San Bernardino shooting: How the county helped victims move forward

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On the second floor of the gleaming San Bernardino County building, cubicles are empty, boxes are stacked and a few curling photos and children’s marker art are still tacked to bulletin boards.

"Coming through here was a tough thing," says David Wert, the county's public information officer, while walking through a row of abandoned desks.

On a white board is someone's daily to-do list under the handwritten date of Dec. 2, 2015.

The San Bernardino Environmental Health Services division left their 2nd floor offices the morning of Dec. 2 and never returned. Someone's to-do list is still there, frozen in time. A member of the staff orchestrated the mass shooting that killed 14 and injured 22. The offices are empty now and will be remodeled before the staff returns from a temporary workspace in another building.
The San Bernardino Environmental Health Services division left their 2nd floor offices the morning of Dec. 2 and never returned. Someone's to-do list is still there, frozen in time. A member of the staff orchestrated the mass shooting that killed 14 and injured 22. The offices are empty now and will be remodeled before the staff returns from a temporary workspace in another building. Elizabeth Aguilera/KPCC

Employees of Environmental Health Services have not been back here since that day, when they left for a training session and holiday luncheon at the nearby Inland Regional Center. Thirteen department workers died at that event when Syed Rizwan Farook, a coworker, and his wife Tashfeen Malik stormed in shooting. Another victim, not a county employee, also died. Twenty-two people were injured and so many more were traumatized.

This has become known as the deadliest terrorist attack since 9/11.

In the months since about half of the 71 people who attended the training have returned to work and more trickle back everyday.

But they have not returned to this space, the office they shared with the victims and one of the shooters. Before anyone comes back here, the county is planning a full and total renovation. 

The San Bernardino Environmental Health Services division left their 2nd floor offices the morning of Dec. 2 and never returned. A member of the staff orchestrated a mass shooting that killed 14 and injured 22. The offices are empty now and will be remodeled before the staff returns from a temporary workspace in another building.
The San Bernardino Environmental Health Services division left their 2nd floor offices the morning of Dec. 2 and never returned. A member of the staff orchestrated a mass shooting that killed 14 and injured 22. The offices are empty now and will be remodeled before the staff returns from a temporary workspace in another building. Elizabeth Aguilera/KPCC

"Change the paint, change the carpeting, get rid of all this furniture, put in new cubicles," Wert says. "Pretty much make everything as new and as different as possible so that it doesn’t look, smell or feel like it did before."

What to do with this work area is one of hundreds of decisions that county leaders were confronted with in the wake of the shooting. 

“There is precious little information out there and there is no playbook,” says County Chief Executive Officer Greg Deveraux.

Devereaux says almost immediately after the shooting a transition team came together to handle two important duties - taking care of the families left behind and survivors as well as keeping the now hobbled division going.

December 2

Deveraux was on a plane, sitting on a tarmac in Dallas on a layover to Washington D.C. where he was going to be inducted into the National Academy of Public Administration, when he first got word that a mass shooting was going on in his county. He didn't yet know that it was his own employees who had been attacked.

In San Bernardino at the IRC, Public Health Director Trudy Raymundo was in the back of the conference room getting coffee.

She heard gunfire, then the doors flung open. 

"I just remember very clearly desperately trying to crawl underneath that coffee table," she recalls.

Assistant Director Corwin Porter was at the far end of the room. 

"The first thing that went through my mind was why didn’t they tell me about this training they were conducting today," he says.

He had in fact, been in this room just a year before for an active shooter training. County officials do not know if Farook attended that training.

Within moments, Porter, who ducked under his table,  knew this was clearly different.

In the back of the room, Raymundo hid with several others. She peered out between a gap in the tablecloths.

"There was already blood all over the floor," she says.

 The gunshots sounded constant.

"Toward the end I was (thinking) 'please God, please God, please God, don’t let him come walking towards the table,'" she says. "There was a lot of people under that table."

Some people fled the room during the shooting, including Porter.

Raymundo waited under her table until police arrived and led the survivors outside.

"Some were being carried out by firemen and law enforcement, we helped some of them over to the triage area ourselves," she says. "It was just chaos, just absolute chaos."

Television footage shows Raymundo comforting staff outside of the center.

All she wanted to know was who was missing.

"Get me a head count, I need to know who’s here, I need to know who’s not," she recalls saying to Porter and other managers.

Meanwhile, Devereaux had managed to get off of his D.C.-bound plane and catch a flight to Orange County, where a sheriff's helicopter was waiting for him. He headed straight to the county building.

Other officials - including three County Supervisors - also rushed back from out of town conferences and meetings.

Later that evening Raymundo, who had ditched her heels sometime that day, joined them at the county building. She arrived with her worried-husband-in-tow. 

She jumped in to help officials already pouring over staff lists, calling employees to figure out who was okay.

It was becoming more or less clear who hadn't made it out of the conference room. But it would not be confirmed by the coroner until the next day.

The deceased: Shannon Johnson, 45; Bennetta Bet-Badal, 46; Aurora Godoy, 26; Isaac Amanios, 60; Harry Bowman, 46; Yvette Velasco, 27; Sierra Clayborn, 27; Robert Adams, 40; Nicholas Thalasinos, 52; Tin Nguyen, 31; Juan Espinoza, 50; Damian Meins, 58; Michael Wetzel, 37; and Center worker Larry Kaufman, 42.

Those who survived were in various states of injury, shock, stress, and despair.

"This is our family and this has happened now to our family," Devereaux says.

Picking up the pieces

Devereaux credits a tight-knit network for how the organization has responded to the tragedy.

"The first thing we started thinking about is how do we help these employees," Devereaux says. 

Raymundo and Porter concentrated on victims. They visited hospitals the very next day, sat with newly widowed husbands and wives, attended informal survivor gatherings and between the two of them attended 13 funerals.

The county assigned each EHS worker, and families of the deceased, a liaison from the behavioral health department to help with anything they needed — from insurance issues to retrieving their loved one's personal items from the office. They also did much more.

"They have babysat people’s children in time of grief when people had to go make funeral arrangements or had to attend funerals," says Felisa Cardona, deputy public information officer. "Some of them decorated Christmas trees for families who had to go on with holidays because had young children but couldn’t summon up the energy."

At the same time, the work of the department had to continue. EHS employees inspect and certify food service facilities in the county—everything from school cafeterias to new restaurants—and in many cases, the work couldn't wait. 

One eatery was set to open that weekend, said Maxwell Ohikhuare, known as Dr. O, the county health officer.

"They needed a final inspection, couldn’t do it," he says. "So I was able to tell them go ahead and open anyway, we’ll get to you and do the inspection later on."

Within days of the shooting a state run mutual aid program kicked in that sent EHS workers from neighboring counties and the state department of public health to open the division. Retirees also came back to help and San Bernardino brought in  former director Allan Rawland to lead Public Health temporarily.

The County has requested that the mutual aid  program - workers from other counties to help staff EHS - continue through June 30, according to a recent report from Public Health to the transition team.

The County estimates it has spent $18.4 million on direct and indirect costs related to the attack, that includes closing the county for two days, renovating and modifying county buildings, the borrowed EHS workers, counseling services and other staff time, Cardona says. The county plans to apply for federal and state reimbursement for some of the expenses.

A top priority budget item on the list is the revamp of  the EHS office space where many of the victims of the shooting worked, alongside one of the shooters.

County CEO Devereaux says it is a must.

"Oh my gosh, we can’t have people come back into here. That person is deceased, that’s the desk of the shooter," he says. "We can’t ask them to come back into this environment."

The county has drawn up several plans for the space, which they're running by workers.

Victims, witnesses return to work

In the meantime, those who have returned to work since January were welcomed back to a temporary office. Others, county officials say, need more time—and some may choose to never return.

The bright, first floor office space is adorned with cards, banners, and a string of 1,000 paper cranes that poured in from all over the world. 

A pair of posters greets the San Bernardino Environmental Health Services Staff in their temporary work space. They are from Arrowhead Regional Medical Center, which treated many victims of the mass shooting on Dec. 2.
A pair of posters greets the San Bernardino Environmental Health Services Staff in their temporary work space. They are from Arrowhead Regional Medical Center, which treated many victims of the mass shooting on Dec. 2. Elizabeth Aguilera/KPCC

A set of posters signed by staff from Arrowhead Regional Medical Center, where many victims were treated,  are on display near the entrance.

Raymundo reads one particular message.

"My thoughts and prayers go out to the victims and the ones near and dear to them," it says. "You are strong. Together we are stronger yet, We are SB County strong. God bless you all."

The phrase "SB Strong" is a common sight in San Bernardino. Just days after the attack, this tiny symbol of big courage appeared on lapels, posters, banners inside the county building and at the county's memorial for the dead. It represents recovery, resilience for a region that’s had more than its share of struggles. 

Faced with what could have been a lonely task of picking up the pieces after the attack, San Bernardino County leaders say that phrase has become a symbol for them of the family and the community they're trying to help heal. 

“We are holding on to each other," Raymundo says. "And moving forward as a community.”

The San Bernardino Environmental Health Services Staff has received hundreds of cards, numerous banners and lots of love and support from all over the country and the world. They are on display in the division breakroom. EHS was the target of a mass shooting on Dec. 2 that killed 14 and injured 22.
The San Bernardino Environmental Health Services Staff has received hundreds of cards, numerous banners and lots of love and support from all over the country and the world. They are on display in the division breakroom. EHS was the target of a mass shooting on Dec. 2 that killed 14 and injured 22. Elizabeth Aguilera/KPCC

Officials did reach out to Sandy Hook and the City of Aurora with questions and they took advice from former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Devereaux says leadership didn't do a perfect job—there were communication issues, oversights along the way—but they believe the county's tight-knit nature helped push them through.

"We are really trying as an organization to document what we did, to dissect what worked well, what didn’t work so well," he says. 

That's because now that they've joined this small group of cities thrust into mass tragedy, they know, sadly, they'll be getting those calls someday, too. 

They want to be prepared to help.

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