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‘I’ve never witnessed something so sad in my life’: Stories of the Calif. shooting victims

Residents throughout San Bernardino and the surrounding communities filled the seats at San Manuel stadium to pay their respects and pray for healing. (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)

The relatives waited in the gym all day for word on their loved ones. Every hour or so on Wednesday, a bus would pull up to the community center, and survivors from the shooting in San Bernardino spilled out into the open arms of their relieved family.

And with each bus and joyous reunion, the crowd of roughly 100 waiting relatives grew smaller; until by the end of the night, only 20-some remained. They sat on bleachers of the indoor gym that authorities had turned into a command center, and tried to reassure one another that hope still remained.

What little was left, however, disappeared when an officer approached the group and announced with solemn regret: There were no more buses left.

The authorities offered a list of people who had been injured and sent to hospitals. Then, one by one, they took the relatives who remained into the community room’s classrooms to break the news.

“They were very caring. They sat each one down in a little circle with a chaplain and social worker,” said the Rev. Kathleen Dowell, who spent all day waiting with relatives in the gym. “But I’ve never witnessed something so sad in my life.”

Among those killed were a woman who had fled Iran to escape Islamic extremism, a father of six, a man who had recently returned from retirement to work and the manager of a coffee shop where the shooting took place — 14 souls in all. After the San Bernardino County medical examiner’s staff worked all through the night to make official the grim news, representatives of the county sheriff’s office visited each of the families in person to formally notify them.

“This shooting has caused each victim’s family, friends and co-workers, along with the first responders, to suffer an enormous personal tragedy. We must stand strong and offer support to each individual affected by this senseless attack,” said Sheriff John McMahon.

One of those killed was Benneta Betbadal, 46, who was born in Iran in 1969 but fled to the United States when she was 18 “to escape Islamic extremism and the persecution of Christians that followed the Iranian Revolution,” according to a GoFundMe site set up by her family.

“It is the ultimate irony,” the site also said, “that her life would be stolen from her that day by what appears to be the same type of extremism that she fled so many years ago.”

Betbadal, who holds a degree in chemistry from from California Polytechnic State University, worked as an inspector for the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health. On Wednesday, she was excited to give a presentation to her co-workers and supervisors at their annual meeting, the site said. “She loved her job, her community, and her country,” it said. “Her greatest love, however, was for her husband, her children, and her large extended family.”

She is survived by her husband, Arlen Verdehyou, who is a police officer, and three children, ages 10, 12 and 15.

Another who died was Nicholas Thalasinos, 52, who attended Dowell’s church, Shiloh Messianic Congregation. Fellow parishioners described Thalasinos as a big but gentle man with a great passion for his faith.

Here's a look at some of the most notable U.S. mass shootings. (Video: Alice Li/The Washington Post)

He had just emerged from an incredible three-year period in his life, friends say, during which he converted to the Messianic Jewish movement of Christianity. He had lost 100 pounds after struggling with diabetes and recently had a possibly cancerous growth removed.

Most poignantly, however, friends say, he had just renewed his vows with his wife, Jennifer, in a Jewish-style marriage ceremony after being married to her for more than a decade, said Olga Fry, the photographer for the ceremony.

Thalasinos was an environmental health inspector just like the suspected shooter and had worked with him in the past, Dowell said. His Facebook account featured a Star of David in its profile picture, and he frequently posted online about Israel and politics.

Dowell, who spent all Wednesday with Thalosinos’s side, said authorities at the community center gym asked relatives for descriptions to help identify the bodies because they needed to be left undisturbed for investigators.

Dowell said Thalasinos’s wife responded with a wistful smile saying “He’ll be really easy identify.” Thalasinos had left home that morning as he almost always did, she said, wearing his signature suspenders.

Another of those killed, Damian Meins, had retired in 2010, after 26 years as a public servant in Riverside County, only to come out of retirement recently to take a job in environmental health for San Bernardino County, according to an e-mail sent to employees at his Riverside agency.

He was also a physical education and after-care teacher at St. Catherine of Alexandria Catholic School in Riverside, where he was known for playing Santa each year.

“I will always remember Damian as a caring, jovial man with a warm smile and a hearty laugh,” Juan Perez, director of the agency, told The Washington Post in an e-mail. “A bright light has been extinguished from our world in a most tragic way.”

In an interview near the Meins house, a neighbor said Meins was known to be meticulous about his yardwork and hanging lights at Christmas. He was married and had two daughters. His wife, Trenna, is the principal of Sacred Heart Parish School in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.

Within hours of his death, friends of Michael Raymond Wetzel had set up a fundraising site for his bereaved family, which includes six young children, according to Web site and a statement posted by his church.

Both the church and fundraising site show a family photo of the Wetzels — Michael beaming in a gray sweatshirt, Renee with an infant girl on her hip, the two of them surrounded by two other young daughters and three young sons.

He was a supervising environmental health specialist for San Bernardino County, according to his LinkedIn profile, supervising the county's land-use protection program.

On the day of the shooting, Wetzel’s wife, Renee wrote that her husband “was in a meeting and a shooter came in. There are multiple people dead/shot. I can’t get ahold of him,” according to the fundraising site, which as of 3:30 p.m. Eastern time had raised nearly $42,000.

“Approximately 8 grueling hours later, Renee learned that her husband Michael Raymond Wetzel had been killed,” wrote those running the fundraising site.

After 22 hours of roller-coaster emotions and conflicting reports about his boyfriend’s status, Ryan Reyes told Los Angeles Times that he had learned definitively that his boyfriend, Daniel Kaufman, 42, had been killed in the shooting.

Kaufman ran the coffee shop at the Inland Regional Center, where the shooting occurred.

Reyes told the Times that they had been together for three years and had a mutual love of horror movies. He said Kaufman loved talking to others, sometimes even backing up the line at the grocery store checkout.

In recent years, Reyes said, Kaufman deliberately avoided getting a driver’s license, so that he and Reyes could keep riding to and from work everyday.

Before the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Office released names of all the victims Thursday evening, Abraham Amanios said, the extended family of his brother Isaac Amanios, 60, was gathered in their Fontana home, waiting for the dreaded confirmation he had been killed.

Isaac Amanios had left Eritrea to join his brother in the United States about 15 years ago, For the last 10 of those years, he worked as an inspector for the county public health department, the brother said.

Amanios was sitting next to Syed Farook at a table in the conference room before Farook left, and according to person at the event, he was the first to be shot when Farook and his wife returned and began their assault.

“Isaac was sitting on a bench outside at break time,” said Chris Nwadike. “[Farook] started with those close to the door.”

Amanios and his wife, who is a registered nurse, lived in Fontana, Calif., about 20 minutes from San Bernardino. There, they raised three children, who are now adults.

“Yesterday when this happened to the center, I didn’t even pay attention until late in the afternoon,” said his brother, 70.

Now, they fear the worst.

“It’s very unlikely that he survived,” Abraham said. “The thing is that most of the employees of that department were taken for examination. I don’t think they would keep them this long.”

Asked whether he thought Isaac had died, Abraham said: “Absolutely.”

They have gone through “the process of denial,” he said. “And then finally we have to accept.”

The other victims were Shannon Johnson, 45, Aurora Godoy, 26, Harry Bowman, 46, Yvette Velasco, 27, Sierra Clayborn, 27, Robert Adams, 40, Tin Nguyen, 31, and Juan Espinoza, 50.

Phillip reported from San Bernardino. Alice Crites, Julie Tate, Stephanie McCrummen and Martha Groves in Washington contributed to this report.