4 Hasidic students shot crossing Brooklyn Bridge

March 02, 1994|By New York Times News Service

NEW YORK -- A gunman in a car opened fire on a van carrying more than a dozen Hasidic students as it began to cross the Brooklyn Bridge from Manhattan yesterday morning, critically wounding two young men and injuring two others, police said.

The gunman, driving a blue Chevrolet Caprice and apparently using two guns, pursued the van full of terrified students across the bridge. He fired in three separate bursts, police said, spraying both sides of the van with fire from a 9-millimeter weapons.

Then he disappeared into traffic as the van came to a stop at the Brooklyn end of the bridge, police said.

The injured yeshiva students were among dozens who were returning from a Manhattan hospital where the spiritual leader of the Lubavitch sect, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, had undergone minor surgery.

One victim, Aaron Halberstam, a 15-year-old student who studied under Rabbi Schneerson, was termed brain dead by doctors at St. Vincent's Hospital last night and was breathing only with the aid of a respirator.

Rabbi Shmuel Butman, a prominent member of the Hasidic leadership in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, said he was convinced the explosion of gunfire on the bridge was a "deliberate act of terrorism against the Jewish people."

The attack comes less than a week after the massacre of Muslims by a Brooklyn-born Jewish settler in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

When asked whether he considered yesterday's attack a retaliation for the West Bank violence, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani said, "There is no piece of hard evidence, but it's something you can't exclude."

The shooting began at 10:24 a.m. on the ramp that leads onto the Brooklyn Bridge, police said.

The van that was fired on, a white Dodge Ram 350 carrying between 14 and 16 students, was one of perhaps 20 vehicles en route back to Crown Heights from Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital, where Rabbi Schneerson was being treated.

The van was unmarked, but the students were clearly visible in their traditional Hasidic dress.

The authorities said that they had no indication of a traffic accident or other incident that might have touched off the violence.

In the first burst of gunfire, the gunman strafed the passenger side of the van, striking three of the students and blowing out the rear windows.

"A car started racing us," said a teen-ager who said he was in the van. He would only identify himself as Charles. "Then they started shooting, all the way on the bridge."

Rabbi Butman, who said he had spoken directly with several students who were in the van, said the teen-agers tried in panic to get out of the line of fire. "Some ducked better than others," he said. "Some couldn't duck at all."

The van came to a stop, police said, and two of the students stumbled out of the van as the driver and others attempted to see if anyone had been hit. Gunfire, according to the police, then erupted again from the blue four-door Chevrolet, this time raking the driver's side.

The driver of the van, Shalom Wilhelm, then sped off toward Brooklyn, leaving the two on the bridge. They were later picked up by an emergency medical technician.

Several students traveling in cars behind the van told reporters and friends that the attacker had screamed in Arabic: "Kill the Jews."

However, Joseph Borrelli, chief of detectives for the New York City Police Department, insisted that as of last night no witness interviewed by the police had mentioned any verbal exchange during the attack.

"That's not to say it didn't happen," said Chief Borrelli.

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