Desert town San Bernardino stunned by shooting that killed 14

Evacuees at the Inland Regional Center hug each other as they wait inside the Rudy C Hernandez Community Center in San Bernardino, California, on Dec 2015.
Evacuees at the Inland Regional Center hug each other as they wait inside the Rudy C Hernandez Community Center in San Bernardino, California, on Dec 2015.PHOTO: EPA
Evacuees at the Inland Regional Center hug each other as they wait inside the Rudy C Hernandez Community Center in San Bernardino, California, on Dec 2015.
Evacuees at the Inland Regional Center hug each other as they wait inside the Rudy C Hernandez Community Center in San Bernardino, California, on Dec 2015.PHOTO: AFP
Law enforcement officers search for the suspects of the mass shooting.
Law enforcement officers search for the suspects of the mass shooting.PHOTO: REUTERS
Survivors of the Inland Regional Center being escorted off the buses to meet relatives at the Rudy Hernandez Community Center in San Bernardino, California, on Dec 2, 2015.
Survivors of the Inland Regional Center being escorted off the buses to meet relatives at the Rudy Hernandez Community Center in San Bernardino, California, on Dec 2, 2015.PHOTO: REUTERS
Rescue crews tend to the injured in the intersection outside the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California.
Rescue crews tend to the injured in the intersection outside the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California.PHOTO: REUTERS

LOS ANGELES (AFP) - San Bernardino is prey to regular gang violence, but the California desert town has never seen carnage of the scale that left 14 dead on what had been just another Wednesday (Dec 3) morning.

Mr Paul George, a youth centre leader, was around the block when the shooting erupted inside a packed conference room at the Inland Regional Centre for the disabled.

"I was at the gas station and I heard gun shots. Over a dozen. The police started to pull out from everywhere locking down the perimetre."

The 28-year-old, who has spent most of his life in San Bernardino, was not frightened at first.

"I'm used to hearing gun shots," he said. "There's gang violence everywhere here, day and night."

But this soon turned out to be violence on a different level entirely.

Wednesday's attack was the country's worst mass shooting since 2012 when 20 pupils and six adults were killed at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut by 20-year-old Adam Lanza.

It was certainly the deadliest such incident in this town - on the desert's edge an hour east of Los Angeles - which made headlines in 2012 for declaring itself bankrupt in the wake of the Great Recession.

"I've been with the county police for 26 years I've never seen anything like that," police spokesman Cindy Bachman told AFP, a few hundred metres from the crime scene.

Television footage of the entrance to the Inland Centre showed wounded people laid out on the sidewalk, their clothes slit open on the spot to allow medics to tend to their injuries.

Some of the wounded, visibly shocked, were carried away on stretchers, while others were transported by hand - sometimes loaded into the back of a pick-up truck while waiting for an ambulance.

Several people lost their shoes in the panic.

Ms Olivia Navarro, 63, received the first call at 11am from her daughter Jamille, a case manager at the hulking facility that provides services to disabled people across the region.

"She said there are shooters in the building, we're gonna go in a room, lock the door and turn off the light," Ms Navarro said.

She headed straight to the site, beside a highway junction on the edge of an industrial area, where she spent a terrified hour waiting outside the police cordon for news.

"It was one hour until I learnt my daughter was OK," she said. A text message finally arrived, letting her know her daughter was among those evacuated to safety at a nearby golf course.

"I'll be able to hug my daughter tonight but I feel so sorry for the families who lost their loved ones," she said, her voice breaking.

Beside her, two women were holding hands and praying out loud, while people evacuated from the centre were loaded onto a bus, their faces pale, many on their telephones.

Hours after the shooting that left 14 dead and 17 injured, dozens of police cars still cordoned off a huge area around the Inland Centre, and also a few miles away in Loma Linda, where a shootout erupted as police tracked down three suspects - two of whom were killed. Another person was detained.

"Step back, there could be something going on from here," warned officers wearing bullet-proof vests and helmets, toting machine guns as helicopters roared overhead.

The Republican Senator Jeff Stone, observing the scene near the Inland Centre, wondered out aloud about the shooters' motives.

"The three suspects seemed well organised," he said. "Is it domestic terrorism? International terrorism like in France?"

Asked whether tougher gun control was the way to stem America's plague of mass shootings, he was not convinced.

"The Constitution guarantees the right to bear arms," he said. "If you prevent everyone to get them, it seems to be only the criminals who get the guns."