AUCKLAND, New Zealand (AP) – A man stormed a high-rise construction site in downtown Auckland early Thursday morning, shooting at terrified workers and killing two people, hours before New Zealand was scheduled to host the first match of the FIFA Women’s World Cup tournament.
The perpetrator was found dead after a police shooting in which an officer was shot and wounded. Four civilians were also injured.
The shooting happened near hotels where Team Norway and other soccer teams have been staying.
Security will be increased ahead of Thursday night’s opening game of the Women’s World Cup after a gunman killed two people at a construction site in downtown Auckland, about 12 hours before New Zealand’s co-host game against Norway.
International visitors are greeted in the arrivals hall at Auckland Airport with a display of Women’s World Cup branding, including carpets the size of a football pitch.
A helicopter pilot says he and two of his passengers escaped serious injury by jumping into the sea when a New Zealand volcano erupted in 2019, killing 22.
New Zealand Prime Minister Chris Hipkins said the tournament would proceed as planned. Police said there would be increased security at the tournament’s opening match to help reassure fans, and FIFA said a minute’s silence would be observed before each of the two opening matches.
“Obviously with the FIFA World Cup starting tonight, there are a lot of eyes on Auckland,” Hipkins said. “The government has spoken to FIFA organizers this morning and the tournament will go ahead as planned.”
“I want to reiterate that there is no broader national security threat,” he added. “This appears to be the act of a single individual.”
The shooting hit New Zealand, where active shooter incidents are rare, leading the country’s main news websites and broadcasts.
Hipkins said the man was armed with a shotgun, adding that police arrived within minutes of the first 911 call and ran into danger to save lives.
“These kinds of situations move quickly, and the actions of those who risk their lives to save others are nothing short of heroic,” Hipkins said.
Police Commissioner Andrew Coster said the perpetrator was a 24-year-old who had previously worked at the construction site and his motive appeared to be linked to his work there.
The man identified as the shooter had a history of domestic violence and was serving a sentence on house arrest, but was on parole to work at the lower Queen Street site, Coster said.
The shooting began around 7:20 a.m. and police quickly swarmed the area.
The shooter moved through the unfinished building and fired at people, Coster said, as many workers fled or hid. He then barricaded himself in a third-floor elevator shaft, Coster said, where SWAT-type officers engaged him after securing the floors above and below.
“The assailant fired at the police and injured an officer,” Coster said. – Shots were exchanged, and the perpetrator was later found dead.
Coster said it was not yet clear whether police had shot the man or he had killed himself. He said the suspected shooter did not have a gun permit and therefore should not have been in possession of a firearm.
Outside, armed police officers placed an area of central Auckland under heavy cordon, with streets cordoned off around the harbour’s ferry terminal, which is popular with tourists. Police ordered bystanders to disperse and asked people inside office buildings to shelter in place.
The shooting happened as soccer teams and fans gathered in New Zealand for the FIFA Women’s World Cup, which the country co-hosts with Australia. The opening match is scheduled to be played in Auckland on Thursday evening, between New Zealand and Norway. Hipkins said he was considering whether to attend the game as scheduled.
Team 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 usual for the game tonight.”
Team USA said all of its players and staff were safe and responsible. It said the team was in contact with local authorities and was continuing with its daily schedule.
Officials at Eden Park, where the opening match of the FIFA tournament will take place, said they encouraged ticket holders to arrive early and there would be an increased security presence at the venue.
New Zealand has strict gun laws introduced in 2019 after the country’s worst mass shooting led to a marked change in attitudes towards guns. A gunman killed 51 Muslim worshipers at two Christchurch mosques during Friday prayers in March 2019.
The then Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, promised to ban most semi-automatic weapons within a month and succeeded, with only a single member of parliament voting against the ban.
A subsequent buyback scheme prompted gun owners to hand over more than 50,000 of the newly banned guns to police in exchange for cash.
Coster said the shotgun used in Thursday’s shooting is not on the list of prohibited weapons.
“I want to acknowledge that this has been a shocking and traumatic event for the people who came to work and found themselves in the middle of an armed emergency,” Coster said. “Luckily, many people were able to escape the building, but I know that for those who hid or remained trapped, this was a terrifying experience.”
Coster said the officer who was shot was taken to a nearby hospital in critical condition, had stabilized and was expected to undergo surgery Thursday. He said the others had injuries ranging from moderate to critical. It was not immediately clear whether all the wounded had been shot.
FIFA president Gianni Infantino said he and general secretary Fatma Samoura had met with New Zealand sports minister Grant Robertson after the shooting to discuss security arrangements for the tournament.
“We appreciate the cooperation of the New Zealand authorities from the earliest moment of this tragic incident,” Infantino said in a statement. “We have been involved in the ongoing communication from the start, and we have also obtained the necessary assurances.”
Jennifer Deering, a tourist from Orlando, Florida, said she was initially shocked to hear about the shooting after a tour guide had previously assured her Auckland “was very safe here, apart from some petty thieves.”
Then she went during the day.
“It’s sad that it’s normal for us (Americans) to see something like this on the news,” she added.
Tourism New Zealand canceled a media welcome party that was due to be held on Thursday afternoon at a site in the cordoned off area in the centre.
Perry reported from Wellington, New Zealand.