Gunned down on his wedding day: the groom who died in a hail of police bullets

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It was to have been the day Nicole Paultre married her high-school sweetheart. The reception hall had been decorated with flowers and balloons; a portable altar and the three-tiered wedding cake were standing by.

Having been dating for eight years - and having had two children together - Ms Paultre and her fiancé, Sean Bell, were finally to tie the knot. Their first dance was to be "Here and Now" by Luther Vandross.

Instead, Saturday morning found Ms Paultre, 22, at the Jamaica Hospital in the Queens district of New York, to be told by doctors that her fiancé had died after being caught in a hail of police gunfire. Officers fired more than 50 bullets at the car that Mr Bell was driving after he and his friends - all young black men - left his stag night party at a strip club. Two of his friends were seriously injured.

The details and circumstances of the shooting outside the Kalua Cabaret club in the early hours of Saturday are still being investigated but, amid the claims of police brutality and racism, the tragedy of what had transpired is all too clear for the family of Mr Bell and for his bride-to-be.

"Today was his wedding day - not his death day," Mr Bell's aunt, Oniaja Shepherd, said. "We were supposed to go to a wedding. Now we're going to a funeral." The New York Police Commissioner, Raymond Kelly, said the incident resulted from an undercover operation taking place inside the strip club, which had been linked to drugs and prostitution. He said seven officers in plain clothes were involved in the operation.

Witnesses said that Mr Bell, 23, and his friends - all unarmed - had left the club at about 4.15am, got into their silver Nissan Altima and driven off. With Mr Bell driving, the car turned a corner and then struck a unmarked police minivan, inside which were several plainclothes officers. Mr Bell then reversed, hit the protective metal screen covering a storefront, and then struck an undercover officer, before moving forward and then slamming into the police van again.

At that point, five officers started firing at Mr Bell's car. Mr Kelly said one veteran officer had fired his weapon 31 times, emptying two full magazines. Mr Bell was struck in his neck, shoulder and right arm, while two friends were also hit. Joseph Guzman, 31, who was sitting in the front seat was shot at least 11 times, while 23-year-old Trent Benefield, who was in the back seat, was hit three times. Mr Guzman was said to be in a critical condition in hospital, while Mr Benefield was described as stable.

New York police have previously been involved in controversial shootings of black men. At the weekend, the city's mayor, Michael Bloomberg, said it was still too early to draw conclusions about what happened, but he added: "We know that the NYPD officers on the scene had reason to believe an altercation involving a firearm was about to happen and were trying to stop it."

Newspaper reports suggested that Mr Bell and his friends had been involved in an altercation outside the club when they were shouting at another man.

One of the undercover officers allegedly heard Mr Bell shout: "Let's fuck him up." Mr Guzman reportedly replied: "Go get my gun." But Mr Bell's mother retorted: "The police are covering up, because they know the police did wrong. You know how society works. They label all African-American men the same. They should have pulled out a badge before they started shooting."

The family has been supported by the civil rights campaigner the Rev Al Sharpton, who said the affair "stinks". He said the amount of shots fired was sufficient to raise questions. "How does one justify 50 shots at unarmed men?" he said.

Yesterday, the day after Mr Bell and Ms Paultre were to have married, his family was holding a vigil.