two children burst in and screamed frantically they had seen a man with a gun outside.
People began running in every direction, and 14 women, along with the two children, rushed into a narrow pantry in the Milwaukee suburb of Oak Creek. There was no lock, and so the women pressed their bodies up against the door to keep anyone from entering, witnesses said.
“Everyone was falling on top of one another,” said Parminder Toor, 54, speaking in Punjabi as her daughter-in-law, Jaskiran Kaur, translated. “It was dark and we were all crammed in.”
The children — who were not immediately named, but who worshipers said were not yet teenagers — had been playing near a window in another room when they saw the gunman. Their parents had gone to a nearby grocery store to buy juice for the weekly community lunch, witnesses said.
Six people, as well as the shooter, were killed on Sunday morning when the gunman entered the temple and fired on worshippers with a handgun as they prepared for religious services. Police identified the gunman as Wade Michael Page, 40, who was in the U.S. Army from 1992 to 1998.
Satwant Singh Kaleka, the 65-year-old president of the congregation, was among the victims. The others who died were Sita Singh, 41; Ranjit Singh, 49; Prakash Singh, 39; Paramjit Kaur, 41; and Suveg Singh, 84. A police officer was critically wounded, and three other people were treated in hospital, two of them for serious injuries.
Witnesses described a chaotic scene as members of Oak Creek’s close-knit Sikh community dashed into any enclosed space they could find including the basement, a bathroom and the kitchen pantry, not knowing if it were a lone gunman or a group of shooters.
Family members desperately called relatives who they knew to be at the temple, and warned late-comers to stay away.
In the pantry, the women and the two children huddled together for more than two hours, as smoke and the smell of hot cooking oil from the abandoned skillets filled the air.
One of the women who made it into the pantry had been shot in the hand, and there was “blood everywhere,” said Toor.
Toor, who was born in India and has been worshiping at the temple since it opened five years ago, described the two children as heroes.
“They were telling all the women to be still and to be brave, and they were telling the women not to cry,” said Toor. “They are the heroes who saved the women in the closet.”
Toor’s daughter-in-law, Jaskiran Kaur said she had left the temple with her two young children minutes before the shooting began. The service begins at about 11 a.m. local time, and she said she prefers to worship earlier in the day.
Kaur said she greeted the temple president, Kaleka, in the customary fashion, with palms pressed together. Later, he presented her children with traditional sweets.
“I just feel like at least I got to say good-bye,” she said, her voice breaking. She described the temple president as a “nice, humble guy.”
At a news conference at the Salvation Army Community Center on Monday, Amardeep Kaleka, the son of the temple president, memorialized his father and said he hoped the shooting would encourage more “cultural understanding” about immigrant groups.
“My father was the quintessential American Dream. He came over with $100 in his pocket,” he said. “America needs to have cultural understanding of anyone who lives here. We’re a nation of immigrants. We need to know each other. We need to speak up and talk to each other.”
Inderjeet Singh Dhillon, the secretary of the Oak Creek temple, remembered Kaleka as “one of the most patient people” on earth when it came to balancing the temple’s 400 members.
“It’s not easy,” Dhillon said. “Believe me, it’s not easy. He never got mad.”
Separately, Jaswinder Singh Nat, 60 — the father of Jaskiran Kaur — described Kaleka as beloved in the community.
“He was a very good, gentle man,” said Jaswinder Singh Nat, 60, who uses a wheelchair and said he was not at the temple on Sunday because he was feeling ill.
Kaur said they had last been together as a community on Saturday for a celebration of a women’s festival that is celebrated in India.
“We all danced and we were all laughing, and everyone looked so beautiful,” she said.
Additional reporting by James Kelleher in Oak Creek, Wisconsin; Editing by Greg McCune, David Storey and Lisa Shumaker