At Sikh temple shooting, 2 children helped save many lives

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the first name of the children’s mother. She is Kanwal Singh. This version has been corrected.


Kanwal Singh, left, with her children, Amanat Singh, right, and Abhay Singh. Both children were at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., when Wade Michael Page was shot to death by a police officer after he killed six worshipers at the temple here and shot another officer. (Michael Laris/The Washington Post)
August 7, 2012

Amanat Singh was dancing in front of the Sikh temple here on Sunday morning, cracking up her 11-year-old brother, Abhay.

Amanat had just turned 9, and her family was responsible for preparing a birthday lunch for 300 people. The children’s parents had told the pair to stay inside the temple while they went to a store to get more paper plates.

But the temple was hot, with samosas frying and chapatis on the grill. So the children stepped outside to catch the breeze. That was when they saw the man get out of the car.

As Amanat and Abhay turned back to their play, they heard a pop. Then another. What they thought, fleetingly, might have been fireworks were actually gunshots. The man was shooting at two members of the temple. He fired at one of them seven or eight times.

“He didn’t want him to live,” Abhay recalled.

The children ran inside, crying out warnings. At first, there was confusion. But as gunfire echoed inside the temple, the adults understood that this was not child’s play. They herded Amanat and Abhay into a small pantry in the temple’s kitchen, and, together, they all huddled in terror.

In the midst of the tragedy, the two children have emerged as unlikely heroes. Members of the temple said the warning came in time to save the lives of others as a man later identified as Wade Michael Page went on to kill a total of six people before being gunned down by a police officer outside.

“They are both, brother and sister, heroes. I call them heroes,” said Baljit Singh, whose wife, Jaspal, was in the kitchen and heeded the warning. He estimated that the children were able to warn more than a dozen people.

‘I’m glad I stayed back’

Speaking publicly for the first time, the children said they were proud that they were able to come to people’s help.

“I’m glad I stayed back because I could save those people,” Abhay said in the interview Tuesday as he sat with the rest of his family in their home in a suburb of Milwaukee.

Abhay said that in the pantry, he and his sister were packed in with more than a dozen people. They shut the door, which had no lock, and stayed silent, the quarters so tight that Abhay could not reach his hands toward the ceiling.

A tall cooler blocked the sightline from outside the kitchen into the pantry, and the shooter seemed not to know that people were hiding inside.

The children said that as they hid, they could hear bullets crashing into metal. Containers of food falling. The screams of victims. Amanat said she was scared she was going to die.

Another group was hiding in the temple’s basement, but those in the pantry had no idea what was happening outside.

Amanat used someone’s cellphone to try to send her mother a text message, telling her to stay away from the temple, to tell her not to come back.

Abhay began to smell something burning — bread, part of the meal for his sister’s birthday lunch. Some of it was still on the stove — flat bread, kidney beans and gravy, and potatoes — and those huddled in the pantry started to worry that a bullet could strike a gas line, sparking an explosion.

One of them called the children’s mother, Kanwal Singh, 36, who was frantic and weeping outside. They asked her to try to get someone to shut off the gas. They also told her that her children were with them.

‘A terrible feeling’

Eventually, the sound of shooting stopped.

The group stayed quiet, the heat so intense that one of the women began fanning Abhay with a paper plate to keep him from fainting.

Once police entered the kitchen, a wave of relief washed over the terrified group. There were bodies scattered around the temple. Survivors were taken to a bowling alley across the street.

Once Amanat saw her mother, she began to cry.

On Tuesday, she was wearing a pink tank top and a pink hair band. She was holding an iPad in a pink case, a birthday gift she received the day after the shooting. Abhay had already helped her add songs, including her favorite, Katy Perry’s “Wide Awake.”

She kept snuggling into her mother’s arms.

“We were crying — it was such a terrible feeling,” Kanwal Singh said, recalling how she and her husband panicked once they realized what was happening inside the temple.

Singh said that like her children, she, too, is now proud.

“I didn’t know they would be so brave,” she said.

Mike Laris came to Post by way of Los Angeles and Beijing. He’s written about the world’s greatest holstein bull, earth’s biggest pork producer, home builders, the homeless, steel workers and Italian tumors.
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