‘Non­stop chaos’

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY KATIE METTLER AND KATIE ZEZ­IMA katie.mettler@wash­post.com katie.zez­ima@wash­post.com An­nie Gowen and Tony Bi­a­sotti con­tributed to this re­port.

Twin tragedies of mas­sacre and fire jolt Thou­sand Oaks res­i­dents.

thou­sand oaks, calif. — In a 24-hour span, Sgt. Eric Buschow worked two tragedies and slept no more than two hours.

A pub­lic in­for­ma­tion of­fi­cer for the Ven­tura County Sher­iff ’s Of­fice, Buschow re­sponded late Wed­nes­day to a shoot­ing at Border­line Bar and Grill that killed 12 peo­ple. He worked the scene all day, as the FBI ar­rived and the vic­tims’ names be­came pub­lic, be­fore fi­nally go­ing to bed at 7 p.m. Thurs­day.

Two hours later, he was awake again. The rag­ing Woolsey Fire, which started that af­ter­noon and rapidly grew, had crept too close to his fam­ily’s home. They were forced to evac­u­ate.

Thou­sand Oaks is grap­pling with dual tragedies that struck within hours of each other, tak­ing on more trauma and grief than a place could or should bear. Af­ter the shoot­ing at Border­line, a pop­u­lar coun­try-mu­sic bar, many res­i­dents said they stayed up late, wait­ing to hear news. They went to bed phys­i­cally and emo­tion­ally ex­hausted Thurs­day, only to be waked in the mid­dle of the night by the blare of emer­gency alerts from their phones and fran­tic knocks at the door from neigh­bors. They needed to get out, they were told.

“Any one of th­ese in­ci­dents would be a sig­nif­i­cant prob­lem at any time,” Buschow said, “but to have them ac­tu­ally all con­verge at once is just un­prece­dented for us.”

This city of nearly 130,000 peo­ple is large enough to feel big, but small enough where many peo­ple are fa­mil­iar faces. Red Span­ish roofs top homes and shop­ping cen­ters in this fam­ily-friendly city, which has dozens of parks and play­grounds.

On Fri­day, the nor­mally pic­turesque town was sur­rounded by smoke.

Buschow and his fam­ily had to sleep in a car parked in a com­mu­nity col­lege park­ing lot. The fire threat­ened many of the evac­u­a­tion shel­ters nearby, and ho­tels across Thou­sand Oaks were full of re­porters and area res­i­dents seek­ing safety.

When the sun came up, his wife and chil­dren re­turned to their house — which sur­vived the fire — and he went to work.

Hun­dreds of per­son­nel from more than 30 law en­force­ment agen­cies across the state have con­verged in the Thou­sand Oaks area, first to help with the shoot­ing, then with the fires.

The FBI was there to in­ves­ti­gate the shoot­ing in a scene de­scribed as one from hell. The agency’s ef­fort was com­pli­cated by fears that wild­fire de­bris and smoke might con­tam­i­nate ev­i­dence from the shoot­ing. Pa­trons threw stools through win­dows to es­cape, leav­ing be­hind holes in the walls that the FBI boarded up, Buschow said.

There are con­cerns that the fire could burn to­ward the bar. Buschow said law en­force­ment was look­ing into ways to mit­i­gate the risk, and there is a con­tin­gency plan to keep the scene and the agents who are work­ing it safe.

Af­ter work­ing all day Thurs­day, the FBI agents re­tired to their ho­tel in nearby Agoura Hills, only to be evac­u­ated as the Woolsey Fire, one of sev­eral wild­fires burn­ing in Cal­i­for­nia, raged to­ward them. The agents fled, Buschow said. They had nowhere to go, so they also slept in their cars.

“But you know what? At 5 a.m., they were back at the Border­line do­ing their work,” he said.

The Woolsey Fire jumped High­way 101, a main thor­ough­fare that con­nects com­mu­ni­ties through­out the val­ley, clog­ging trans­porta­tion ar­ter­ies and de­lay­ing for hours the first re­spon­ders who had been sent in to re­lieve peo­ple like Buschow.

“It’s ab­so­lutely been chaotic. Non­stop chaos,” Buschow said.

He added, “We also have a fu­neral to plan for a fallen sergeant.” Sgt. Ron Helus, a 30-year vet­eran of the sher­iff ’s of­fice, was among those killed at the bar.

About three miles from the Border­line, of­fi­cials had to re­pur­pose the Thou­sand Oaks teen cen­ter. On Thurs­day, it was where rel­a­tives and friends of peo­ple miss­ing at Border­line were told whether their loved ones were among the 12 who were killed. Peo­ple cried and hugged and prayed. A man told the world through sobs that his beloved son was dead and that his last words to his child were, “Son, I love you.” Mem­bers of the clergy streamed in the front doors, and a small ther­apy horse shuf­fled be­tween the bar and cen­ter.

About 12 hours later, the com­plex re­opened its doors, this time to house res­i­dents flee­ing the wild­fire. A gym­na­sium was filled with green cots. A woman on oxy­gen lay on one of the cots, a dog by her side. Peo­ple wore green masks to pro­tect them­selves from the smoke. Oth­ers helped them­selves to wa­ter and food: muffins, gra­nola bars, fruit, crois­sants and blue­berry scones.

At the se­nior cen­ter next door, a group of mostly el­derly res­i­dents sat at long ta­bles and watched tele­vi­sion. A small fire broke out on a hill near the cen­ter Fri­day morn­ing but was quickly doused by fire­fight­ers.

Pa­tri­cia Reynolds, 57, sat on metal bleach­ers in the teen cen­ter’s gym with her daugh­ter Lyn­d­say Witkoski, 25, and her neigh­bor Mary Ann Best, 90.

“It’s been a roller coaster for me emo­tion­ally,” she said through tears. “My heart aches for ev­ery­one.”

She had stayed up un­til 4 a.m. Thurs­day watch­ing news of the Border­line shoot­ing. At night, her phone buzzed: She needed to evac­u­ate her condo com­plex. Her hus­band and son were at work and her daugh­ter was at col­lege in Northridge, a Los An­ge­les neigh­bor­hood that is about 35 miles north­east.

“I didn’t know what to do,” Witkoski said through sobs. She was al­ready hurt­ing from the shoot­ing and felt lost. “I de­cided to come home re­gard­less be­cause I didn’t know what to do.”

Sev­en­teen-year-old Karissa Herbert knew what she needed to do. She and her friends came to the cen­ter car­ry­ing pack­ages with tooth­brushes, de­odor­ant and snacks for the evac­uees.

The se­niors at Rancho Cam­pana High School in Ca­mar­illo, just west of Thou­sand Oaks, knew peo­ple who sur­vived the Border­line bar shoot­ing. The Border­line is one of the few places in the area where peo­ple un­der 21 can go out at night.

Herbert said she had been send­ing hourly text mes­sages on Thurs­day to a friend who es­caped the shoot­ing. On Fri­day, she felt the urge to help the wild­fire evac­uees.

“What are the odds of that hap­pen­ing, a fire right af­ter the shoot­ing?” Herbert said. “The first re­spon­ders had to deal with the loss of those in­no­cent teenagers and then they have to deal with the fire. It’s like, how much can we take?”

Across town, Beatriz Bera sat ex­hausted in a ho­tel lobby at 4 a.m. Fri­day. She and her fam­ily were waked by alerts on their phone two hours ear­lier telling them to evac­u­ate, which were fol­lowed by their prop­erty man­ager bang­ing on the door. Bera’s fam­ily came to a ho­tel where her mother is a house­keeper.

“It is too much. First with the Border­line shoot­ing, now the fire,” Bera, 21, said.

As the as­sis­tant dean of stu­dents at Cal­i­for­nia Lutheran Univer­sity put it: “The whole city of Thou­sand Oaks is tired.”

Out­side the univer­sity’s cam­pus, Bran­don Apelian waved a black and white flag with an or­ange stripe — a ban­ner to honor those bat­tling the blazes — when a class­mate walked up to him.

“I just wanted to tell you thanks for be­ing out here. You made my day,” said Ra­mon Olivier, 22, a se­nior and mu­sic pro­duc­tion ma­jor at the school. “My buddy Meek died.”

Olivier had been forced to evac­u­ate while still mourn­ing the loss of his class­mate Justin Meek, who died in the Border­line bar shoot­ing. The school’s pres­i­dent de­scribed Meek as “one of the great­est stu­dents we’ve ever had.”

Meek and Olivier played wa­ter polo at school. Meek was killed try­ing to save oth­ers at the night­club, the univer­sity said in a state­ment.

“It hurts me to see ev­ery­one else hurt,” Olivier said. “This com­mu­nity is so close knit.”


Peo­ple pray out­side a teen cen­ter in Thou­sand Oaks, Calif., which on Fri­day be­came a shel­ter for res­i­dents who fled the Woolsey Fire.

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