SAN BERNARDINO, CALIF. — At least two gun-wielding assailants opened fire on a holiday party for county employees Wednesday, killing 14 people in the deadliest mass shooting in the United States since the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre three years ago this month.
Hours after the shooting, law enforcement officials said two suspects — Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, and Tashfeen Malik, 27— had been killed in a police shootout several miles from the site of the original attack.
In between were four hours of terror that brought the city of San Bernardino to a standstill. Fearful residents sheltered in homes, emergency responders rushed to get bleeding victims to safety, and dozens of law enforcement officers were embroiled in a car chase that took them from a residential street in nearby Redlands to a shootout back in San Bernardino that left both suspects dead, an officer wounded and one more community permanently changed.
The motives behind the mass shooting — the 355th in the U.S. this year — are still unclear. At a late night press conference, San Bernardino Police Chief Jarrod Burguan said that Farook is a U.S. citizen who worked as a health inspector for the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health, which was hosting Wednesday’s holiday party.
Police did not know where Malik was born or where she lived. A third suspect who had been seen fleeing the shootout was also taken into custody, though it was not clear whether he had been associated with the attack.
Asked about the third suspect, Burguan replied, “Right now, as we continue to drill down our information, it looks like we have two shooters. We are comfortable that the two shooters that went into the building are the two shooters that are deceased.”
Farook was at the gathering Wednesday, Burguan said, but he left early “under circumstances described as angry or something of that nature.”
Shortly after, Farook apparently returned with Malik, who officials believe is either his wife or fiancee. Then he allegedly opened fire.
Burguan declined to comment on what may have precipitated the attack. He and other law enforcement officials said that terrorism has not been ruled out.
“One of the big questions that will come up repeatedly is: ‘Is this terrorism?’ ” said David Bowdich, assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles office, said at an earlier press conference. “It is a possibility. We are making some adjustments to our investigation. It is a possibility. But we don’t know that yet. And we are not willing to go down that road yet.”
A senior U.S. law enforcement official told the Washington Post that Farook was not under FBI investigation.
The mass shooting Wednesday erupted at the Inland Regional Center, a three-building complex that houses a conference center and a facility that serves people with developmental disabilities. Dressed in black masks and tactical gear and carrying multiple weapons, the assailants barged into an auditorium where the annual gathering of health department employees was well underway.
Within four minutes of receiving the first 911 call, swarms of police arrived on the scene. It set off a tense, confusing and terrifying day in Southern California as the shooters — their number unclear, their identities unknown, their motives unimaginable — fled the scene in a black SUV and eluded capture for hours.
Police followed a tip that led them to a house in the nearby city of Redlands; records show that a father and son named Syed Farook have lived at that address. During a stakeout there, they spotted an SUV that matched the description of the suspects’ vehicle, and when the occupants drove away, police gave chase. A law enforcement source said the suspects threw objects — possibly pipe bombs — out the window.
The suspects drove back into San Bernardino and, reaching a residential neighborhood, stopped and began exchanging gunfire with more than 20 officers. One officer was injured in the firefight, but police said the wounds were not life-threatening. The two suspects were killed, their vehicle riddled with bullets.
The immediate aftermath was captured by helicopter new crews, who provided a live feed to a national audience watching on television and online. Police officers swarmed the neighborhood, guns drawn, taking cover behind walls and armored SWAT vehicles. Three armored vehicles surrounded the SUV, and officers slowly and methodically determined that no one inside had survived the hail of gunfire.
The two slain suspects were armed with assault rifles and handguns, Burguan said. Three explosive devices were also recovered from the shooting scene.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said Wednesday night it had recovered two rifles and two handguns and is conducting “urgent traces” to determine where the weapons were bought.
Later, ATF spokeswoman Meredith Davis told the Los Angeles Times that said officials had “successfully traced” the four guns recovered in connection with the San Bernardino shooting and determined that two of the weapons were purchased legally. The origins of the two other weapons are still being investigated.
The two legally purchased guns were bought by an individual associated with the investigation, Davis said, but she declined to name the person.
Details about Farook and Malik are hard to come by. The two left little in the way of a paper trail —
Even before law enforcement named the two suspects, the greater Los Angeles area office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations held a press conference in response to the names that were being circulated in media reports.
“The main intention was to strongly condemn what had happened, Ojaala Ahmad, the organization’s communication’s director, said in a phone call after the press conference.
“If it ends up the suspect was Muslim, people are going to — there will be that whole wave of Islamophobia,” she said. “We wanted to say that we grieve as Americans.”
Farhan Khan, who was introduced as a brother-in-law of the suspect, said he had no clue what might have driven his relative to such a crime.
“Why would he do that. Why would he do something like that?” Khan said. “I have no idea. I’m in shock myself.”
Khan said he spoke to his brother-in-law a week ago, but would not answer other questions or give the man’s name. He would not comment on whether his brother-in-law is a religious person.
“I cannot express how sad I am today,” he said.
At least 17 people were being treated in local hospitals for injuries suffered in the late-morning rampage. A spokeswoman for Loma Linda University Medical Center said two of the five patients treated there were in critical condition.
The Inland Regional Center is a three-building complex that houses a conference center and serves more than 30,000 people with developmental disabilities. The attack occurred in the conference center’s first-floor banquet room, where the public health department was hosting a holiday party, complete with Christmas trees and other decorations.
Witnesses reported seeing three people in black clothing using long guns akin to assault weapons. Recent mass shootings in the United States have typically involved a lone gunman, often someone mentally unstable or consumed with rage. Multiple-shooter events are extremely rare: According to a recent FBI report on 160 “active shooter incidents” between 2000 and 2013, all but two involved a single shooter.
“They came prepared to do what they did as if they were on a mission,” Burguan said. “They were dressed and equipped in a way that indicate they were prepared.”
The San Bernardino fire department first responded to reports of gunfire at 10:59 a.m.
Chris Nwadike, an employee of the public health department, said the gunfire erupted while he was on a bathroom break from a meeting.
“We heard something like explosives — big sounds first, then a few seconds, then we heard the gunshots,” he said. Someone in the bathroom said, “Everybody lie down,” Nwadike recalled. After about 10 minutes, the police came and directed everyone out of the building.
Melinda Rivas, a social worker who works at the center, said she heard a woman shout, “There’s a shooting!” She and co-workers barricaded themselves in a conference room.
She called her two adult children: “There’s a shooting going on. Be safe,” she told them. Finally, a SWAT team evacuated those hiding, telling them to keep their hands raised as they walked out of the building. Rivas texted her children, with relief this time: “I’m safe.”
“This is one of those things I’ve often seen on the news, and now I was a part of it,” Rivas said later in the day. She recalled leaving the building to the sight of people in panic, yelling and screaming, with clothing and emergency equipment strewn about.
“It was almost like a bloody warpath,” she said. “… This is one of those things I’ve often seen on the news, and now I was a part of it.”
The shooting shut down much of Southern California’s “Inland Empire,” which stretches into the desert east of Los Angeles. Schools and county buildings were put on lockdown for fear that gunmen were on the loose and prepared to attack again. The Federal Aviation Administration imposed temporary flight restrictions over the city at the request of local law enforcement.
SWAT team members went room by room through the three buildings in the IRC complex. Numerous victims were seen in television footage being carried away on stretchers. Medical teams set up a triage area on a nearby public golf course.
The center employs about 670 staff members, according to the organization’s Facebook page. The center advertises its three core values as “independence, inclusion, and empowerment” and says that it is committed to eliminating barriers for individuals with developmental disabilities so that they can “live a typical lifestyle.”
The center held its own holiday party Tuesday, and a brief video clip showed staffers and clients in wheelchairs dancing to the 1980 mega-hit “Celebration” by Kool & the Gang.
Marybeth Feild, president of the Inland Regional Center’s board of directors, said the San Bernardino County public health department had rented the conference room for a holiday party, complete with Christmas trees and other decorations.
“We don’t know who the gunmen are, or why this happened. It’s devastating,” said Marybeth Feild, president of the Inland Regional Center’s board of directors, who was not in the building at the time of the shooting. “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?”
By mid-afternoon, police were bringing relatives of victims to the Rudy C. Hernandez Community Center.
“I’m worried, petrified, scared,” said Sherry Esquerra, whose daughter and son-in-law, Shawna and Daniel Timmons, work at the IRC. She said she’d left phone messages but hadn’t heard back.
“She would text me. I know she would know that I am worried,” Esquerra said. “They do social work. I don’t know how anyone could do this to them.”
At least 100 family members could be seen sitting in the bleachers at the community center, where authorities assembled clergy and grief counselors. Meanwhile, police were locking down or evacuating stores and restaurants miles from the scene of the shooting.
Kim Scott, a cashier at a 99 Cents store, said police told workers and customers to evacuate from the Waterman Discount Mall and surrounding stores.
“It’s scary. We’re supposed to be evacuating,” she said. “I’m behind Register three. We’re hiding out until they tell us to get out. . . . I want to go home. I don’t know what’s going on.”
The San Bernardino massacre follows a series of mass shootings just in the past six months. They include attacks on a black church in Charleston, S.C.; at a military recruitment center in Chattanooga, Tenn.; in a movie theater in Lafayette, La.; at a community college in Oregon; and just last week at a Planned Parenthood facility in Colorado Springs.
One Internet site that tracks mass shootings — defined as events in which four or more people are killed or injured — reported that San Bernardino’s tragedy was the 355th such shooting this year, a pace of more than one a day. Earlier on Wednesday, a gunman in Savannah, Ga. shot four people, killing a woman and injuring three men.
“Obviously our hearts go out to the victims and the families,” President Obama said in a television interview. “The one thing we do know is we have a pattern now of mass shootings in the country that has no parallel anywhere else in the world.”
Obama called for “common sense” gun-safety laws. And he noted that while people are fearful of a terrorist attack, under current law, people on the U.S. no-fly list can still legally buy a gun.
“Those same people who we don’t allow to fly could go into a store right now in the United States and buy a firearm, and there’s nothing that we can do to stop them,” Obama said.
Earlier in the day, even before the shooting, doctors in white lab coats descended on Capitol Hill to ask Congress to lift a decades-old ban on research on gun violence.
Most of the presidential candidates took to Twitter to respond to the massacre, with Republicans and Democrats taking different tacks. The GOP contenders almost universally offered prayers for the victims.
“California shooting looks very bad. Good luck to law enforcement and God bless. This is when our police are so appreciated!” tweeted Republican front-runner Donald Trump.
The three major contenders in the Democratic race, meanwhile, specifically cited the need to stop gun violence.
“I refuse to accept this as normal,” tweeted Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton. “We must take action to stop gun violence now.”
Dauber is a freelance writer. Berman and Achenbach reported from Washington. Freelance writer Martha Groves in San Bernardino and staff writers Adam Goldman, Lindsey Bever, Niraj Chokshi, Ann Gerhart, Sari Horwitz, Elahe Izadi, Wesley Lowery, Kevin Sullivan, Julie Tate and Alice Crites in Washington contributed to this report.