At least two heavily armed attackers opened fire on a banquet at a social services center for the disabled Wednesday, killing 14 people and seriously wounding more than a dozen others in a precision assault that looked “as if they were on a mission,” authorities said.
Hours later, police hunting for the killers riddled a black SUV with gunfire in a shootout 2 miles from the late-morning carnage, and a man and woman with assault rifles, handguns and “assault-style clothing” were killed, San Bernardino Police Chief Jarrod Burguan said.
A third person who was spotted running near the gunbattle was detained, but Burguan said it was unclear if that person had anything to do with the crime.
Multiple news outlets, including the Los Angeles Times, The Associated Press, NBC News and CBS News, identified one of the deceased suspects as Syed Farook, citing unidentified law enforcement sources.
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It was the nation’s deadliest mass shooting since the attack at a school in Newtown, Conn., three years ago that left 26 children and adults dead.
Police shed no light on the motive for the massacre, but David Bowdich, assistant director of the FBI’s Los Angeles office, said the bureau is looking at several possibilities, including workplace violence and terrorism. He did not elaborate.
The attackers invaded the Inland Regional Center and began shooting around 11 a.m. Pacific (2 p.m. Eastern). They opened fire in a conference area that the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health had rented out for a holiday party, said Marybeth Feild, president and CEO of the nonprofit center.
A senior federal official who is monitoring the case told the Los Angeles Times that investigators believe one of the shooters left the party after getting into an argument and returned with one or two armed companions.
“We don’t know who the gunmen are, or why this happened. It’s devastating,” Feild told the Washington Post. “I just don’t know how we’re going to recover from this. It’s just overwhelming. Why would anyone target a social service center?”
With nearly 670 employees, the center has provided services to more than 30,200 people with developmental disabilities and their families for at least 40 years.
“They came prepared to do what they did, as if they were on a mission,” Burguan, the police chief, said.
Burguan said that someone had left the county employees’ event after “there was some type of dispute,” but investigators were not sure whether that had anything to do with the subsequent massacre in the Southern California city of 214,000 people about 60 miles of Los Angeles.
Authorities also found a potential explosive device at the social service center.
As gunfire echoed through the large three-building complex, several people locked themselves in their offices, desperately waiting to be rescued by police. Some texted their loved ones or telephoned them and whispered to them what was going on.
“People shot. In the office waiting for cops. Pray for us. I am locked in an office,” Terry Petit’s daughter texted him.
Petit, choking back tears as he read the text for reporters at the shooting scene, said his daughter works at the center, where social workers find jobs, housing and transportation and provide other services to people with disabilities such as autism, cerebral palsy and epilepsy.
Ten of the wounded were hospitalized in critical condition, and three were in serious condition, Fire Chief Tom Hannemann said.
That the violence happened at a place dedicated to helping people with developmental disabilities made it even harder for some to comprehend.
“These are all disabled kids, very disabled,” said Sherry Esquerra, who was searching for her daughter and son-in-law, both of whom work at the center. “She gets all the services she possibly could for these kids. So I just don’t understand why somebody would come in and start shooting.”
Shootout follows manhunt
FBI agents and other law enforcement authorities converged on the center and searched room to room for the attackers, but they had apparently escaped.
No weapons were found at the center, though authorities were investigating unidentified items in the building and brought in bomb squads, Burguan said.
As the manhunt went on, stores, office buildings and at least one school were locked down in the city of 214,000 people about 60 miles east of Los Angeles, and roads were blocked off.
Triage units were set up outside the center, and people were seen being wheeled away on stretchers. Others walked quickly from a building with their hands up. They were searched by police before being reunited with loved ones.
One witness, Glenn Willwerth, who runs a business across the street, said he heard 10 to 15 shots and then saw an SUV with blacked-out windows pull out “very calmly, very slowly.”
About four hours later, with police looking for a dark SUV, officers staking out a home in the nearby city of Redlands saw a vehicle matching that description leave. They tried to pull it over, the SUV crashed, and a gunbattle broke out around 3 p.m., authorities said. One officer suffered a minor injury.
‘An organized plot’
President Barack Obama was briefed on the attack by his homeland security adviser. He said it was too early to know the shooters’ motives but urged the country to take steps to reduce mass shootings, including stricter gun laws and stronger background checks.
The shooting sounded like “an organized plot,” and preliminary information seems to indicate that “this is personal, and there seems to suggest some element of revenge and retaliation,” said Erroll G. Southers, director of Homegrown Violent Extremism Studies at the University of Southern California and a former FBI agent.
“What it says to me, it’s someone who’s familiar with the facility, it’s someone who knew exactly what room they were going to go to, they knew exactly which way they needed to escape,” Southers said. “They’ve done their homework, they know what the response time in this jurisdiction.”
Anxious moments for family, friends
Marcos Aguilera’s wife was in the building when the gunfire erupted. He said a shooter entered the building next to his wife’s office and opened fire.
“They locked themselves in her office. They seen bodies on the floor,” Aguilera told KABC-TV, adding that his wife was able to get out of the building unharmed.
Gabriel Torres said his wife, Carina, a social worker who works at the center, spent half an hour or more on the phone with him as she hid under her desk, crying, after her supervisor told her to take cover. Terrified, Carina Torres told him that he should make sure to take care of their four daughters, ages 10 to 24, if anything were to happen to her.
Her mother, Maria Hernandez, said: “We know she is OK, I’m going to be OK, I can tell you, I’m going to pass out. These feelings – I cannot tell you.”
The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times contributed.
Congressional staffer arrested after loaded gun found in bag
The U.S. Capitol Police said they arrested a congressional staff member who tried to enter a Senate office building with a loaded handgun. Christopher Carpenter of Stafford, Va., was arrested Tuesday when routine X-ray screening revealed a loaded 9 mm handgun in a backpack, a police spokeswoman said. He was charged with unlawful activities, possession of an unregistered firearm and unregistered ammunition.
Carpenter works for the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms, the chamber’s protocol and chief law enforcement officer. A spokeswoman for that office said Carpenter is the manager of the office that processes Senate identification badges and would eventually return to work.
Doctors’ plea: A group of doctors in white coats arrived on Capitol Hill to deliver a petition to Congress. Signed by more than 2,000 physicians around the country, it pleads with lawmakers to lift a restriction that for nearly two decades has essentially blocked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from conducting research on gun violence.
Joined by some Democratic lawmakers, including U.S. Rep. David Price of North Carolina, the doctors spoke about the need to view gun violence as a public health epidemic and research ways to solve it.
“It is disappointing that we have made little progress over the past 20 years in finding solutions to gun violence,” said Nina Agrawal, a New York physician and member of the advocacy group Doctors for America.
Compiled from The Associated Press and the Washington Post.