BINGHAMTON, N.Y. — The community center was filled with people from countries as far off as Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, all working to become more a part of their new home — learning English, taking a class to gain U.S. citizenship.
The gunman, believed to be a Vietnamese immigrant, may have walked a similar path to become an American decades ago.
He parked his car against the back door, stormed through the front and shot two receptionists, apparently without saying a word. Then he fired on a citizenship class while terrified people, their only escape route blocked, scrambled into a boiler room and a storage room and prayed he wouldn't follow.
"I heard the shots, every shot. I heard no screams, just silence," said Zhanar Tokhtabayeva, a 30-year-old Kazakh who was in an English class when her teacher screamed for everyone to go to the storage room. "I heard shooting, very long time, and I was thinking, when will this stop? I was thinking that my life was finished."
The gunman killed 13 people, all but one of them in the classroom, before apparently killing himself Friday morning at the American Civic Association. Four people were critically wounded.
Investigators had yet to establish a motive for the massacre, one of several recent multiple shootings in the United States and the nation's worst mass shooting since April 16, 2007, when 33 people died at Virginia Tech University in the deadliest shooting by a single gunman in U.S. history.
In the last month, 25 people, including three gunmen, have died in multiple shootings in North Carolina, California and Alabama.
On Friday morning, one of the receptionists at the American Civic Association, which helps immigrants settle in this country, survived. Shot in the abdomen, she played 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 her serious wound.
"She's a hero in her own right," he said.
Police said they arrived within 2 minutes at the building in Binghamton, a city of about 47,000.
The gunman was found dead with a self-inflicted gunshot wound in an office, a satchel containing ammunition around his neck, authorities said. Police found two handguns — a .45-caliber and a 9mm — as well as a hunting knife, authorities said.
Thirty-seven people made it out of the building, including 26 who hid in the boiler room in the basement, cowering there for three hours while police searched the building, trying to determine whether the gunman was still alive and whether he was holding any hostages, Zikuski said. Those in the basement stayed in contact with police by cell phone. Others hid in closets and under desks.
Police heard no gunfire after they arrived but waited for about an hour before entering the building to make sure it was safe for officers.
At one point, police led a number of men out of the building in plastic handcuffs while they tried to sort out the victims from the killer or killers. Most of the people brought out couldn't speak English, the chief said.
Alex Galkin, from Uzbekistan, said he was taking English classes when he heard a shot and quickly went to the basement with about 20 other people. "It was just panic."
Counselors tended to relatives of victims at a Catholic Charities office. Outside, Omri Yigal waited for word on his wife, Delores, who was taking English lessons when the gunman attacked.
He left hours later, with no answers. "They told me they don't have much hope for me," the Filipino immigrant said before going home to wait for a telephone call.
Dr. Jeffrey King, speaking at Catholic Charities, said he was certain his mother, 72-year-old Roberta King, who taught English at the community center, was among the dead. Authorities read a list of survivors and his mother's name wasn't on it, he said.
King, one of 10 children, described his mother as a woman brimming with interests ranging from the opera to collecting thousands of dolls. He recalled a recent conversation in which he told her to enjoy her retirement.
"I said, 'Mom you're in your 70s,' " King said. "She said, 'What? You don't think I enjoy working?' "
Gov. David Paterson said the massacre was probably "the worst tragedy and senseless crime in the history of this city." Noting the killings in Alabama and Oakland, Calif., last month, he said: "When are we going to be able to curb the kind of violence that is so fraught and so rapid that we can't even keep track of the incidents?"
The community center was holding class "for those who want to become citizens of the United States of America, who wanted to be part of the American Dream, and so tragically may have had that hope thwarted today," the governor said. "But 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."
President Barack Obama said he was shocked and saddened by the shootings, which he called an "act of senseless violence."
Information from the Associated Press and New York Times was used in this report.