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 morning.
Paul George, a youth center leader, was around the block when the shooting erupted inside a packed conference room at the Inland Regional Center 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 perimeter. »
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, » said George. « 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 spokeswoman Cindy Bachman told AFP, a few hundred meters from the crime scene.
Television footage of the entrance to the Inland Center 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.
– ‘Hug my daughter’ –
Olivia Navarro, 63, received the first call at 11:00 am 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, » 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, » Navarro said, her voice breaking.
Beside her, two women were holding hands and praying out loud, while people evacuated from the center were loaded onto a bus, their faces pale, many on their telephones.
– Manhunt –
Hours after the shooting that left 14 dead and 17 injured, dozens of police cars still cordoned off a huge area around the Inland Center, but 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 Center, wondered out aloud about the shooters’ motives.
« The three suspects seemed well organized, » 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. »
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