CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND (ABC NEWS) — At least 49 people were killed in a shooting attack on the southern island of New Zealand on Friday when a gunman opened fire inside two mosques.
The shootings in Christchurch, categorized as a terrorist attack, included 41 deaths at one mosque, according to authorities. Christchurch Hospital also confirmed it was treating 48 people for gunshot wounds, ranging from minor to critical. One person died at the hospital.
“It’s something that we never expected to have happen here,” Christchurch MP Gerry Brownlee said Friday morning on “Good Morning America.” “We’re a relatively small population, and while we are ethnically quite diverse, we live very peaceable lives. And this, as many have seen, has shattered our innocence.”
The gunman, who was dressed in tactical gear, appeared to livestream video of the shooting on social media, according to New Zealand police, documenting his trip from his vehicle and into the worship center in central Christchurch, where he opened fire indiscriminately.
“This is one of New Zealand’s darkest days,” New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said in a press conference Friday.
Four people, three men and one woman, were taken into custody in the hours following the attack. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison confirmed one of them was an Australian citizen. The man has been charged with murder and will appear in court Saturday, police said.
Police later said one of the four taken into custody had a firearm, but was not connected to the attack. The other two continue to be investigated.
Ardern said none of the suspects were on any active terrorist watch lists and it was “not a matter of someone slipping under the radar.”
The shooter also opened fire in the surrounding area outside of the mosques. Police said they recovered two improvised explosive devices attached to vehicles in the area, but they were rendered safe.
Brownlee said he lived a short distance from one of the shooting sites.
“That mosque,” he said, “is just a short distance, about 4 kilometers [about 2.5 miles], from where I live. And it’s still just a shock, you know, with that number of people and such a small population in the city. Almost everyone will know someone or have a connection with the families of someone who has been either killed or seriously wounded today.”
The population of Christchurch is about 375,000.
Brownlee commended police for acting quickly and said the most important thing right now is to support those with connections to victims.
“New Zealand is a place where people have felt very secure and very free,” he added, “and this certainly has shaken that belief up today, and we’ve got to make sure we don’t end up with a permanent loss of the freedom that we so value.”
Schools in Christchurch were locked down when word of the shootings spread, and later lifted, according to local police.
Witnesses said the attack occurred just before 1:40 p.m. local time as the worship leader gave the sermon.
“The Sheikh was giving the sermon on Friday prayers and it was 1:42 [p.m.] and the gun starts shooting and he just came in and he was shooting ad hoc,” witness Ramzan Ali told The Associated Press.
Arden made reference to the nationalities of the victims, saying, “Many of those directly involved might be immigrants, refugees who chose to be here. They are us. The person who has done this, is not.”
Morrison described the shootings as having been perpetrated by an “extremist, right-wing, violent terrorist, that has taken the lives — stolen the lives — in a vicious, murderous attack that has claimed so many New Zealanders.”
Ali said he survived by hiding beneath a bench.
“Actually, I haven’t seen him because I just lied down under the bench, thinking that if I get out, I’ll get shot,” he said. “I’m just keeping my fingers crossed so I could be alive.”
He added: “I was the last guy to come out of the mosque after the shooting stopped and on the doors there were a lot of bodies.”
Police said shots were fired in at least two mosques. Residents were urged to stay off the streets and to avoid all mosques until further notice.
Len Peneh, who lives next door to one of the mosques, told the AP that he “saw dead people everywhere” when he went inside to help.
“There were three in the hallway, at the door leading into the mosque, and people inside the mosque,” he said. “It’s unbelievable nutty. I don’t understand how anyone could do this to these people, to anyone. It’s ridiculous.”
He described the gunman as a white man who was wearing a helmet with some kind of device on top.
“I’ve lived next door to this mosque for about five years and the people are great, they’re very friendly,” he said. “I just don’t understand it.”
Officials said they were working to remove “extremely distressing footage” taken at the scene and urged social media users not to share it.
“We would strongly urge that the link not be shared,” police said. “We are working to have any footage removed.”
President Donald Trump tweeted Friday, “My warmest sympathy and best wishes goes out to the people of New Zealand after the horrible massacre in the Mosques. 49 innocent people have so senselessly died, with so many more seriously injured. The U.S. stands by New Zealand for anything we can do. God bless all!”
My warmest sympathy and best wishes goes out to the people of New Zealand after the horrible massacre in the Mosques. 49 innocent people have so senselessly died, with so many more seriously injured. The U.S. stands by New Zealand for anything we can do. God bless all!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 15, 2019
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders also issued a statement condemning the attacks.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families,” the statement said. “We stand in solidarity with the people of New Zealand and their government against this vicious act of hate.”