‘Pray for us’: Calls, texts relay horror of California mass shooting

san bernardino shooting witness dad_00000209.jpg
Daughter texts dad from site of California shooting
00:46 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Denise Peraza called her sister after she was shot in the back by masked gunmen

Terry Pettit received text messages from his daughter at the shooting scene

County health department was holding holiday event at center

San Bernardino, California CNN  — 

Denise Peraza wasn’t sure if the phone call to her sister might be her last. She had just been shot in the back.

“I just want to tell you that I love you,” Peraza told Stephanie Baldwin through tears.

“And then she said she had to go and she hung up,” Baldwin told CNN affiliate KABC.

Peraza – who was treated at a local hospital and is expected to be OK – was one of the people inside the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California, Wednesday morning when two people barged into a holiday party and opened fire, killing at least 14 people and injuring 17 others.

“As soon as the gunfire started, everyone dropped to the floor and they were underneath desks, and she was trying to shield herself with a chair, along with a man next to her,” said Baldwin. “Then, all of a sudden, she said she just felt (the bullet) going through her back.”

Peraza, like others at the party, worked for the County Department of Environmental Health and was only at Inland Regional Center – an agency for people with developmental disabilities – for the holiday event, her relatives said.

Peraza’s ordeal was just one of many that played out through hushed phone calls and hurried texts after police said shooter Syed Farook – who was at the party and left after some kind of confrontation – and Tashfeen Malik attacked the partygoers.

Survivors, relatives and other witnesses spoke of the harrowing moments.

‘It was horrific’

Social worker Melinda Rivas was working on the third floor of Building 2 of Inland when a co-worker came running down the hallway shouting that a shooter was downstairs.

“We all started running and screaming,” she said.

Rivas believed the shooting was in Building 3, where there’s an auditorium that’s not usually locked and where public health employees were holding a Christmas party. The auditorium is frequently rented out to outside agencies, she said.

Rivas and 46 other employees were told to go into a conference room, she said. “There’s 47 of us, and we were told just to lay down, sit down, comfort each other and pray with each other.”

She called her twin adult children, both 21, and told them about the shooter and to “be safe.”

“It was horrific,” Rivas said of the experience.

About 20 minutes later, authorities told the 47 people in the conference room to come out – with their hands raised.

“We were all just scared to leave with our hands up,” she said.

More than six hours later, after being interviewed by authorities, Rivas and scores of Inland employees were bused to the Rudy Hernandez Community Center to make a final checkout with officials.

On the bus ride to the center, a co-worker recounted to several people on the bus how he saw two gunmen enter Building 3 and begin firing on everybody without saying a word, said Rivas, who added that the co-worker’s shirt was stained with blood.

“Pray for us”

All Terry Pettit could do was worry as he stood near the offices of Inland Regional Center.

News of shootings was spreading fast and all Pettit knew about his daughter inside the building came from her text messages on his cell phone.

“Shooting at my work. People shot.”

“Pray for us. I am locked in an office.”

Pettit wept for his daughter as he spoke Wednesday afternoon with reporters. Sirens blared in the background.

“She’s been hiding,” he said.

‘There’s a shooter @ work’

When the shots ran out at the Inland Regional Center, text messaging seemed the safest way to communicate.

Marcos Aguilera, 39, of Riverside, received a message from his wife, a social worker helping babies diagnosed with autism.

“There’s a shooter @ work,” Elaine Aguilera wrote.

“Where r u at,” “R cops there?” and “R u safe,” he wrote back.

“Locked in an office with 3 other people,” she texted, and then added, “I love you.”

Marcos Aguilera

Aguilera, who works in the finance department for the Riverside Superior Court, left work and sped to his wife’s office.

Aguilera said his wife heard the gunfire that rang through the three-building complex near the Santa Ana River, with the San Bernardino Mountains in the distance.

“She heard the shots and (other people) crying,” he said.

When someone pulled the fire alarm, many of the roughly 200 people at the facility became confused, Aguilera said.

A SWAT team eventually rescued his wife and two other coworkers. At first she thought they were the attackers. As she walked out, she saw multiple bodies on the floor, Aguilera said.

“I’ve been wondering who would shoot up a building like that … someone who’s helping kids,” he said. “I just don’t know. People are crazy nowadays.”

Rudy Peralta got a text message from his wife, Christina Gonzalez-Peralta, another social worker at Inland Regional Center.

She tweeted, “Check the news. Not sure if we’re having an active shooter.”

Gonzalez-Peralta and 12 coworkers found a file room as refuge, and they felt safe there because it was not well-known, Rudy Peralta said. But when someone suggested that they move furniture to barricade the door, the other employees were too terrified to move.

“Everyone was too scared. ‘I said keep quiet and don’t make noise,’” Rudy Peralta said, recounting his text message to his wife.

The 13 hid for more than half an hour until authorities rescued them.

As he recounted his wife’s story, Rudy Peralta said he had just heard on the radio that the suspects were in a standoff with authorities. “I heard they caught them,” Rudy Peralta added. “I’m anxious to see her and make sure she is OK.”

Then his wife called.

“That’s the first time I talked to her,” said her visibly happy husband.

“She just feels relieved now,” said Peralta. “You hear it on the news, but you never think it would hit so close to home.”

What those near shootout saw, heard

A swarm of police and SWAT officers looked for those behind the massacre, focusing on a six-block residential area of San Bernardino.

Mahir, who asked his first name only be used, told CNN’s Erin Burnett about what it was like to be near the police shootout with possible suspects.

“We didn’t see much of anything. We just heard so many gunshots, it’s crazy,” he said. “Right now, everything seems to be cooled down. We just saw so many SWAT and cops and cop cars, at least a dozen or so.”

Norman Rodgers, who lives on the street where the shootout occurred, said he was in his back yard checking on plants when he heard a “barrage of bullets.” He estimated that to be between 100 and 200 rounds.

“That got me in the house real quick. On the floor. In the den. There were policemen everywhere.”

Alan Ayers was catching a bus in the area when he heard the shooting.

“It was rapid boom, boom, boom, boom,” he told CNN affiliate KCBS. “I was behind the building, and I heard all the shots.”

‘We thought it was a fire drill’

The executive director of the Inland Regional Center, Lavinia Johnson, told CNN when the shooting started staff and clients remained in locked offices until police arrived.

“As far as we know, we’re all OK,” she said, adding that center personnel were gathered in groups at a golf course across the street.

Johnson said a fire alarm was activated at the time of the shooting. Some people began evacuating.

“We thought it was a fire drill,” she said. “We started to exit. … We were told to go back into the building.”

‘Active shooter on site’

Scott and Deborah Murphy received a flurry of text messages from their daughter Megan, a processing clerk at the center.

“Active shooter on site. We’re all locked in offices and on the floor. Please pray for us,” Megan Murphy wrote.

“So, as a parent, as a father, that’s kind of like the worst thing that you can have come across your phone,” Scott Murphy told CNN.

“Then it was followed a couple minutes later with, ‘SWAT team is on site trying to secure the building. I’m in a tiny room with a bunch of people. We’re freaking out. Please pray for us.’”

Later, the Murphys waited for their daughter to be interviewed by investigators.

“She’s really sick,” Deborah Murphy said. “She’s dizzy. She’s not feeling good … Hopefully, they’ll get her processed and we can get her back in our arms.”

Triage stations

The area surrounding the center resembled a war zone, with dozens of people walking out of the building with their hands in the air and lines of heavily armed officers aiming their weapons. Some of the wounded were taken out on stretchers. Triage stations were set up outside.

Kristin Krause, who works at a charter school about a mile away, said the staff and 400 students were on lockdown.

The students were secure, she said.

“We have all gates locked. We are doing everything we can to make sure our kids are protected.”

CNN’s Ashley Fantz, Catherine E. Shoichet, Alberto Moya, Phil Gast, Melanie Whitley and Deborah Feyerick contributed to this report. Michael Martinez reported from San Bernardino and Ray Sanchez wrote from New York.