OAK CREEK, Wisconsin — When a gunman burst into the Sikh temple he’d devoted his life to building in this small Wisconsin town, Sadwant Singh Kaleka grabbed the only weapon at hand, a blunt ceremonial knife.
The confrontation didn’t last long. The gunman — identified by police as 40-year-old army psy-ops veteran Wade Michael Page — mercilessly cut down the 65-year-old temple president with shots from a 9mm handgun.
But Kaleka slowed the attacker just long enough for the women preparing the afternoon’s meal to hide in a pantry and for the children attending Sunday school downstairs to escape the gunman’s deadly gaze.
“He was a hero through and through,” Kaleka’s son Amardeep said Monday.
“There couldn’t have been a better place for him to lay to rest.”
Amardeep Kaleka was driving to temple on Sunday morning when his phone rang with the horrible news.
Another man had grabbed his bleeding father and dragged him into a nearby bathroom where they locked the door and prayed for help.
“He was telling me your father’s at my feet — we need to get an ambulance here,” Kaleka told reporters.
The gunman had already shot at least one person in the parking lot. He killed five more — including Sadwant Singh Kaleka — before heading back outside to ambush the police.
Lieutenant Brian Murphy, 51, was the first to arrive just three or four minutes after the first call came in for help.
He got out of his car and rushed over to check on a person he saw laying on the ground in a pool of blood.
But the gunman was lying in wait and shot Murphy eight or nine times “at very close range,” Oak Creek police chief John Edwards told reporters.
Other officers were close behind and shot Page after he refused to lay down his weapon — a handgun that was legally obtained — and opened fire upon them, striking two of the police cruisers.
It took a few moments for the officers to realize Murphy was hurt.
When they rushed to his aid, he tried waving them off “and told them to go into the temple to assist those in there,” Edwards said.
Murphy and two other shooting victims remained in critical condition Monday as officials worked to discover a motive.
The FBI has taken the lead because the shooting is considered a “possible domestic terrorism” incident. Page had ties to white supremacist groups.
Kaleka and his family came to the United States from India in 1982. He built a successful business, and devoted every extra dollar he earned into building the Oak Creek temple.
Parishioners described him as the kind of man who, if you called him at two in the morning to say a light had gone out at the temple, would be there at 2:15 am to change the bulb.
He was remembered as a easy going man who never lost his cool or held a grudge. A man who was always ready to help anyone and everyone. A handyman who loved life and could talk your ear off.
“As I saw the picture of the man who took away my father’s life — you look at his face and it’s full of hollow emptiness — a dark void,” Amandeep Kaleka said after police released the photo at a press conference.
“I feel a lot of sadness towards that individual… I’m not going to replace it with anger.”
He hopes that this shooting will be an opportunity for Americans to come together and have an honest conversation about race, religion and how to build more tolerance in a nation of immigrants.
Kaleka’s nephew echoed the sentiment.
“When these things happen we learn how hateful and ignorant people can be. What we want to promote is education and community,” said 29-year-old Kanwardeep Singh Kaleka.
“This is part of our faith — love and understanding no matter who you are.”
Kanwardeep Kaleka was so angry when he first heard of the shooting that he slammed his fist into the wall.
But he knew that anger just makes things worse and did not want to be a victim to the emotion which drove the shooter to such a horrific act.
So even though he doesn’t normally wear a turban, he tied a dark blue one around his head and stood shoulder to shoulder with dozens of other Sikhs as they sought answers at the police station.
“I only hope our community grows stronger. I hope we’re able to show our love and still keep our doors open to everyone,” Kanwardeep Kaleka said.