By NICK PERRY and JENNA FRYER (Associated Press)
AUCKLAND, New Zealand (AP) — A gunman opened fire on terrified workers on a construction site in downtown Auckland early Thursday, killing two people hours before New Zealand hosted the first game of the Women’s World Cup. The man was found dead, and authorities said his motive appeared to be connected to his previous work at the site.
New Zealand Prime Minister Chris Hipkins said the shooting was an isolated act, and the FIFA tournament opened as scheduled with a game between the home team and Norway, though with tighter security and many jarred in a country where such attacks are rare. A large crowd, including the prime minister, still showed up at the stadium, and a moment of silence was held for the victims of the shooting, which also left a police officer and four civilians injured.
“I want to reiterate that there is no wider national security threat,” said Hipkins. “This appears to be the action of one individual.”
Police Commissioner Andrew Coster said the gunman was a 24-year-old who had a history of family violence and was serving a sentence of home detention but had previously worked at the building site and had an exemption to do so. He said the man’s motive appeared to be connected to that work.
The shooting began early in the morning, as the man, armed with a shotgun, moved through the unfinished building, firing at people as many fled or hid, Coster said. The man then barricaded himself in an elevator shaft, and a SWAT-type team moved in.
“The offender fired at police, injuring an officer,” Coster said. “Shots were exchanged and the offender was later found deceased.”
Coster said it wasn’t yet clear whether police had shot the man or he had killed himself. He said the man didn’t have a gun license and so shouldn’t have been in possession of a firearm, though the shotgun used is not on a list of banned weapons.
Hipkins praised police for arriving within minutes of the first emergency call.
“These kinds of situations move fast, and the actions of those who risk their lives to save others are nothing short of heroic,” Hipkins said.
The shooting happened near hotels where soccer teams have been staying ahead of the opening of the Women’s World Cup, which New Zealand is jointly hosting with Australia.
Armed police officers placed an area in Auckland’s downtown on heavy lockdown, with streets cordoned off surrounding the harbor ferry terminal, which is popular with tourists. Police ordered bystanders to disperse and told people inside office buildings to shelter in place.
Norway captain Maren Mjelde said her teammates were woken up abruptly when a helicopter began hovering outside the hotel window.
“We felt safe the whole time,” she said in a statement. “FIFA has a good security system at the hotel, and we have our own security officer in the squad. Everyone seems calm and we are preparing as normal for the game tonight.”
Team USA said all its players and staff were safe and accounted for. It said the team was in contact with local authorities and proceeding with its daily schedule.
New Zealand has tight gun laws, imposed in 2019 after the country’s worst mass shooting prompted a sea change in attitudes toward guns. In that attack, a shooter killed 51 Muslim worshippers at two Christchurch mosques during Friday prayers.
The prime minister at the time, Jacinda Ardern, vowed to ban most semiautomatic weapons within a month and she succeeded, with only a single member of Parliament voting against the ban.
A subsequent buyback scheme saw gun owners hand over more than 50,000 of the newly banned weapons to police in exchange for cash.
Jennifer Deering, a tourist from Orlando, Florida, said she was initially shocked to learn of the shooting after a tour guide had previously assured her that Auckland “was very safe here, other than some petty thieves.”
Then she went about her day.
“It’s sad that it’s normal for us (Americans) to see something like this on the news,” she added.
Coster said the officer who was shot was taken to a nearby hospital in critical condition, had stabilized, and was expected to undergo surgery. He said the others had injuries ranging from moderate to critical. It wasn’t immediately clear if all those injured had been shot.
“I want to acknowledge that this has been a shocking and traumatic event for those people who came to work and found themselves in the middle of an armed emergency,” Coster said. “Thankfully, many people were able to escape the building, but I know for those who hid or remained trapped, this was a terrifying experience.”
FIFA President Gianni Infantino said that he and Secretary-General Fatma Samoura had met with New Zealand Sports Minister Grant Robertson following the shooting to discuss security arrangements for the tournament.
Tourism New Zealand canceled a media welcome party that was to have been held Thursday afternoon at a location within the cordoned-off area downtown.
Perry reported from Wellington, New Zealand.