Jeffrey Phelps/Associated Press
Jeffrey Phelps/Associated Press
OAK CREEK, Wis. – They removed the bloodstained carpeting, repaired shattered windows and painted over gunfire-scarred walls. But Sikh Temple of Wisconsin members left a single bullet hole to mark the memory of a white supremacist’s deadly rampage.
As thousands Friday mourned the six victims killed before a prayer service, the temple’s members worked late the previous night to remove all but the one trace of the shooting. The waist-high bullet hole in a door jamb near the main prayer room was left as a memorial to the six slain worshippers.
“We will put a plaque here,” Harpreet Singh, the nephew of one of the victims, said Friday. “We will make sure they are never forgotten.”
Members showed The Associated Press the dime-size hole during an exclusive tour of the temple. While most other physical reminders of the horror have been scrubbed or painted away, temple members said they could still feel the spirits of those who died.
As Singh showed the AP the bedrooms where his uncle and a priest were killed, he frequently paused with his hands on his hips and looked around in silence.
Army veteran Wade Michael Page used a 9 mm pistol Sunday to kill five men, one woman and wound three other people, including a police officer, in the ambush on the temple. He took his own life after exchanging gunfire with officers, including one he shot nine times.
The carnage could have been much worse, Singh said. At the first sound of gunfire outside, two children raced into the kitchen and warned people to take cover. Thirteen women were there preparing meals for the day, crammed into a pantry with a man and the two children.
The pantry, a side room off the main kitchen, has only enough standing room for about three or four people comfortably. But the 16 waited in petrified silence for almost two hours, doing their best to ignore the smoke wafting throughout the room from food burning on the stove.
Page’s view of the pantry was probably blocked by the large refrigerator near its entrance, Singh said.
“Otherwise who knows what would have happened,” he said.
At Oak Creek High School on Friday, lines of mourners wound deep into the parking lot for the service in the gymnasium, where the six victims’ bodies lay in open wooden caskets adorned with red and white flowers. Musicians sang religious hymns in front of a large video screen flashing photos of those killed and injured, as mourners, wearing head scarves in the Sikh tradition, greeted relatives with hugs.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told mourners the rampage was an attack not only on Sikhs but on American values. He also applauded the Sikh community for not responding to the attack with violence.
“You’ve inspired the best of who we are,” Holder said.
Children of other victims also spoke, saying the one comfort they drew from their parents’ deaths was that the killing happened in a temple, where God was near to accept them.
Memorial attendees arrived from California to New York, from Chicago to Vancouver.
Kuldeep Chahal, 35, a Sikh teacher, drove 12 hours from Toronto to attend the ceremony Friday, bringing banners that members of his local temple had signed for victims’ families.
The victims included temple president Satwant Singh Kaleka, 65, who was shot as he tried to fend off Page with a small knife. Pardeep Kaleka remembered his father as a selfless man who often told him, “You make a living by what you make, but you make a life by what you give.”
Also killed were: Ranjit Singh, 49, and his 41-year-old brother, Sita Singh, two priests whose families were back in India and whose lives in America revolved around their faith; Suveg Singh Khattra, 84, a constant presence at the temple; Prakash Singh, 39, a priest who was remembered as a fun-loving personality; and Paramjit Kaur, 41, a mother of two who prayed every day while working more than 60 hours a week.
The wounded officer, Oak Creek Police Lt. Brian Murphy, was still hospitalized Friday in satisfactory condition.
The temple’s head priest, Gurmail Singh, made brief remarks in Punjabi about all six victims. Singh said all the victims were about “hard work, of giving time, selfless nature, all the things that make us who we are as a community,” said Amardeep Kaleka, another son of the temple president who translated and paraphrased the remarks.
After the service, mourners began to return to the temple where priests had begun a traditional rite called “Akhand Path” to honor the dead. The ceremony, which generally takes 48 hours, involves a series of priests reading the Sikh holy book aloud from cover to cover.
The FBI roped off the temple for four days during its investigation; agents handed the keys back to Sikh leaders Thursday morning to begin making repairs.
The new carpet and fresh paint can only cover the physical scars of the shooting, Harpreet Singh said.
“It’s just very difficult,” he said. “It’s just something that should never have happened.”