CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand — When the gunman walked into the Al Noor mosque, Temel Atacocugu was kneeling for Friday prayers.
He looked up into the man’s face, thinking he was a police officer because of his paramilitary outfit. Time slowed. Atacocugu saw a puff of smoke come from the raised gun, felt a bullet smash into his teeth, and thought, “Oh, my God, I’m dying.”
But despite being shot nine times, Atacocugu survived the attack at Al Noor, one of two mosques in the city of Christchurch that were attacked on March 15 last year, in New Zealand’s deadliest modern-day mass shooting.
On Sunday, New Zealand will commemorate the 51 people who were killed in the attacks. Atacocugu, 45, is slowly overcoming his own physical and psychological injuries from that day. And he’s even found himself ready to face a childhood fear: sharks.
On the day of the attacks, Atacocugu was in a buoyant mood when he walked into the mosque. An active man who loves soccer, fishing and running, he’d just finished his last acupuncture session for a sports injury and was feeling in great shape.
Growing up in Turkey, he’d been through compulsory military training, so he quickly realized what was happening. Medical staff would later tell him he was incredibly fortunate that the bullet, which struck his upper jaw, deflected downward rather than continuing into his brain or an artery.
Atacocugu says that after that first shot to his mouth, he leapt up in shock and was shot four more times in both legs. People were screaming. Another worshipper rushed at the gunman and was killed, but it gave Atacocugu a couple of seconds to react, and to run as best he could.
There was no obvious way out, so he laid down motionless on the floor. He was later shot four more times in his left arm and leg as the gunman fired indiscriminately into the piles of bodies.
Atacocugu spent a month in a hospital and underwent four operations that included bone and skin grafts. He’ll need at least three more surgeries in the months to come.
“The biggest change after the attack was that I can’t be free the same as before,” Atacocugu says. “Because very limited moving around. And I was feeling like a little baby, because somebody has to look after me all the time.”
Yet his physical recovery a year later is remarkable. The wheelchair and cane are gone. His left arm remains weakened, but when he walks down the street or plays with his Labradoodle dog, Max, Atacocugu’s limp is barely noticeable.
A few weeks ago, he started playing soccer again with a group of his friends, joking that these days he’s being outrun by fit men in their 70s. In one game, he showed off his skills by tackling, spot kicking and back-heeling a pass.