Hundreds hide behind doors and under desks

Neighbours comfort a family who were prevented by police from returning to their home near the scene of a mass shooting in San Bernardino on Dec 3.
Neighbours comfort a family who were prevented by police from returning to their home near the scene of a mass shooting in San Bernardino on Dec 3.PHOTO: REUTERS

SAN BERNARDINO (California) • Panic, chaos and rumours gripped this largely working-class community about 100km east of Los Angeles as two attackers carried out the United States' worst mass shooting in nearly three years.

The attackers, named by police as county health department employee Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, and his wife Tashfeen Malik, 27, drove up in a black sport utility vehicle to the Inland Regional Centre, a sprawling facility that provides services for thousands of people with disabilities.

A quiet morning turned into a scene of anguish and bloodshed as the suspects, armed with assault rifles and handguns, spent "several minutes" shooting inside one of the buildings and then fled, said Chief Jarrod Burguan of the San Bernardino Police Department. They wore masks and body armour, he said.

As shots rang out, hundreds of people who worked at the centre or were clients of its services fled or hid behind locked doors and under desks, communicating with family and friends through panicked phone calls and text messages.

Ms Jamille Navarro, who works with special needs children at the centre, called her mother, Olivia, saying there was gunfire in the building.

"She was hiding in her room," Ms Olivia Navarro said, crying. "They turned off the lights. She was whispering because she didn't want to be heard. I told her to stop talking. I said, 'All right, I'll be right there, turn out the lights, don't do a thing.' Why would somebody want to hurt somebody who helps children?"

As the suspects fled in the SUV, large parts of the city were paralysed throughout the day. Residents were told to remain indoors, and government buildings, stores, offices and at least one school were either closed or put on lockdown.

School buses filled with survivors of the shooting were escorted by police vans to a church where anxious relatives were waiting.

Late in the afternoon, dozens of heavily armed police officers in tactical gear descended on a residential neighbourhood in pursuit of the attackers. Witnesses described a wild scene as dozens of officers closed in on a vehicle, with hundreds of shots fired as the people in the vehicle battled the police.

Chief Burguan said at least 20 officers were involved in the gun battle, which ended with the death of the two suspects.

San Bernardino is a city of some 220,000 people that has struggled in recent years as the city filed for bankruptcy, residents suffered a high rate of home foreclosures, and the commercial downtown deteriorated.

After the shooting, teams of officers searched the buildings, room by room, for survivors or suspects. The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives also dispatched agents.

The attackers left behind three explosive devices, which were detonated by police, and the authorities were only starting to process the scene and could not identify any of the victims late on Wednesday.

Among the 17 people injured in the attack was Mr Carlos Ortiz's son Kevin, who was shot twice in the leg and once in the shoulder, the Los Angeles Times said.

"Kevin called me immediately after he got shot and said, 'I've been shot three times, Dad. I'm in pain. Don't worry. There's a policeman with me,'" Mr Ortiz, 54, was quoted as saying.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 04, 2015, with the headline 'Hundreds hide behind doors and under desks'. Print Edition | Subscribe