SAN BERNARDINO, Calif.—Huddled beneath a desk, a bookshelf shoved against a locked office door, Regina Kuruppu held her co-workers’ hands and began to pray aloud, unable to drown out the terrifying cries coming from one floor below. “Heavenly Father. Watch over my family,” she said. “Watch over us.”
When the fire alarm had sounded minutes earlier, Kuruppu was sitting at her desk at the Inland Regional Center, an organization that helps those with developmental disabilities. The alarm, she thought, was just a drill—until she got downstairs and saw two bodies in a pool of blood.
Heading back upstairs, she didn’t stop to wonder what evil had come that morning. Those questions would come later, for her and for a nation left grappling not only with another mass shooting, but with a potential act of terrorism.
Kuruppu could only pray for protection, even as she prepared to die. She thought of her son. She texted her sister.
“I’m going to leave this world,” she thought, believing this December day might be her last.
The Inland Regional Center sits in a nondescript office complex. Its popular auditorium space had been rented to an outside client: The county’s Division of Environmental Health Services had scheduled a holiday luncheon for as many as 90 employees on Wednesday.
Food inspector Chris Nwadike shared a table with restaurant inspector Syed Rizwan Farook, a quiet man employed at the agency for four years. “He’s serious with his job,” Nwadike said later. “He doesn’t play around.”
It had been a big year for Farook. Co-workers threw him a shower before his daughter was born. They collected cash for him and his bride of a year, Tashfeen Malik, a woman whom Farook told colleagues he’d met online.
At the holiday banquet, Farook slipped out, leaving behind a jacket and belongings, as if he planned to return.
Suddenly, doors to the conference room burst open. Sunlight blazed into the room, followed by gunfire blasts. “Five rounds heard,” police dispatch recorded at 10:58 a.m. Then one minute later: “Heard about 20 to 25 rounds.”
Two figures dressed in black were firing semi-automatic rifles.
A new employee, Jennifer Stevens, at first thought someone was playing a joke—until she got hit. “She looked down and she had a big hole in her side,” said her mother, Lisa, who recalled her phone ringing after the rampage began and hearing her daughter’s horrifying words: “Mommy, I’ve been shot.”
Environmental health specialist Denise Peraza dove under a table, alongside co-worker Shannon Johnson, who wrapped his arm around her as they tried to shield themselves with a fallen chair. “I got you,” Johnson told Peraza, who felt something hit her lower back.
Nwadike had been in the men’s room when he heard a loud blast. Then a spasm of gunfire tore tiles off the wall, striking a colleague who sensed what was happening: “Somebody is shooting! Lie down! Lie down!”
The local police special response team was undergoing active shooter training when a lieutenant heard over the radio: “Shots fired. Multiple victims hit.”
At 11:10, when team member Ryan Starling arrived, people were running from the building. Other officers already were inside the auditorium, where the smell of gun powder was still fresh and fire sprinklers sprayed down on a sea of carnage. The water, tinged red, flowed “like a little river of blood coming out,” Starling said.
Twenty-one people were wounded but alive. Stevens and Peraza were among them. Fourteen others were killed, including Peraza’s hero, Shannon Johnson.
Upstairs, some 20 minutes passed before men in uniform busted down the office door and found Kuruppu and her colleagues.
Later, the woman who runs support groups for others was still trying to make sense of it all.
“Fear is not what God wants us to feel,” she said. “He wants us to feel at peace.”
But peace hasn’t found San Bernardino yet.
Four hours after the rampage, police found the apparent assailants: Farook, 28, and his wife, Malik, 29, both killed in a shootout with police. They were armed with assault rifles and semi-automatic handguns. Investigators would later find a cache of ammunition and pipe bombs.
The couple also left behind a 6-month-old daughter.
The FBI said Friday that it is investigating the shooting as an act of terrorism. If the massacre was inspired by Islamic extremism, it would be the deadliest such attack on U.S. soil since Sept. 11, 2001.
For those who worked alongside Farook, the allegations are difficult to fathom.
Said Nwadike, who escaped unhurt, “I didn’t see anything that this guy would do this type of thing.”
Arrillaga reported from Phoenix. Contributing to this report were AP reporters Gillian Flaccus, Amanda Lee Myers, Nicole Evatt and Amy Taxin in San Bernardino and John Rogers, Andrew Dalton and Christine Armario in Los Angeles.