Father Thomas Higgins was sound asleep when the scream of sirens jolted him out of bed long before sunrise yesterday.
A phone call soon followed, with dire news: Someone appeared to be hurt or worse just outside Holy Innocents School in Juniata Park, reported a nun who could see police activity from her convent window nearby.
Higgins dressed quickly, grabbed his holy oil and hurried to the trauma scene, hoping to offer a hand, prayers, last rites, whatever was needed.
But he was too late.
A North Philadelphia man, enraged or despondent or just plain crazy over a breakup with his girlfriend, ambushed the woman outside her apartment and gunned her down in her roommate's van as the two women prepared to drive off to work.
He then shot himself in the head.
The carnage occurred in the school's parking lot, where many neighbors, including the victim and her roommate, often parked overnight in the car-congested but well-kept neighborhood.
Thomas Santiago, 27, of 4th Street near Norris, was declared dead at the scene.
Iris Reyes Mulero, 21, who lived in a red-brick rowhouse at Glendale and Bristol streets, catty-corner from the school, died within minutes at Temple University Hospital, police said.
One neighbor said the sound of car doors slamming outside woke her up about 4 a.m.
"Then we heard loud voices and then like three gunshots, real fast," said neighbor Helen, who asked that her last name not be used.
From her window, the neighbor saw the victim's hysterical roommate leap from the van, screaming, as sleepy neighbors - including a pajama clad woman wielding a baseball bat to deal with the unknown danger - came outside to investigate.
The roommate was not injured.
School officials canceled classes at both Holy Innocents, where 330 students attend preschool through eighth grade, and St. Lucy Day School, where 27 students with visual impairments are enrolled.
They also postponed until Tuesday a kindergarten-graduation ceremony planned for yesterday, anxious to spare students a gruesome visual of the violence. Windows in Holy Innocents' library, computer lab and kindergarten classroom overlook the murder-suicide scene, where shattered glass from the van's windows and the shadow of an expansive bloodstain firefighters had hosed off remained hours later.
"We want Holy Innocents to be an oasis of peace and safety for our children. We want them to be able to come to school and feel safe," said Higgins, who offered up prayers for Mulero, Santiago and peace at a later Mass.
Homicide investigators said Mulero had moved into her friend's apartment on Glendale Street several months ago after a stormy breakup with Santiago.
Early yesterday, school officials greeted a few parents and students who showed up for school because they hadn't heard about the incident or the canceled classes.
"It's scary and disappointing, because I really wanted to go to school today," said Aida Gonzalez, 11, a fifth-grader who waited with her brother Benjamin, 15, aunt and grandmother to go on a school excursion to Clementon Park, which wasn't canceled.
Most lamented the violence but took small comfort in the circumstances.
"I have confidence that the school is safe," said Wanda Villanueva of North Philadelphia, whose 6-year-old daughter Yitza was dolled-up for the kindergarten graduation that didn't happen.
"If it's like that [a targeted, domestic case], I'm more at ease, because it's not random violence," she said. "But it is still murder. This city needs help." *