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San Bernardino terror attack survivors describe how it changed their lives

San Bernardino terror attack survivors describe how it changed their lives

Picture of Matt Guilhem
Tributes and holiday decorations adorned the wall surrounding the Inland Regional Center.
Tributes and holiday decorations adorned the wall surrounding the Inland Regional Center in the weeks following the December 2 terror attack. The wall surrounding the center is now bare, but a shrine memorializing those who died in the attack still stands in San Bernardino at the center's northwest corner on a busy intersection. [Photo by Matt Guilhem]

Just weeks after Paris – a thriving, global city – was attacked by Islamic extremists, a suburb of Los Angeles was rocked by its own ISIS-inspired terror attack. Fourteen people died December 2, 2015 in San Bernardino when Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, opened fire at a Christmas party. Lasting just four minutes, the attack also injured 22 people. As the pair fled the scene, Malik took to social media to pledge the duo's allegiance to the Islamic State. Following four tumultuous hours on the loose, the pair were chased down and eventually shot and killed by police in a fierce gun battle.

I arrived at the Inland Regional Center a little over a half hour after the attack happened. The entire city block where the campus sits was cordoned off by police; helicopters from law enforcement and news outlets circled above. People inside the complex were being shuttled out in school buses to be interviewed by police and reunited with family. A frenzied and palpable feeling of panic hung in the air. That day, the Inland Empire learned mass shootings and terror really can happen anywhere.

The days and months immediately following the attack were hectic at first — new revelations in the investigation kept coming to light, an arrest was made, court appearances and affidavits provided new insights into a longstanding plot that culminated in the December 2 attack. The government’s demand that Apple unlock the shooter's county-issued iPhone launched an international debate over privacy and became a story unto itself. After a buildup and very public dispute between Apple and the FBI, the government announced they had found a way into the device without Apple's help.

Reporting on the San Bernardino shooting strictly as a news event provided me an invaluable education; it was trial by fire. I attended press conferences with law enforcement, spoke to area residents at prayer vigils, was at the shooters’ home in Redlands when it was opened to global media live on television, and even covered President Obama’s visit to the city to meet with victims. A more thorough introduction to covering breaking news is hard to imagine.

It wasn’t until exploring the mental health component of the attack for the Center for Health Journalism’s 2016 California Fellowship that I really was able to pause and reflect on all of the individual lives the tragedy had touched. One example: Gina Bernard’s autistic son receives services from the Inland Regional Center. She wasn’t personally affected by the bloodshed that day, but the event cast a shadow over the Regional Center, one she feels she has to protect her son from. During both interviews with her — one in the immediate aftermath of the shooting and another about six months later — Bernard teared up thinking about the pain the shooting caused families who experienced an injury or death. Her life is also impacted; if her son found out what happened there, she says he wouldn’t be able to process it and would be afraid. Once a familiar source of comfort and normalcy, the Regional Center would become a place of fear for her son.

What most sticks with me from my interviews for my fellowship project is the morning I spent chatting with Julie Paez. On December 2, she and a few other colleagues huddled together behind a Christmas tree while the rampage unfolded. Shot twice in the pelvis, Paez was the only one in her group by the Christmas tree to survive the day. She recounted the morning to me and said while lying there wounded, she made a conscious choice to not make memories of what she was experiencing. She knew they would only haunt her and bring her pain. Paez told me while she lay there bleeding, her mind focused on two things: the steps her future recovery would take, and how much she enjoys going to the beach with her daughter. Describing Paez as “sunny” or “optimistic” doesn’t do her justice; she has no bitterness about what happened to her. The last thing she wants is to be characterized as a victim or to be defined by a single morning of her life. Having covered the story of December 2 from so many angles, it’s surprising to say hearing the events of that day from somebody who was in the room as it unfolded provided a whole new perspective. Yes, it was awful, but Paez isn't looking back; she never wanted her kids — or anyone — to think she had a sense of “poor me.” She wants to heal, go back to work, and move on.

It's chilling to think San Bernardino was known as the deadliest terror attack on the U.S. since 9/11 for only a little over six months. In June, a gunman killed 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando and claimed the attack for the Islamic State. Later in the summer, another ISIS-inspired attack in France killed 86 and injured more than 400. Along with these attacks, numerous mass shootings have occurred throughout the United States in recent years. Like other communities shaken by unspeakable violence, there's a false sense of security that it can never happen in your town — until it does. The events of December 2 seemed surreal as they unfolded; only after things calmed down did I realize that what I was feeling was the same shock and disbelief that terror had touched my hometown of San Bernardino as I'm sure residents of Newtown, Charleston, and Roseburg felt after mass shootings in those cities claimed numerous lives.

After covering the San Bernardino attack for months, exploring the mental health consequences of the shooting allowed me to evaluate my own experience of the event. Through my interviews with first responders, a mental health expert, and someone who lived to tell the story of what actually happened in the Regional Center's conference center December 2, that day’s events have become so much more than a news story I covered. I can never fully comprehend the pain or loss those directly impacted by the shooting will feel for a lifetime, but, by reporting these stories, I've provided some of those affected a way to speak out on a dimension of the tragedy few talk openly about but many are still dealing with.

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