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At least two attackers opened fire at a holiday party for county employees in San Bernardino, Calif., on Wednesday, killing at least 14 people and injuring 17 others in the deadliest mass shooting in the United States since the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre three years ago this month.
Hours after the shooting, law enforcement officials said two attackers — a man and a woman — had been killed and a third suspect had been detained after fleeing from police.
A senior U.S. law enforcement official identified one male suspect as Syed Farook, 28. The official said that it appears based on witness statements that two people entered building, including Farook, while another acted as a getaway driver. Farook was not under FBI investigation, the official said.
The motive for the shooting remained unclear throughout the evening, but law enforcement officials said they could not rule out terrorism.
“One of the big questions that will come up repeatedly is ‘Is this terrorism?’ ” said David Bowdich, assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles field office. “And I am still not willing to say we know that for sure. We are definitely making some movements that it is a possibility . . . but we don’t know that yet and we’re not willing to go down that road yet.”
The FBI has determined that one of the attackers worked at the Inland Regional Center, the social services agency where the shooting occurred, according to a U.S. law enforcement official.
Public records show that a man named Syed Farook works for the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health as a health inspector; the department hosted the holiday event Wednesday at the center.
The mass shooting Wednesday erupted at a complex that houses a conference center and a facility that serves people with developmental disabilities. It spawned a tense, confusing and terrifying day in Southern California as the attackers, dressed in what police called tactical gear, fled the scene and eluded capture for hours.
Police eventually spotted the vehicle on a residential street and soon engaged in a frantic shootout that left the SUV riddled with bullets. Multiple items were thrown from the car during the police pursuit, according to law enforcement authorities. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said it had recovered two rifles and two handguns and is conducting “urgent traces” to determine where the weapons were bought.
Two suspects were killed during this shootout and one officer injured with what was described as a non-life threatening injury, Jarrod Burguan, chief of the San Bernardino Police Department, said during an evening news conference.
For hours on Wednesday afternoon, the number of suspects and their locations remained unclear. Earlier in the day, San Bernardino Police Department spokesperson Vicki Cervantes said two suspects were “being dealt with” and it appeared there could still be one on the loose.
A third person was seen running away from the center, and it is unclear if that person was involved in the shooting today, Burguan said at a later news conference. That person was in custody late Wednesday afternoon, he said. Authorities were still working on seeing if there were others involved.
Police had also been told that before the shooting, there was one person who left the holiday party at the complex after some kind of incident, Burguan said, but he said it was unclear if this was related to the shooting.
“Somebody did leave, there was some type of dispute or something when somebody left that party,” Burguan said. “But we have no idea if those are the people that came back.”
Witnesses reported seeing three people in black clothing using long guns akin to assault weapons. Recent mass shootings in the United States have typically involved a lone gunman, often someone mentally unstable or consumed with rage. Multiple-shooter events are extremely rare: According to a recent FBI report on “active shooter incidents” between 2000 and 2013, all but two involved a single shooter.
Earlier in the day, officials said they did not know a motive for the shooting or know the identities of any of the suspects. But Burguan said that “at minimum, we have a domestic terrorist-type situation that occurred here.”
Late Wednesday, the greater Los Angeles area office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations held a press conference in response to the shooting.
No one from CAIR gave the name of the suspect during the press conference, but Ojaala Ahmad, the organization’s communication’s director, said that the conference was in response to media reports that a man named Syed Farook is a suspect.
“I cannot express how sad I am today,” said Farhan Khan, who was introduced as the brother in law of the suspect.
Khan said he spoke to his brother-in-law a week ago, but would not answer other questions or give the man’s name. He would not comment on whether his brother-in-law is a religious person.
“I have absolutely no idea,” he said. “I am in shock myself.”
— SB County Sheriff (@sbcountysheriff) December 3, 2015
The shooting was the latest spasm of deadly gun violence in the country, and it occurred less than five days after a gunman in Colorado attacked a Planned Parenthood clinic, killing three people and injuring nine others.
Burguan described the number of people killed as a preliminary total, adding that some of the people wounded in the shooting have serious injuries. The number of people injured had risen to 17 shortly after 3 p.m., according to Cervantes.
Marybeth Feild, president of the Inland Regional Center’s board of directors, said masked gunmen entered a first floor conference room inside of one of the three buildings in the complex.
The San Bernardino County Public Health department had rented out the room to host a holiday party, complete with Christmas trees and other decorations, said Feild, who was not in the building when the gunfire erupted. The room holds as many as 250 people, though it was unclear how many people were at the party.
“We don’t know who the gunmen are, or why this happened. It’s devastating,” Feild said in a telephone interview. “I just don’t know how we’re going to recover from this. It’s just overwhelming. Why would anyone target a social service center?”
In a statement, San Bernardino County said it had ” taken precautions to protect the public and County employees,” sending employees working in the city of San Bernardino home and adding security to county facilities.
“Words can’t describe how saddened and horrified we are about this tragedy,” the county said in the statement.
The San Bernardino City Unified School District said its schools and offices, locked down Wednesday in response to the shooting, had reopened, dismissing most students at the normal time.
The shooting was first reported by the fire department shortly after 11 a.m. Pacific time, and it brought hordes of law enforcement officials to San Bernardino, a city of more than 215,000 about an hour east of Los Angeles.
“Our preliminary information is that they came prepared,” Burguan said. “They were dressed and equipped in a way that indicate they were prepared.”
He added that the attackers had “long guns, not handguns,” but said he did not have specific information available yet on the type of guns used.
Terry Petit said his daughter works at the Inland Regional Center, and that he got a text from her saying she was hiding in the building after hearing gunshots, according to the Associated Press.
Petit “choked back tears as he read the texts for reporters outside the center,” the news service reported. He told reporters that his daughter wrote: “People shot. In the office waiting for cops. Pray for us. I am locked in an office.”
Police used a robot to detonate some sort of “device” found at the scene, while investigators used a battering ram to get into the complex, the Los Angeles Times reported.
A neighbor of Syed Farook in Corona, Calif., said that police came to her home Wednesday and asked her to call them if anyone arrived. So far, she hasn’t seen anyone at the house, and the driveway remains empty.
The neighbor, who asked not be named, said Farook and his wife moved in about a year ago, but she doesn’t know much about them. They have a daughter who is about 1 year old.
“They’re very quiet, not very friendly,” she said. “I only talked to them to say ‘Hello, how are you?’”
She said she was surprised to hear that Farook was named in connection with the shooting in San Bernardino.
“It’s somewhat unnerving to think that someone who lives next to you might be involved in that,” she said.
Nichole Ramirez, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of Orange and San Bernardino Counties, said the shootings “were in no way connected to Planned Parenthood.” A Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs was the site of the mass shooting last week.
Ramirez said the scene was four miles from the health-care facility. “Our staff and patients are all safe right now,” she said.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims’ families and everyone affected by the brutal attack,” Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. (D) said in a statement Wednesday. Brown said flags in the state capital would be lowered to half-staff in honor of the victims and their families.
Nuri Freeman, a vendor at the Waterman Discount Mall in San Bernardino, said police evacuated the mall shortly after 1 p.m.
“We were outside for about 15 minutes, then they let everybody back in,” said Freeman, who works at Lia’s Got Good Cense, which sells imported body oils.
Live video from the scene showed dozens of people exiting the facility after the gunfire and being patted down by authorities while a triage center was being set up.
Paul Lacroix said his son was able to escape after the shooting began, according to the Associated Press. Lacroix told reporters that his son said in a text that alarms started going off as word spread of gunfire and that they were ordered to exit the building “with their arms up and nothing in their hands.”
The owner of nearby Coronel Tires said in a telephone interview that the entire area was locked down.
“It’s covered,” said Coronel, who declined to give his first name. He said he saw dozens of fire trucks and possibly hundreds of police cars as well as police helicopters overhead.
Agents from the FBI, Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations and the ATF headed to the scene of the shooting to aid local law enforcement, authorities said.
The 10 special agents from the ATF included ballistics experts and explosive specialists as well as two explosive detection canines, said Meredith K. Davis, an ATF special agent.
She said that in addition to the 14 people killed, others had major wounds and there were “walking wounded” after the shooting.
Victims are still being interviewed “to try to ascertain the number of shooters,” she said.
Arrowhead Regional Medical Center said it was treating six patients from the scene. Loma Linda University Medical Center said four adult patients had been taken to the hospital, three of whom were in the operating room. The hospital expects to receive at least three additional patients, a spokeswoman said.
The hospital had said it was expecting an influx of patients after the shooting and went on standby alert for potential victims and called in additional staff, said spokesman Larry Becker.
Law enforcement taking statements from people who were evacuated from Inland Regional Center. pic.twitter.com/pUeGfcAsWu
— Paloma Esquivel (@palomaesquivel) December 2, 2015
President Obama was briefed about the shooting by Lisa Monaco, his homeland security adviser, according to the White House.
In an interview with CBS News co-host Norah O’Donnell at the White House, Obama emphasized that while it is too early to determine a motive behind the shooting, it provides further evidence for why background checks on gun buyers need to be expanded.
He noted that “for those who are concerned about terrorism of, you know, some may be aware of the fact that we have a no-fly list where people can’t get on planes, but those same people who we don’t allow to fly could go into a store right now in the United States and buy a firearm, and there’s nothing that we can do to stop them.”
The leading Democratic presidential candidates reacted to the shooting with calls to stop gun violence, while much of the Republican field offered thoughts and prayers to victims, first responders and others affected by the killings but did not mention guns laws or gun violence more generally.
The Federal Aviation Administration said it put temporary flight restrictions into place over the city at the request of local law enforcement, according to a spokeswoman.
[Martha Groves in San Bernardino and Adam Goldman, Peter Holley, Lindsey Bever, J. Freedom du Lac, Niraj Chokshi, Kevin Sullivan, Juliet Eilperin, Ellen Nakashima, Sari Horwitz and Sarah Larimer in Washington contributed to this report.]