CITYWIDE – On June 7 of last year John Zawahri set fire to his family’s home on Yorkshire Avenue and went on a shooting spree that ended 13-minutes later when police shot him in the Santa Monica College library.
All told, six people, including Zawahri, were killed and four were wounded.
The quick response from public safety, the Santa Monica Police in particular, saved lives, according to City Hall.
The Santa Monica Fire Department also played a major role in the shooting, which involved a house fire, and numerous major and minor injuries throughout the city.
On the day of the shooting, Battalion Chief Mark Bridges was headed to a Fire Fighter of the Year award ceremony in Pacific Palisades.
“I hear on the police channel, ‘beep-beep-beep, shots fired in the area,’ and it was Kansas (Ave.),” he said. “Usually it’s a car backfiring; A firecracker. So I kept driving. A couple minutes later I hear, and now this is at 11:52 (a.m.), I hear our units being dispatched to a structure fire in the same area. I go, ‘That’s kind of weird.’”
Bridges turns around and heads back to the city. One of his fire engines reports visible smoke. Because of the gunshot call his engines stage, briefly, away from the structure fire before asking to get closer. Bridges gives them the go-ahead and they see that the house is fully involved. Meanwhile, across the street, there’s a car door open.
“You’re trying to process this,” Bridges said. “You have a fire, you’ve got people waving me to a fire over here. What’s going on? People come over to tell the captain that we have somebody who has been shot inside the car. It was like, ‘What?’”
His men attack the fire. Bridges puts a call out to Los Angeles for assistance.
“The engine knocks down the fire and, during the search, they find two gunshot victims inside, which end up being the brother and the father (of Zawahri),” Bridges said. “They’re both shot center of the forehead. They were rolled up in an area rug and placed in the bedroom. He’d gotten into the house, had some kind of confrontation with them, and on his way out lit the house on fire.”
Outside, they’re treating the woman in the car for two or three gunshot wounds, Bridges said. He learned later that she’d been trying to save a young woman driving in front of her. Zawahri had lowered his gun on the young woman and the other woman – now being treated for gunshot wounds – tried to distract him. She honked. The young woman sped off. The injured woman survived.
Zawahri then commandeers a car telling the young female driver that if she does what he says, he won’t hurt her. She drives him toward Santa Monica College.
At the intersection of the Cloverfield and Pico boulevards he gets out and fires on a Big Blue Bus.
On his radio, Bridges hears that 22 people on a city bus had been shot. He calls for more help. The injuries turned out to be less significant.
“Because of his angle, his trajectory is kind of high, which is a good thing because he’s shooting the rounds out of an AR-15 and it easily would have penetrated the skin of the bus,” Bridges said. “If he’d shot low, he’d have got a lot of people. He ended up shooting high, so the people on the bus who were injured were by metal fragments and glass fragments.”
The driver turned the corner and Zawahri got back into the car.
BBB declined to make the driver of the bus available for comment but City Hall and the UCLA Medical Center staff that treated the victims commended her actions.
At SMC, Zawahri shoots at a car occupied by a father and daughter, Carlos and Marcela Franco. Carlos is killed instantly and Marcela is also shot. They crash through a wall.
Bridges’ medics pronounce Carlos dead and pull Marcela out of the back of the car. She is still breathing but died later at the hospital.
On campus, Zawahri shoots Margarita Gomez, a 68-year-old visiting campus to collect cans.
“She gets shot right in the bottom of the ribcage but it hit her aorta,” he said. “She didn’t die instantly but she ended up bleeding out.”
In the library, he notices a group hiding in a locked side room and demands they come out. He shoots through the drywall. Because they are kneeling, the shots go over their heads.
“He figures, like you see on TV, he’s going to start shooting out part of the drywall and punch a hole through,” Bridges said. “So he’s beginning to do that when the police come in. ‘Police! Freeze!’ He turns toward them, they shoot, he goes down. He’s not killed, and he has a .44 caliber in his waistband and so as they’re approaching him, he tries to pull the .44 and they shoot.”
Police officers check on the people hiding in the room and then drag Zawahri outside breathing.
“Between the library and the street is where he died,” Bridges said. “Our medics went over and pronounced him dead.”
Largely, Bridges’ units were following the tail of Zawahri’s destruction but during the shooting it was never fully clear what was happening.
“We have ballistic vests,” he said. “Hopefully the heightened awareness keeps them safe. But it causes a lot of apprehension and angst knowing there’s a person on the loose. We’re a huge target.”
The dispatch center got more calls in one day than any day since the 1994 Northridge Earthquake, he said.
Bridges said that one particular engine had to go right from the shooting to an unrelated drowning on the beach.
“Those guys were obviously affected,” he said. “Afterwards we did a critical debriefing, a post traumatic stress debriefing, we did several of those with our guys. And you could see that a lot of our newer, younger guys who haven’t been exposed to that level of trauma were affected and some of them still are.”
John Adams Middle School
John Adams Middle School is located less than 200 feet from the Santa Monica College library. Eva Mayoral, who is now the principal at Santa Monica High School, was the principal of JAMS at the time.
She called it “the most scary thing that (she’s) ever experienced.”
Mayoral was at the gate on the northern side of the campus when she heard what she thought were gunshots.
“Suddenly I saw all these police and helicopters,” she said. “They had bullhorns telling everyone to run and get off the streets. I immediately put the school into lockdown.”
A majority of the sixth, seventh, and eighth graders were on field trips in the area but there were some remaining students who opted not to go. There were also the John Adams Child Development Center preschoolers on campus.
“Then all of the sudden we saw officers in bulletproof vests and giant assault rifles coming into our campus, looking through the windows,” Mayoral said.
After speaking to the police they decided to move the students to the Boys and Girls Club up the street.
The middle-school students couldn’t grasp the severity of shooting while they were changing locations, Mayoral said. They were thankful and well behaved en route.
It was harder with the pre-schoolers.
“There’s this long train of them with armed officers flanking them on either side,” Mayoral said. “Me holding hands with kids, and then they’re not moving fast enough. Having the anxiety because I know what’s going on. I don’t want to transfer that to the kids because I don’t want them to get scared or the adults to get even more scared. I broke into the middle of the line and take two babies’ hands with multiple kids on either side and I’m moving up and trying to quicken the pace and show that the kids could walk faster than they were walking. I’m hunched over, holding their little hands, trying to get them to look at me and not these officers with these giant guns.”
The scene Mayoral describes is surreal. She remembers asking them about their favorite movie characters and the pre-schoolers laughing, as they describe “Mikey with one eyeball,” moving quickly, surrounded by guns.
Once the school was cleared out, Mayoral went back and – hiding under the main officer switchboard – answered calls from scared parents.
“Not everyone’s communication information was up to date so I was still getting phone calls from people who weren’t getting our updates,” she said. “I was just trying to be there so if they call they aren’t hearing nothing. Because, as a parent myself, I can only imagine what that would feel like.”
At one point, public safety personnel from the command center that had been set up on the JAMS lawn needed to go to the bathroom.
Mayoral, taking a SMPD detective to the bathroom, noticed that one single-stall bathroom was locked.
“Which meant, to me, that someone was in there,” Mayoral said. “I just froze.”
The detective pushed her back with one hand.
“She stood there with her rifle ready to face somebody,” Mayoral said. “Honestly, every time I see (that detective) even now, I just want to cry that she’s still alive. Because I thought for sure that they were going to open that door and they were going to shoot her dead. And, in fact, it’s just a door that’s been locked for maintenance reasons.”
There is a vigilance that’s stayed with Mayoral that she hasn’t been able to shake. She mentioned it in speaking to the Board of Education about the student-teacher altercation at Samohi earlier this year.
“It creates a PTSD for you that I don’t think I’ll ever recover from,” she said. “As a principal you want to keep everyone of your babies, and your staff, safe. You look at everything differently after that. You’ve practiced lockdowns and you’ve practiced drills, but when you see people with actual guns coming through your campus it just takes you to a whole new level.”