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'We Needed To Get In There And Save Them,' Says San Bernardino First Responder

San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon comforts dispatcher Michelle Rodriguez during a news conference with the first responders who talked about their experiences in last week's terrorist attack.
Jae C. Hong
/
AP
San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon comforts dispatcher Michelle Rodriguez during a news conference with the first responders who talked about their experiences in last week's terrorist attack.

To a person, it was the most harrowing and horrific experience any of them had experienced in their careers in law enforcement and emergency medicine. Thirty-six first responders — among the 300 who raced to the Inland Regional Center shortly after 11 am Dec. 2 — came to the second floor of the San Bernardino Police Department on Tuesday and stood grimly before a bank of television cameras to recount that morning.

"We didn't have any cover. We didn't know where in the building the gunmen were. We didn't know exactly how many people were down, but we knew that we needed to get in there and save 'em. That's what we'd been trained to do," said Detective Brian Lewis of the San Bernardino Police Department.

Lewis was one of the first officers to enter in the large meeting hall where a training session and holiday party was being held for employees of the health department. When they arrived, smoke alarms were blaring, sprinklers were spraying, and the room was still smoky from expended gunpowder. People screamed, moaned, cried, or were silent. One of the first tasks was to figure out which ones were alive and which had already died.

"My body went numb. It was overwhelming and surreal," said Cpl. Scott Snyder of the Fontana Police Department. "Then it hit home that this is not a training drill."

Sheriff John McMahon introduces first responders at a news conference.
John Burnett / NPR
/
NPR
Sheriff John McMahon introduces first responders at a news conference.

Fourteen people died and 21 others were wounded by husband and wife terrorists, wielding weapons for reasons still not fully understood.

One officer was shot in the thigh before the couple were killed inside a black SUV by a fusillade of police bullets.

"I tried to keep radio contact with him as best I could," San Bernardino Sheriff's dispatcher Michelle Rodriguez said of the wounded officer, choking back tears at the microphones.

There were so many casualties that first responders hauled gunshot victims to the hospital in any vehicle they could find. Probation Officer Nathan Scarano and his partner lowered the tailgates of their pickup trucks and evacuated 15 to 17 victims to a triage center.

"I'm getting goosebumps right now just thinking about it," Scarano said. "The coordination between all the agencies was amazing in that evacuation and operation altogether."

Many of the uniformed responders described how well the disparate police agencies worked together in the fast-moving chaos, and how grateful they were that they had trained for an active-shooter scenario.

"One of the reasons we all come running is because this is what we signed up for," said Brian Alvarez, a California Highway Patrolman. "(The victims) didn't sign up for this. They were having a holiday party."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.

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