“It was very peaceful, calm and quiet, as it is when the sermon starts,” said Farid Ahmed, who was observing Friday prayers at Al Noor mosque in Christchurch’s leafy district of Deans Avenue. “Then, suddenly, the shooting started.”
Within a few, short, brutal minutes, 41 people would lie dead or dying inside and outside the mosque. Seven more would be killed at Linwood mosque, just over four miles away. The 49th victim died shortly after reaching hospital.
Rescue services were met with scenes of unbelievable carnage. Inside the main room in Al Noor, more than 20 people, some dead, some injured, lay on one side, while more than 10 lay on the other, said witnesses. The floor was littered with hundreds of bullet casings.
Bodies lay near doors and windows, those who were shot trying to escape. Others had been cut down outside.
It was shortly after 1.40pm local time (0040 GMT) that Len Peneha, who lives next door to Al Noor, heard rapid fire and dozens of shots. The gunman, described as white and wearing a black helmet, had burst in as worshippers knelt in prayer.
As people stampeded out, Peneha ran inside to help. “I saw dead people everywhere. There were three in the hallway, at the door leading into the mosque, and people inside the mosque,” he said.
Footage livestreamed from a body camera was broadcast on Facebook by a man identifying himself as Brenton Tarrant, a 28-year-old Australian. It shows him driving to the mosque, with an arsenal of at least six weapons in his vehicle, each marked with the names of others who have carried out such attacks, and cities where they occurred.
The footage shows the gunman storming inside Al Noor, firing indiscriminately at huddled worshippers, and calmly reloading numerous times. He shot many of the victims multiple times, standing over them and firing from point-blank range to ensure they were dead.
At one point, he walks outside, appearing to fire on at least two targets. He returns to his car, swaps his rifle for a second one, and goes back inside the mosque before leaving to continue the attack outside, firing on those injured and crawling from the mosque. In total the harrowing footage lasts 17 minutes.
Mahmood Nazeer, blood still on his shirt , told TVNZ he hid under a bench and prayed the gunman would run out of bullets, but the firing went on and on. He, and others, then hid under cars behind the mosque. One woman with them was hit in the arm.
When the firing stopped, they looked over the fence. “There was one guy changing the gun in the driveway next to the mosque. He just took the gun and then started firing again,” said one witness.
Ahmed, who uses a wheelchair, had been in a side room in Al Noor when he heard the shots and people started running into his room. He could hear screaming and crying. “Some people had blood on their body, some people were limping. It was at that moment I realised things were really serious,” said Ahmed, who managed to push himself out of the back of the mosque towards his car.
Mohan Ibrahim escaped through a window in the women’s section, he told the BBC.
Khaled al-Nobani saw his friend gunned down as his three children fled. He described how one man tried to “jump” the gunman and take the gun. “He shot him straight away.”
Carl Pomare, driving past Al Noor with a work colleague, heard rapid fire and saw people running from the mosque. “And these people were being knocked down like tenpins right opposite where I was driving. I saw them being hit from behind and they were falling to the ground,” he said.
He and others, all passing civilians, set up a cordon. “We were trying to keep these people alive until the ambulances could get through. People were begging for our help,” he said. “It was a scene of carnage.”
He managed to get a father and daughter “both in a bad way” into a car and out quickly, “but we don’t know if they survived”. A man his colleague was helping died in his arms.
As the full scale of the massacre at Al Noor was becoming apparent, another was taking place at Linwood mosque four miles away.
Elderly worshippers, sitting on chairs as they prayed, were the first to be targeted by the gunman, still in camouflage and wearing the black helmet. “They were basically all shot,” Syed Ahmed, told news website Stuff. The shooter was shouting something, which he couldn’t hear over the screams as he crawled into a storeroom to escape.
Syed Mazharuddin witnessed two friends around him being shot, one in the chest, one in the head. One died at the scene and another was bleeding heavily.
He said he had run outside to seek help, but then police arrived and prevented him from going back in. “They didn’t let me come back in again so I couldn’t save my friend. He was bleeding heavily. It took almost half an hour, more than half an hour by the time the ambulance could arrive and I think he must have died,” he told the New Zealand Herald.
It was a small mosque. “There were about 60 to 70 people there. Just around the entrance hall there were elderly people sitting there praying and he just started shooting at them,” added Mazharuddin.
An attempt was made to disarm the shooter. One man, “the young guy who usually takes care of the mosque”, pounced on the gunman and managed to get his weapon, Mazharuddin added. But though he gave chase, the gunman got away.
Police later said a man in his late 20s had been arrested and charged with murder. Two other men and one woman were also detained. One was released later. No names have been made public.
Christchurch, the largest city on the South Island with a population of 400,000, was in lockdown on Friday.
More than 200 family members were waiting for news of their loved ones at Christchurch hospital. With many of the injured requiring multiple surgeries, 12 operating theatres were in use.
At the sites of the killings, New Zealanders began arriving with flowers and tributes as dusk fell. “New Zealand is with you,” said a woman who dropped off lilies. “New Zealand stands by you.”
The Christchurch mayor, Lianne Dalziel, called for calm and for solidarity in the wake of the massacres. “I never could believe that something like this would ever happen in the city of Christchurch, but actually I would never believe that this would happen in New Zealand,” she said in a Facebook post. It was a “very deliberate, cold, hard decision”.
In an online 74-page manifesto, the suspect said he had chosen New Zealand because of its location, to show that even the most remote parts of the world were not free of “mass immigration”.
As New Zealand ‘s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, marked “one of New Zealand’s darkest days,” she added: “You may have chosen us but we utterly reject and condemn you.”