San Bernardino Shooting's Signs Have Faded, But Memories Remain Piercing

Dec 2, 2016
Originally published on December 2, 2016 5:24 pm

It's been a year since Ray Britain lay on the floor of the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, Calif., feeling the vibrations of the gun shots.

He remembers that "constant tremble," he says, the ringing in his ears, the shell casings — "a rainbow of shell casings" — flying from the gun, and the looks of shock on his coworkers' faces.

It's been a year since Britain survived what was then considered the deadliest terrorist attack in the United States since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks: Fourteen people killed and 22 wounded. But he can remember all of it like it was yesterday.

"The dreams keep a lot of it real," Britain says. "There're certain things I wish I could just forget, but unfortunately, they just keep popping up."

For some people in San Bernardino and the greater Inland Empire, Dec. 2 will always be the day that established a new normal. For others, the change is less acute.

The FBI hasn't released any new information about their investigation into the deceased shooters, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, in months. The trial against Enrique Marquez Jr. — a friend of Farook's who is charged with buying some of the weapons that were used in the attack, among other things — doesn't start until September.

Around town, signs of the shooting have faded too. The police tape is gone outside of the Inland Regional Center, and on workdays the parking lot is full. Commuters drive by a makeshift memorial of fresh flowers and drooping signs, first put up in the hours and days after the shooting when people were still coming to terms with what had happened.

In nearby Redlands at the apartment the two shooters left that December morning — armed with pipe bombs, handguns, rifles and more than a thousand rounds of ammunition — there's a decorative flag by a new front door that reads "Happy Holidays." The two neighboring units fly American flags.

"We haven't forgotten it," says Casey Pace, pushing her kids in a stroller by the house. "But we have to move on, I guess."

'I hear his voice all of the time'

That has proven difficult for a lot of people more closely connected to the shooting.

"I hear his voice all of the time," says Mandy Pifer, whose fiancée, Shannon Johnson, was killed while shielding a coworker with his body. "Most of the time, it's telling me to stop being so ridiculous."

Pifer is a volunteer crisis counselor for the city of Los Angeles and says she's been working more and more since the tragedy. Helping others in their own moments of tragedy, she says, "is really helping me heal."

For Sally Cardinale, healing has come in fits and spurts. She hid in a bathroom stall with three other women during the attack on the holiday party, and says she still has trouble sleeping.

"Everything I was thinking about when I was in that bathroom was 'I'm going to die and my kids are going to get separated because they have separate fathers,' " she says. "I don't know what to do with that."

Some days she feels good; other days, she can't get out of bed. "It's an up-and-down all of the time," she says.

Some survivors feel betrayed, abandoned

It's made more difficult by the fact that she feels like it's out of her control. Cardinale is part of a group of survivors accusing San Bernardino County of cutting off much-needed support for the survivors of the attack, including refusing to approve counseling or antidepressant medication. Others, who were physically wounded, Cardinale says, are fighting to get surgeries approved and physical therapy covered.

Cardinale says that the fight to get help has felt like a second trauma.

At a closed meeting with the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors earlier this week, survivors said they felt betrayed and abandoned, left to deal with California's complicated workers' compensation program without guidance or help. Their health insurers won't cover their injuries because they occurred in a workplace attack.

A county spokesman, David Wert, says in an email that workers' comp can be a tedious process, but insists that the county has been as responsive as possible.

"The county is, and always has been, committed to ensuring our employees get all the care they need," Wert wrote.

A city in search of an identity

That's just one aspect of the challenge facing the city of San Bernardino and its leadership.

"I used to tell people that my district was halfway between Los Angeles and Palm Springs," says Pete Aguilar, the U.S. representative for the district that includes San Bernardino.

Now he says, his hometown had been added to a list of cities that people just know for a terrible reason, like Littleton, Colo., or Newtown, Conn. But Aguilar is defiant: "We will not be defined by this tragedy."

San Bernardino, by Aguilar's admission, is a work in progress. The city of 216,000 filed for bankruptcy in 2012 and still is facing steep economic problems. Murder and other crimes have spiked in the past year.

Down a pot-holed street from the Inland Regional Center, resident Akia Ingram says people are leaving the city because there are few good jobs.

"This used to be the place people would move to from L.A. or other places," she says. "But now it's just really, really bad."

Ingram watched as the hordes of television crews and police officers came and went last December following the attack, and says she couldn't help but feel angry that few thought to report on or address the city's other problems.

"It don't get no attention," she says. "Only thing that get attention is something big like that terrorist attack."

'We're a better community now'

Some have hope, though, that the attack still could help the city find its footing to address those issues.

"We're a better community now, even though we're hurt," says Brian Levin, a criminal justice professor at California State University, San Bernardino, who studies hate crimes.

In the days and weeks that followed the tragedy, Levin met with faith leaders, law enforcement and families of the victims, and he says he noticed a unity of shock and shared pain.

While other parts of the country were arguing about gun laws and immigration, and as hate crimes against Muslims rose, San Bernardino "didn't have the luxury to be divisive," he says — something he still sees today.

"[The attack] will always be a part of our history," Levin says. "But here's the thing: so will the heroics of those police officers and first responders and medical staff, and so will the grace of the families. We're writing the rest of the history. The bastards lost."

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Now, it was one year ago today that a husband and wife entered a holiday party in San Bernardino, Calif., and opened fire, killing 14 people, injuring another 22. It would later be called the worst act of terrorism in the United States since 9/11. One year later, federal investigators are still looking into this attack, the two shooters and their motives. But in San Bernardino and the surrounding areas, people are trying to move on, as NPR's Nathan Rott reports.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Sally Cardinale and Ray Britain sit down and remember the day they want to forget.

SALLY CARDINALE: I was in the restroom.

RAY BRITAIN: I was in the room.

CARDINALE: And I was washing my hands when I heard the first gunshots.

BRITAIN: We heard three to six loud bangs.

ROTT: But before they go any further...

CARDINALE: I'm sorry. Let me - can I put - pause? Did you want to...

ROTT: Cardinale looks down the table at another woman, another survivor who is clearly distraught.

CARDINALE: Do you want to be here for this? Is it too hard?



ROTT: Cardinale pauses, gathers her thoughts and continues.


ROTT: The people that were there at the shooting last December are protective of each other like this. They know how reliving moments of that day can trigger the trauma of it all. For Cardinale, it's thinking about that bathroom in the Inland Regional Center.

CARDINALE: Everything I was thinking about when I was in that bathroom was I'm going to die and my kids are going to get separated because they have different fathers, and they're never going to see each other again, and I don't know what to do with that.

ROTT: For Britain, it's the little details that he remembers, the floor vibrating with each shot like an earthquake, the shock on his co-workers' faces, the shell casings.

BRITAIN: Just a rainbow of shell casings floating to the ground.

ROTT: Things he wants to forget but can't.

BRITAIN: The dreams keep a lot of it real.

ROTT: Britain and Cardinale are part of a larger group of survivors who are trying to get better from physical injuries and emotional trauma, a task they say made harder every time they see the shooters' faces in the news.

CARDINALE: We all know who the shooters were.

ROTT: Syed Rizwan Farook was a co-worker. He and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, were killed in a gun battle with police. But the investigation into them is ongoing. There's also a trial pending against Enrique Marquez Jr., a friend who prosecutors say, among other things, helped provide materials for the plot. Another challenge for the survivors is an ongoing dispute with the county of San Bernardino. Cardinale and Britain say that treatments like counselling sessions, antidepressant medications and even surgeries aren't being approved by their workers' compensation program. The county, in an email, says it's doing all it can. But the dispute is just another impediment keeping people in the city of San Bernardino itself from moving forward.

PETE AGUILAR: I used to tell people my district was halfway between Los Angeles and Palm Springs.

ROTT: Pete Aguilar is the U.S. representative for the district that includes San Bernardino.

AGUILAR: After December 2, I could just tell people that I was from San Bernardino.

ROTT: And that was enough. People knew, like they do for Littleton or Newtown. Aguilar, though, is defiant.

AGUILAR: We will not be defined by this tragedy.

ROTT: San Bernardino, by Aguilar's admission, is a work in progress. The city is facing severe economic problems and rising crime rates, troubles that plagued the town long before the attack. And that's where Brian Levin sees hope.

BRIAN LEVIN: We're a better community now even though we're hurt.

ROTT: Levin is a professor of criminal justice at Cal State University, San Bernardino. He's friends with the families of some of the victims and works with the community's faith leaders. And he says the attack brought all of them together at memorials and community meetings in a unity of shock and shared pain.

LEVIN: It will always be a part of our history. But here's the thing - so will the heroics of those police officers and first responders and medical staff and the grace of the families.

ROTT: Levin says that's what people should focus on this anniversary and in the others to follow. Nathan Rott, NPR News, San Bernardino. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.