What started as a peaceful Christmas concert on the steps of a historic New York City church quickly erupted into chaos late Sunday after a lone gunman opened fire outside the cathedral.
Police say gunshots were first reported around 3:45 p.m. Sunday on the front steps of the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine immediately following the annual concert program. The gunman was seen firing an unknown number of shots outside of the Manhattan church as people outside scattered to take cover.
When police arrived, officers shot and killed the suspect, NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea said.
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Witnesses described hearing more than a dozen gunshots as they ran for their lives. NYC Council Member Mark Levine confirmed no one else was injured after the gunman began shooting "indiscriminately in the air."
Shea said the exact number of rounds fired by the suspect was not yet known.
Two senior law enforcement officials tell NBC New York that investigators believe the gunman's intention was to get shot by police. Multiple witnesses of the shooting say they heard the man yelling at police to shoot him.
"The shooter said, 'just shoot me! Shoot me! Kill me! Kill me!' He kept daring the police officer to do so," witness Judy Romer said. "I ran as fast as I could but only after the other people ran. I couldn't believe it. I just couldn't believe it."
A police officer and community affairs detective already at the scene, aided by a nearby sergeant, quickly engaged the gunman, Shea said at a press conference several hours later. Between the three officers, 15 rounds were fired, he said. The gunman was struck in the head and taken to a nearby hospital where he was pronounced dead.
Authorities have not identified the gunman but they said he had a lengthy criminal record and came to the church armed with two handguns, multiple knives, some rope, wire, a full can of gasoline and a bible. Questions remain about what he was planning as police continue their investigation.
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer said two of her staffers were attending the holiday concert before the shooting. The concert featured members of the cathedral choir standing far apart on the stone steps wearing masks because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“It was just beautiful, and then at the end this person started shooting. Everybody is in shock,” a cathedral spokeswoman, Lisa Schubert, told The New York Times. “The shooter could have killed a lot of people. There were hundreds of people here and he shot at least 20 times.”
“It is horrible that our choir’s gift to New York City, a much-needed afternoon of song and unity, was cut short by this shocking act of violence," cathedral spokeswoman Iva Benson said by email.
The cathedral is one of the world’s largest. Construction began in 1892 and is still incomplete. The church has been connected to many New York luminaries and notable events over its long history. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a trustee. It hosted the memorial services for puppeteer Jim Henson and choreographer Alvin Ailey, and speakers over the years including South Africa’s Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.