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Binghamton, N.Y.: After The Shooting Stopped

Three months have passed since a gunman opened fire at an immigrant services center in Binghamton, N.Y.

Jiverly Wong, a mentally ill immigrant from Vietnam, murdered 13 people before taking his own life.

I was one of the reporters who covered the shooting, and I went back to Binghamton recently to find out what happens to people blindsided by such devastating violence.

'Just Keep Hoping'

I first went to Binghamton back in early April, on a raw, gray afternoon. This city folded in the valley of the Susquehanna River was reeling.

Ambulances were blaring, and the red brick building that houses the American Civic Association was surrounded by police.

As dusk fell, I met Omri Yigal on the street. He looked unsteady and a little confused.

It turns out he was waiting for word of his wife, Dolores. She was one of the students inside, but no one could tell him whether she was alive.

"So I'm going to go home and uh, let's just keep hoping," he said.

Dolores Yigal was a 53-year-old immigrant from the Philippines. She had gone to the American Civic Association that morning to study English.

Manageable Pieces

It's a glorious summer day when I return to Binghamton. This time, I meet Omri Yigal at his small, meticulously tidy house.

"How are you doing?" I ask him.

"I'm managing, just managing. That's it," he says.

We sit at his dining room table. Honestly, he looks exhausted. He still looks confused. And who wouldn't be?

"The first bullet my wife took was in her hand," he says. "She had nothing but her hand to stand between her and a .45."

He shakes his head. On the refrigerator, there's a schedule — a list of things to do. It breaks Yigal's day down into 15-minute fragments — into manageable pieces.

"I know how to get myself out of bed and put my feet on the floor and get to work," he says.

Step by step, he's made it through the past three months, but he still talks about Dolores in the present tense, as if she's in the next room.

"I can't get away from her. She is — she's always here," he says.

We talk for hours. Yigal talks about his Jewish faith and how he's reconnected with his synagogue.

In a corner of the living room, there's an electric piano, one of those player pianos. Yigal says one of the programmed songs was their song. It's called "Winter."

"We used to eat breakfast to this. Sometimes I would dance with her," he says as the music begins to play.

Yigal holds out his arms and sways a little, like he's still dancing.

'I Don't Know How It's Going To Turn Out'

The truth is most of us move on from violence like this. Columbine, Virginia Tech, Binghamton — they fade or we turn away.

Drive through Binghamton's neighborhoods, and you won't see obvious signs of the shooting.

"We planted the tulips up here for the victims, and that created some controversy," says Binghamton's mayor, Matt Ryan.

He says the local churches insisted on planting one extra tulip for the shooter, Jiverly Wong.

He meets me in the park above the Susquehanna where vigils were held last April. Ryan says he's not sure where his city goes next.

"A lot of people have gone back to the normal routines, but this is a small city ... A lot of people go by that building. It's hard, you know, because of what we saw there," he says.

So a lot of the wreckage here is invisible, and people like Lubomyr Zobniw are private, almost shy, in their sorrow.

"Actually, everyone says 'time heals.' It doesn't work that way yet for me," he says.

Zobniw is an immigrant from Ukraine. His wife, Maria, was 60 years old, a caseworker who died in the shooting.

He's a small man, gray-haired. He, too, sits at his dining room table, face stiff with effort.

An icon of the Virgin Mary hangs above the sideboard.

"You have to have a certain control. And if I go to work, if the wrong thing hits, like the answering machine — we haven't changed it yet, and that's my wife's voice still there," he says and plays the message.

As we look through photo albums, his daughter Chrystia joins us. She's 22 and was away at college when she got the news.

"If we ever had a problem, my mom would be the one to solve it," she says. "If my mom was here, she'd guide us in the right direction, but now we have to figure it out."

Sitting there, I can see how much Lubomyr and Chrystia love each other, but it's also plain that they just don't know what to think, or what to say or what to do.

"Right now, I just see my world. Everything's crushed. The journey's really come to a halt, and I don't know how it's going to turn out," Lubomyr says.

After The Shooting Stops

This is what it's like when the shooting stops, when the sirens stop blaring. This is what's left when the TV trucks pull away and the funerals and press conferences are over. This is the wound.

After thinking about it awhile, Chrystia says she hopes Binghamton will decide to build a memorial, something permanent to honor those who died.

"Cause they gave up their lives for something they stood for — something they all believed in. They all wanted to become Americans. My mother just wanted to help people," she says.

Omri Yigal wants a memorial, too. But when he's done settling his affairs, Yigal says he hopes to make a pilgrimage, studying and maybe settling in Israel.

"I'm trying to arrange my life now so that I can leave Binghamton, so I can fly away, get away from this place," he says.

There are 13 families in Binghamton all facing similar decisions, similar questions.

The American Civic Association is also trying to rebuild, hoping to hire new staff and reopen with full services as soon as possible.

The family of Jiverly Wong? They sold their house and left the area.

Local authorities say they didn't feel safe here, in a city where their son unleashed so much sorrow.

Brian Mann reports for North Country Public Radio.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

United States & World Morning Edition
Brian Mann
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.