Marie Sonia Bernard came here to fulfill her American dreams to work and help her relatives back in Haiti. Last year, she brought her husband Marc-Henry Bernard to the United States.
But last week her life and that of her husband ended tragically in a fusillade by a crazed gunman bent on destruction.
“They were really simple people and they always have a smile,” said Rev. Jean Leon Eliacin, who is head of the International Church of the Nazareen in Binghamton. “Sonia was always asking me how I can work to unite the community.”
The killing sent shockwaves across the country, New York State and City, particularly among Haitian immigrants, who didn’t know that Haitians had lived in any significant numbers in that struggling city in northwestern upstate New York.
It is most difficult for Haitians in Binghamton who started moving here in the early 1990’s, thinking they were safe from such things that are more likely to happen in a more volatile place like Brooklyn.
“I don’t feel well at all I have a constant headache,” said Lifrantz Charles who was at the American Civic Association center when the shootings began. “I cannot sleep now. I drink milk at night take sleeping pills but images of the dead bodies and the killer keep appearing in my dream. I hear the gunshot every time.”
The shooting began about 10:30 a.m. Friday April 3, but it was no spontaneous act. The killer, Jiverly Wong, wore body armor and strode through the association’s front door only after parking his car to block the back door. He knew the layout _ until last month he’d been taking English lessons there.
Armed with two legally acquired handguns _ a 9 mm and a .45-caliber _ he shot two receptionists, killing one, then moved on to the classroom where he claimed 12 more victims and killed himself before any confrontation with the police.
When the dust settled 14 people, including Wong laid dead.
Charles said that when the shootings began they were 14 in a classroom and could hear and smell the gunshots. They huddled into a closet and once inside began praying and asking to be spared death. They dialed 911 but he was so petrified that he couldn’t talk to the police and handed the phone to a teacher.
After several minutes I felt hot and felt that God was with me. I told the other 13 people with me that God is with us and noting will happen to us,” Charles said.
But the agony is just beginning for Charles, who said he spent more than one hour standing inside the closet.
Binghamton is an unlikely place for a Haitian community. But its tranquility was what attracted people like Sonia Bernard, who came here around 1994, when a wave of refugees were fleeing Haiti’s political troubles following the overthrow of Jean Bertrand Aristide. She came first to South Florida, moved to Georgia before settling in Binghamton. She had just left her job as a cook at a nursing home because she didn’t like her boss, who she found racist, said Rev. Eliacin.
“I spoke with her Thursday. I had called to ask her for the result of an application I have filed for her, Rev. Eliacin said. “I applied for them at Cathlolic Charities for job.
“She had let me know that her application was being processed. She says Bernard went to a job interview that Thursday.”
Police were on the scene in minutes, but delayed their entry into the building while trying to assess what they thought might be a hostage situation. A SWAT team entered 43 minutes after the first call to police, though students and teachers taking refuge in the basement waited more than an hour longer before being evacuated.
“The shooting was over by the time we got there,” said police Chief Joseph Zikuski. “If some crazy lunatic decides to pick up a gun and go some place and start shooting people, I really don’t have the answer … that could prevent anything like that.”
Officers took no chances when they did start evacuating people, restraining some of them with plastic ties around their wrists because they fit the description of the gunman.
“I have 2 kids in Florida. I’m not working now. The center was a heaven to go spend some times and learn a lot of things,” said Charles.
But last week Wong turned it into hell for the residents of Binghamton.