A heavily armed couple dressed for battle opened fire on a holiday banquet being held for one of the shooters’ co-workers Wednesday, killing 14 people and seriously wounding more than a dozen more in what authorities characterized as a precision assault. Hours later, both died in a shootout with police.
The motive behind America’s latest mass shooting has yet to be determined, with officials saying they are looking at whether the assault may have been workplace violence or “terrorism.”
San Bernardino Police Chief Jarrod Burguan identified one dead suspect as Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, the other as Tashfeen Malik, 27, who were married or engaged. Burguan said Farook was born in the United States but did not know Malik’s background.
The shooting happened at the Inland Regional Center, a nonprofit social services center for the disabled, where Farook’s colleagues at the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health were renting space for a celebration. It is the nation’s deadliest mass shooting since the attack at a school in Newtown, Connecticut, three years ago that left 26 children and adults dead.
The attackers invaded the center, about 60 miles east of Los Angeles, around 11 a.m., opening fire in a conference area where county health officials were having an employee banquet, said Marybeth Feild, the center’s president and CEO.
“They came prepared to do what they did, as if they were on a mission,” Burguan 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.”
According to its website, the center has a client base of more than 30,000 people and their families. It is a privately run nonprofit, the largest of its kind in California, with about 670 employees.
On Wednesday morning, FBI agents and other law enforcement authorities converged on the center and searched room to room for the attackers. Triage units were set up outside, and people were wheeled away on stretchers.
Seventeen people were wounded, according to authorities. Ten were hospitalized in critical condition, and three were in serious condition, Fire Chief Tom Hannemann said.
Others were marched from the building with hands raised so police could search them and make sure the attackers weren’t trying to slip out.
They had escaped. One witness, Glenn Willwerth, who runs a business across the street, said he heard 10 to 15 shots and then saw an SUV with tinted windows pull out “very calmly, very slowly” and drive off.
As the manhunt dragged on, stores, office buildings and schools were locked down in the city, and roads were blocked off.
“This is the first time we’ve seen it like this, on lockdown,” said Hector Guerrero, the husband of an employee who works in the Inland Regional Center. “I don’t think anything like this has happened in the Inland Empire,” the region of Southern California east of Los Angeles.
Authorities pursued the SUV, and a gunbattle erupted around 3 p.m. One officer among nearly two dozen involved in the shootout suffered a minor injury and spent the night at a hospital.
A fake bomb — a metal pipe stuffed with cloth — was thrown from the SUV during the chase, said Agent Meredith Davis of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Three objects — thought to be explosive devices and connected to one another — were found at the Inland Regional Center and later detonated by a bomb squad, police 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. At a late-night news conference, he said that early witness accounts of three shooters were probably wrong. “We are reasonably confident at this point that we have two shooters and we have two dead suspects,” he said.
The Inland Regional Center has been the focus of recent complaints that its clients were not receiving all services requested and that some services were cut back without proper notice, said attorney Terri Keville of the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine.
The shooting comes less than a week after a man killed three people and wounded nine in a shooting rampage at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado. In October a gunman killed nine people at a college in Oregon, and in June a white gunman killed nine black churchgoers in South Carolina.
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 one thing we do know is that we have a pattern now of mass shootings in this country that has no parallel anywhere else in the world, and there’s some steps we could take not to eliminate every one of these mass shootings but to improve the odds that they don’t happen as frequently,” he told CBS.
Al Jazeera and wire services. With additional reporting by Haya El Nasser.