THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — Volunteer chaplains hovered outside the crime scene Saturday afternoon when the trio of friends settled beneath the caution tape and started assembling. They had white computer paper, permanent markers, black electrical tape and 12 U.S. flags — one for each victim of the mass shooting inside Borderline Bar and Grill last week.
It had been four days since the midterm elections, three days since seven of their friends were gunned down at their favorite bar and two days since catastrophic twin blazes had formed a ring of fire around this Southern California community. The second tragedy of the week had somehow dwarfed the first. Outside Borderline there was a memorial, but it was scant: a floral cross and a small group of votive candles on the street corner.
Nothing about it felt personal, not yet.
Garrett Tingus, 21, thought to bring the flags. Hannah Largent, 21, had the craft supplies in her trunk, along with the rest of her belongings, because the fires had forced her to evacuate. And Kaitlyn Maki, 22, cried as she wrote the names of friends whom she had joyfully and innocently joined in a group picture on Wednesday night, just minutes before a gunman stormed the dance floor and killed them.
All three are Borderline regulars, and all three were trying to navigate the process of grieving a deadly mass shooting at the same time their home state was burning in the north and the south. So they did what they could, taping the flags and the makeshift name placards on a short wall at the edge of the police blockade.
“They would have done it for me,” Tingus said.
The nation’s mass shootings have begun to follow a somber and common protocol: the crime, the mayhem of the moment and the sobriety of the body count, the name of the shooter, the names of the victims, the vigils, the funerals, the questions that rarely produce answers.
But what does that process look like in the middle of a natural disaster?
“This grieving process that we had tried to help with is stopped,” said Kalin Woodward, 21, a senior studying political and environmental science at nearby California Lutheran University. A member of student government, Woodward and her peers started planning vigils and gatherings for those affected by the shooting almost immediately. Then the Hill and Woolsey fires rapidly spread throughout the area, and nearly everything was postponed indefinitely.
Woodward visited the shooting site for the first time Saturday afternoon on her way home from dropping off supplies for victims of the wildfires. A Borderline regular, Woodward said she wasn’t at the venue Wednesday night. She lives just a few blocks away, though, and her mother heard the gunshots.
Outside Borderline, she got on her knees and prayed for healing as her younger brother stroked her hair. The volunteer chaplains, there with the Billy Graham organization, prayed with her, too.
“There’s not much you can say; that’s the thing,” Woodward said. “You’re at a loss. Do you pray that it doesn’t happen again? Eventually you just pray for it to hurt less.”
Public vigils were downsized to private hangouts, where friends drank beers and toasted those no longer there and recalled story after story about them. Sharing the memories made it feel as though they could keep those who died alive just a bit longer.
“There’s nothing better in this situation than being with your Borderline family,” Largent said.
The corner of South Moorpark Road and Rolling Oaks Drive has become a place for reunions. Survivors retrieved their cars, still parked where they had been when the gunfire began. Many remained without their cellphones, abandoned on the dance floor. Their bar tabs were still open, which meant they didn’t have their credit cards, either.
They joked, in a macabre way, that they were still good for their bills.
On Saturday afternoon, after Tingus, Largent and Maki taped up their flags and placards, Ben Ginsburg checked in as he picked up his car. Because of the fires, it had taken him several days to return. He had escaped the shooting with Maki, the two of them running to a hill, where Ginsburg called his parents and lent Maki his phone to call hers.
By the time Ginsburg returned Sunday morning, the modest memorial had transformed into a robust display. A man from Illinois who makes wooden memorials to honor the dead after mass shootings had driven through the day and night to bring 12 white wooden crosses here. They stood in front of Tingus’s American flags, adorned with hearts, angel wings and names.
Ginsburg gathered with hundreds of others, including some who survived the Borderline shooting and the massacre at a country music festival in Las Vegas last year. Beside mounds of flowers, cowboy boots and bottles of liquor with shot glasses, one woman who was crying left a bottle of beer. One man wore a shirt that said “58 empty bar stools,” a reference to the 58 people who died in the Las Vegas shooting, the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
The Billy Graham chaplains watched the memorial evolve before their eyes, and they offered to pray with those who gathered. But Ginsburg, who is Jewish, gay and leans more politically liberal, said he hasn’t found the same kind of comfort in such public gestures.
So many mass shootings to grieve. Ginsburg said he was still struggling to come to grips with the mass shooting that left 11 people dead inside a synagogue in Pittsburgh just days before this one.
In the wake of that shooting, he visited his rabbi and shared how frustrated he was by the calls to action framed by “next time.” The shooting in Pittsburgh was the “500th example of next time,” he remembers saying, and his rabbi told him that it will get worse before it gets better.
“None of us could have imagined that it could happen again a week later in a much more personal way,” Ginsburg said. “This is not the kind of club I ever wanted to be part of.”
On top of that, the threat of fire has kept him on edge, too.
“It feels like I haven’t been able to relax, because immediately afterwards I was thinking, ‘What if I have to evacuate?’ ” he said. “Now I’m packing a bag.”
By Sunday night, the fires had passed and the roads had reopened, allowing survivors like Ginsburg to finally grieve in Thousand Oaks the way thousands of others have after other mass shootings across the country.
He is unsure about what should come next.
“Part of the healing process for me will be some kind of action,” he said. “I don’t know what form that will take. I’m not normally an activist, but a lot changed in an hour for me.”
He doesn’t believe there should be blanket calls for gun control after all mass shootings. Every case is different, he said, and in this case, people he knows were killed.
“I would challenge somebody to look at me directly and say that their right to own and bear a firearm is more valuable than my life,” he said.
For now, he’s going to keep saying the prayer, Birkat HaGomel, that is now bookmarked on all his devices: “Basically, what it says is that I’m thankful to be alive.”