There was no exit and few hiding places

Correspondent World News
  • 50 killed in mosque massacres
  • Attacked live streamed on Facebook
  • 28-year-old shooter arrested
  • New Zealand to toughen gun laws
  • Social media response under review 

The sharp cracks of gunfire were so confusing that at first the imam continued his sermon on forgiveness and brotherhood. “For the first seconds, I thought it was fireworks or electricity shocks, except the noise was so intense,” said Asif Shaikh, a 44-year-old who had come to New Zealand from India a year earlier to study business. He had just been talking about cricket with friends in the main prayer room of the Al Noor mosque.

It quickly became clear the sound came from bullets ripping through the main prayer hall. Worshipers were falling. Others raced toward the far corners of the room to get away.

A heavily armed shooter blocked the main way out for all of them—a long corridor at the front. The floor-to-ceiling windows in the rear were crossed with iron bars for security.

“People were breaking the windows, trying to pull off the bars and trying to get out as bodies piled up all around them,” Mr. Asif said. “There were people lying on the ground, with their skulls shot open or shot between the eyes. People were in a panic, just trying to save their lives. People had no time to think about which way to run.”

Emerging accounts of the deadliest massacre in New Zealand’s history, which left 50 people dead in two mosques, suggest the suspected gunman was able to dramatically increase the body count by trapping victims in areas with few exits, especially in the Al Noor prayer room.

Survivors and victims’ families note the shooter was able to roam the city largely at will for more than 30 minutes, calmly entering, exiting, and then re-entering two mosques to double down on his killing spree. At times he fired bursts of gunshots along a busy street outside of Al Noor, alerting his presence to the outside world, before heading back in for more executions.

Police charged a 28-year-old Australian suspect, Brenton Tarrant, with murder. A lengthy, hate-filled manifesto posted under Mr. Tarrant’s name on Facebook around the time of the attacks claimed responsibility, expressing white-supremacist views and describing the author as a working-class Australian. The terror spree was captured in graphic video footage posted online by the shooter that has since been removed.

Police have defended their response time, saying it took 36 minutes from receiving the first call of a possible shooting to apprehending the attacker. “This was a very, very quick response time,” said Police Commissioner Mike Bush at a press conference on Sunday.

Investigators believe Mr. Tarrant illegally fed higher-capacity magazines into a semiautomatic rifle, enabling him to shoot more worshipers without reloading. The attack has prompted New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to press for changes to New Zealand’s gun laws.

Police have charged a 28-year-old Australian suspect, Brenton Tarrant, with murder.

Those who did escape were able to do so in part because of the heroism of a few people, who on at least three occasions rushed the shooter, failing to disable him but temporarily slowing his rampage. Others attempted to shield friends and fellow worshipers, holding them in their final moments.

A small group of worshipers hastily came up with a plan to overtake the shooter as bullets flew. Others hid under dead bodies, or in rooms the gunman somehow never entered.

At the Al Noor mosque, the prayer room is located at the end of a single central corridor, which the shooter blocked, with most exits concentrated towards the front of the building.

The deaths have shaken a tight-knit Muslim community that included Bangladeshis, Afghans, Indonesians, Egyptians and other immigrants who had been drawn to New Zealand by a sense that it is a kind of oasis remote from the turmoil of the globe. Many were each other’s roommates, pooling resources to get a foothold in a new country, with jobs ranging from software engineering to inspecting mushrooms.

Many were also well-acquainted with gunfire in their previous homes, including Afghanistan, yet said they couldn’t imagine the sounds they heard at first were bullets.

“It was boom, boom, boom,” said Seham Elwakil, who said her husband was likely among the first to be killed. Earlier in the day, the two of them had renewed their passports, so they could visit their homeland, Egypt. Ms. Elwakil hid in a women’s room at the mosque, which the gunman passed over. “Thank God, he did not look inside.”

Friday was a cool and damp day in Christchurch. Mr. Tarrant, the alleged shooter, switched on a camera, panning the front seat of a Subaru station wagon to show three guns scrawled with white supremacist symbols and references to historical battles between Europeans and Muslims.

“Let’s get this party started,” he said on the video, which was viewed by The Wall Street Journal. With the sound of a Serbian nationalist song playing—and the voice of the car’s GPS system giving directions—he pulled out into midday traffic.

Omar Jahid, a 30-year-old Bangladeshi immigrant who worked the morning shift at a gas station, was chatting with a friend who planned to get married in Bangladesh and bring his bride to live in New Zealand.

MD Faysal, a 29-year-old telecommunications worker from Bangladesh, was running late after getting backed up at work. He was just entering the mosque’s ceremonial washroom, where worshipers cleanse their hands, feet and face before entering the prayer room.