By Amelia Roth-Dishy
Workers at the Hungarian Pastry Shop were enjoying a quiet Sunday afternoon when shots rang out.
“We were so scared, we didn’t even see anything,” Fana, an employee at the shop, said. The shooting occurred across the street on the steps of the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, marking a terrifying and tragic end to a joyous outdoor caroling concert that had just concluded.
Amidst the chaos, a number of concertgoers rushed into the beloved pastry emporium, which is across the street from the cathedral. The staff quickly ushered people inside and locked the door. People huddled in the back and, according to Fana, crouched with their heads in their hands. Another employee confirmed that the group remained in the store for around 20 minutes before beginning to trickle out.
Fana and her fellow Hungarian Pastry Shop employees were visibly shaken by the afternoon’s events. “It was so scary,” Fana emphasized.
Coffee orders from the phalanx of NYPD officers on the scene kept the shop busy through the evening. Patrons at the adjacent restaurants, Tartina and V&T Pizzeria, observed the police proceedings from their outdoor tables as the sun went down.
No one in the concert crowd was harmed in the incident outside the cathedral, which is in the NYPD’s 26th Precinct. Police shot at the gunman — who, according to various reports, wildly discharged his weapon into the air from the steps as the audience was dispersing on the street — and he was brought to Mt. Sinai St. Luke’s Hospital in critical condition. He was later pronounced dead, according to police.
Those closest to the violence saw a joyous moment quickly turn terrifying. Shanna Kelly, a Columbia Journalism School student who attended the event to film it, was staring at the shooter as he began firing his weapon: “my mind refused to admit what I was seeing,” she wrote. She and her mother hit the pavement and watched as police shot at the gunman. “The cement was so cold,” she wrote. “My head was turned to the street and the cops felt so far away on the other side of the street.” Kelly’s mother threw herself on top of her daughter and began to pray. They lay there until an officer told them to get up and move — they then “sprinted full speed across the street” to join others hiding behind cars.
When I went to @StJohnDivineNYC today to film a Chsritmas choir for a @columbiajourn story, I had no idea that a shooter would be on those steps. I saw him. I was lying on the cement directly below where he stood on the steps. I thought I was going to die. God, I saw you. pic.twitter.com/Ore0hdE5Ea
— Shanna Kelly (@shannakelly_19) December 13, 2020
Madeleine Tsingopoulos, who lives across the street from the Cathedral, happened upon the concert by accident. “It was just this most peaceful, spiritual event,” she said. She estimated that around 100-200 people, socially distanced and wearing masks, were gathered on Amsterdam Avenue watching the carolers sing on the cathedral steps.
Tsingopoulos left right when the concert ended at around 3:45pm, but returned to the scene later when her daughter reported seeing armored trucks and SWAT teams surrounding the cathedral.
According to eyewitnesses gathered on the street who recounted what they saw to Tsingopoulous, the man shouted at the nearby officers to kill him as he fired a gun into the sky. People inside the cathedral at the time of the shooting, who had been listening to the concert, also told Tsingopoulos that SWAT teams had entered the building and told occupants to “freeze, put your hands up, wait, don’t move,” in case of another shooter.
Those gathered in the nave were then led to a yellow-tape corral on the east side of Amsterdam Avenue outside the Cathedral’s garden. They were kept there for over an hour and released around 5:15pm.
Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer reported on Twitter that her Chief of Staff and Press Secretary had been present at the concert. “We don’t have a lot of information but our gratitude goes out to first responders,” she said. While facts emerged over the course of the afternoon, it was initially unclear whether the shots had come from inside or outside the cathedral. Matthew Bishop, a journalist and author who attended the concert, tweeted at 3:56pm, “sounds of shooting inside church after outdoor carol service.”
Council Member Mark D. Levine tweeted that “a person who appeared to be mentally ill climbed the scaffolding inside the church during a Christmas service at about 4:00pm,” but later appended a correction stating that the shooting had occurred on the steps.
The area was still an active crime scene as of 6:30pm, with the NYPD counterterrorism bureau and bomb squads on site. Amsterdam Avenue was blocked off from 110th-113th Streets — and because of the Open Streets: Restaurants program this weekend, the avenue was also closed from 97th-110th Streets.