When they spotted a stranger parked near their temple, two Sikh men came out and asked if he would like tea. He responded by shooting them both dead and walking inside.
Satwant Singh Kaleka, an immigrant from India who worked long hours at a gas station before saving enough money to build the temple, quickly sensed danger and rushed worshipers into hiding, likely saving many lives.
Armed with only a fruit knife, the 65-year-old Kaleka lunged as the assailant — white supremacist US Army veteran Wade Michael Page — changed bullet clips.
“My dad took five gunshot wounds, all in sporadic places — under the armpit, in the inner thigh,” said his son Amardeep Kaleka, who keeps the fruit knife and his father’s bloodied turban as mementos.
Then Page simply walked back out. By then, police had arrived, and Page shot an officer multiple times before taking his own life.
The massacre on August 5, 2012 in the Milwaukee suburb of Oak Creek left six members of the temple dead, with another critically injured. The officer, Lieutenant Brian Murphy, was seriously hurt but was wearing a bulletproof vest and survived.
The attack was the deadliest against the US Sikh community, but it was not the first or the last.
Anti-Sikh violence spiked following the September 11, 2001 attacks as some assailants appeared to incorrectly link Sikhs with radical Islam.
Well before the massacre, President Barack Obama started the first White House celebrations for the birth anniversary of the Sikhism’s founder, Guru Nanak.
But while Obama has regularly consoled survivors of US shootings, he did not go to Oak Creek. His wife Michelle and senior aides went instead. Sikh leaders have not criticised Obama for his absence, mindful that the nation’s first African American president was in the midst of an election campaign in which some opponents sought to portray him as foreign.
But Kaleka said the White House this year declined invitations for Obama to attend or make a video statement to an inter-community service planned for the anniversary.
“My reaction was, you guys crack me up. Because this affects black people, this affects Jewish people, this affects everybody,” said Kaleka, a 35-year-old filmmaker who divides his time between Milwaukee and California.
Kaleka feared that leaders were reluctant to confront deeper problems that led to the death of his father and others, such as US gun culture and white extremism.
“This guy was an Army veteran. He walked through that killing zone with an ear plug in his right ear knowing he was going to fire more times from his right hand. He was a sharpshooter,” Kaleka said.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, said it was aware of Page for more than a decade as he was active in white supremacist rock bands.
But Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the center, said there was nothing “particularly obvious” about Page.