CITYWIDE — At 11:52 a.m. on June 7, the first call of shots fired rang into the police dispatch office. It would be the beginning of a 13-minute shooting rampage in which John Zawahri, 23, shot and killed five people before police took him out.
In those minutes, first responders ran toward fire and bullets to put a stop to the mentally disturbed young man ripping his way trough the town, and for days after, investigators scoured the remnants of clues to piece together what happened.
And, from those early moments and carrying through to the present, another set of heroes sprang into action, providing shelter for scared children, relief to law enforcement agents in need of coffee and food and counseling for those impacted by events.
School officials, employees of various city departments and nonprofit employees all stepped up to lend aid to prevent a bad situation from becoming worse, City Manager Rod Gould told the City Council Tuesday night.
“There is an honor and duty in public service. It’s those times I would like to think bring out the best in all of us,” Gould said.
When the bullets were fired, the response began.
Emergency operations centers were set up at the school district headquarters on 16th Street and at the Public Safety Facility on Olympic Drive to coordinate volunteers, teachers, officials and others spread across schools and parks.
“At the point this unfolded, it was like any day in the city,” said Julie Rusk, assistant director of the Community & Cultural Services Department.
Kids from a local elementary school were on a field trip to Virginia Avenue Park, which sits near the murderous path cut by Zawahri, who killed his brother and father, set fire to the family home and then carjacked a woman and forced her to drive him to the college.
City employees at the Swim Center, located at Santa Monica College, were caught in the lockdown. Students at Edison Language Academy, just blocks from the Yorkshire Avenue home in which the violence erupted, could hear the gunfire.
Laura Ornales, director of Family Service of Santa Monica, was on the McKinley Elementary School campus assisting with a school barbecue when the word came: Lockdown.
“The kids said, ‘A drill? Why would you do this in the middle of our barbecue. That’s so mean of them!’” she said. “The kids actually knew what to do. I don’t know how long it took, but it felt like 60 seconds.”
Ornales led a group of children into the library, the nearest open door, as she had been trained. After the shootings in Sandy Hook, Conn. that left 20 children and six adults dead, schools across the country had taken another look at their emergency response plans and made sure everyone knew what to do.
In the library, Ornales tried to keep things light.
“We’re stuck in here, but when are you going to get to eat in the library, or play soccer in the library?” she said. Rainy day games were organized, and fifth grade boys began telling each other stories to pass the time.
All the while, Ornales could only trust that her two children, also on school grounds, were safe.
“I trusted that my children’s teachers were doing what they should be doing,” she said.
Ornales’ organization, Family Service of Santa Monica, puts trained social workers on campuses to provide counseling and mental health care. She and her team played a role keeping children calm during the event, but the rest of their job would pick up on Monday, when the students came back to school, some terrified that the experience would repeat.
In the meantime, life at the Public Safety Facility emergency center was gearing up.
The response was similar to that of the Farmers’ Market disaster in July 2003 when a man plowed through shoppers, killing 10 people and injury over 60 others, said Paul Weinberg, emergency services coordinator with City Hall.
After the initial devastation, law enforcement began working around the clock at SMC to figure out what had happened, and the Office of Emergency Management in conjunction with the Red Cross coordinated the creation of a mini city to support them.
Food, coffee, snacks and portable toilets were brought in to handle basic necessities, and large lights so that they could work as the sun sank from the sky.
They broke down their perimeter Saturday afternoon, Weinberg said.
At the same time, the Big Blue Bus did what it could to keep service rolling, as well as provide an unorthodox use of the municipal buses.
One driver — who could not be identified because of the ongoing investigation — was caught in the shooting, when Zawahri strafed the bus, injuring some passengers.
“All I can share with you is that she did everything she potentially could have to minimize the injuries on that bus, get out of harm’s way and drive away from the scene,” said Ed King, director of Transit Services at City Hall. “She was phenomenal.”
Others hunkered down, providing places for people to stay safe from any potential threat. Still more were used at the scene, providing law enforcement officials near SMC places to interview victims and witnesses.
“I’m very proud of every single Big Blue Bus employee that did what needed to be done that day in assisting the community through a horrific event,” King said.
Even a week after the fact, the response from City Hall and community organizations is still unfurling.
City officials set up a center at Virginia Avenue Park to provide formal and informal counseling, as well as coffee and cookies to anyone impacted by the shootings. Counselors, clergy and other professionals will be available from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday at the site, Rusk said.
Services will also be provided in Spanish.
Pacific Crossroads Church, which uses Santa Monica High School for its Sunday services, will also open its doors to victims and families caught up in the violence. Counseling and meals will be available at 9 a.m. and 11 a.m., according to a flyer posted in the community.
The continuing support and caring rippling throughout the community is just another sign of how strong Santa Monica is as a community, said Mayor Pam O’Connor.
“As we mourn and as we comfort one another, let’s be especially grateful for the relationships we have with one another,” she said. “Lean on those connections and lean on each other to truly heal.”