The Spirit of 9/11—From Brooklyn and India, Oak Creek Heroes Face Evil

A 51-year-old lieutenant and a 65-year-old immigrant show the spirit New Yorkers displayed when the towers were struck, writes Michael Daly.

When the report of shots fired at the Sikh temple came over the radio at 10:25 a.m. Sunday morning, Lt. Brian Murphy of the police department in suburban Oak Creek, Wis., raced toward danger, just as he would have if he had stayed in his native New York and joined his brother in the NYPD.

As the 51-year-old lieutenant approached the temple, a 65-year-old immigrant who had come to Oak Creek from faraway Punjab in India was matching his courage inside it. Good was once again rising up to meet evil, as it had on Sept. 11 and more recently during the movie theater massacre in Colorado, when at least three people died shielding loved ones with their bodies and a Navy vet seems to have charged unarmed at the killer.

All Murphy knew when he arrived outside the temple was that he saw a gunshot victim lying in the parking lot. He stepped from his police car, putting aside his own safety.

“He went to render aid,” Oak Creek Police Chief John Edwards says.

Murphy was so intent on helping the wounded person that a man later identified as Wade Michael Page was able to step up to him with a 9-millimeter automatic pistol. Police say Page shot Murphy as many as nine times at what was described as “very close range.”

“Basically ambushed him,” Chief Edwards says.

More officers arrived, hearing the gunshots, but not seeing Murphy. They did spot Page as he continued across the parking lot. They are said to have ordered him to drop his weapon and raise his hands. Page is said to have fired on them, striking two police cars, but none of the responding officers.

One officer, later identified as Sam Lenda, fired what is described as a “squad rifle” and Page fell mortally wounded.

The officers were still unaware that Murphy was down as they began a roll-call procedure that is routine at shooting scenes. Each officer was supposed to call out his or her badge number on the radio.

“So everybody knows you’re OK,” Edwards explains.

When it came to Murphy, there was only the worst kind of silence.

His fellow officers began a search and almost immediately found him, likely alive only because he was wearing a bulletproof vest, but bleeding from a grievous neck wound. He gestured and called for them to ignore him and go into the temple, where more people likely needed help. He still had the accent of his native Brooklyn, and he was speaking with the selfless spirit that that so many in the NYPD and the FDNY had shown more than a decade before at the World Trade Center.

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“He had been shot nine times, one of them very serious in the neck area, and he waved them off and told them to go into the temple to assist those in there,” Edwards says.

The officers responded as officers anywhere would, scooping Murphy up and carrying him to a squad car that then rushed him to the hospital.

“Even though he was telling them to go into the temple,” Edward says.

When the officers did enter, they discovered that the victims included the president and cofounder of the 400-member temple, 65-year-old Satwant Singh Kaleka. He proved to have been no less courageous and selfless than Murphy.

As later recounted by the FBI to his younger son and a nephew, Kaleka had grabbed a butter knife from the kitchen and advanced on Page as the carnage began. Kaleka could not have hoped to stop the gunman, but he could draw his attention.

“Away from the women, trying his best to give time for security,” says one of his two sons, Amardeep Kaleka.

With the gunman’s attention came the gun. Kaleka was shot twice and fell mortally wounded while giving others a chance to flee and hide. The shooting’s toll might have numbered more than the six it did were it not for him. The survivors included a temple priest, who used the senior Kaleka’s cellphone to call the son and tell him that his father had been shot.

Later, an FBI agent told the son the particulars of his father’s last noble moments. The son says the agent hugged him and said: “Your dad’s a hero.”

By then, there were reports that among Wade’s many tattoos was one bearing the number “9/11.” He may have been one of a remarkable number of bigots who are so doubly ignorant as to think that the turban a Sikh wears marks him as a Muslim. The first hate-crime killing after 9/11 was a Sikh who operated an Arizona gas station and was shot to death by an airplane mechanic who thought he was a Muslim like the hijackers.

Or, as the hateful and hating lyrics of the songs Wade wrote for several white supremacist bands suggest, he may have simply been striking out at Sikhs because they are not Caucasians.

Whatever his particular twisted motive, the gunman proved himself the last person who should have any association with 9/11 other than as a domestic version of the terrorists who took down the twin towers: a killer of innocents claiming a cause but really just working out personal pathologies. Mohamed Atta’s father reportedly responded to the news that his son had flown the first jetliner in the World Trade Center by saying, "It couldn't be him. He's too weak."

At the same time, both Brian Murphy and Satwant Singh Kaleka proved themselves kin in spirit to the first responders and civilians who inspired us all with their uncommon courage on that September day.

In the aftermath of their tragedy, Kaleka’s family remembered a man who came to the United States from Punjab in India three decades ago with $100 and a hope to escape government persecution of Sikhs there. He was working at a Milwaukee area gas station when he was robbed and seriously beaten. His son notes that his father kept on working “his behind off in a bad neighborhood.”

The son adds that when the father finally came to own an S.K. Petro Mart gas station, he chose not to put his money into “buying a yacht,” but toward building a temple in 1997 to serve the Sikhs on the south side of the Milwaukee area. The father was so proud of his adopted county that when he moved his family into a new home he bought an American flag that was so big his son joked that it could have been “stolen from an elementary school.”

Murphy is listed in critical condition at Froedtert Hospital, but is expected to survive his wounds. Former Oak Creek Police Chief Tom Bauer says that Murphy’s courage “didn’t surprise me in the least,” adding that the officer’s “intensity is matched by his intellect.” Murphy was top of his class in a graduate program for police commanders and was one of three finalists to succeed Bauer when he retired.

Bauer further describes Murphy as a former U.S. Marine Corps embassy guard, “unmistakable by his New York accent,” calling him “with all reverence” a “tough New York Irishman” who is also “proud to be a police officer of the City of Oak Creek.”

Bauer says that Murphy was struck hard by 9/11.

“He bleeds New York,” Bauer said.

Bauer suggested the impact was heightened all the more because Murphy’s brother was with the NYPD. Det. Terry Murphy retired just a month ago, having served most recently with the Intelligence Division, keeping watch on terrorists.

Now, more than two decades after Brain Murphy joined the OCPD, Terry Murphy has rushed to the bedside of a brother who responded to domestic terrorism just as he would have if he had stayed in Brooklyn and served with him on the NYPD.

New York style becomes Oak Creek style, but also Punjab style and Aurora style and the style of all the other brave souls who rise up to meet hate with that greatest love, which is the real and ultimate meaning of 9/11.

Ben Jacobs in Oak Creek contributed to this article.