HERO Tent President Kiana Simmons places a candle at a vigil organised by her group following the mass shooting at the Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) light-rail yard, outside City Hall in San Jose, California. Picture: Philip Pacheco / Getty Images via AFP
HERO Tent President Kiana Simmons places a candle at a vigil organised by her group following the mass shooting at the Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) light-rail yard, outside City Hall in San Jose, California. Picture: Philip Pacheco / Getty Images via AFP

Public transit worker fatally shot 8, then killed himself at San Jose rail yard

By The Washington Post Time of article published May 27, 2021

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Faiz Siddiqui, Derek Hawkins, Brittany Shammas and Mark Berman

San Jose, California - A transit system employee in San Jose opened fire on Wednesday morning at a light-rail facility, killing at least eight people before shooting himself, officials said.

Investigators confirmed little about the attacker Wednesday, saying they were still searching for a possible motive. They declined to say whether they thought any of the victims had been targeted.

Authorities fanned out on multiple fronts Wednesday, with a bomb squad scouring the facility after a dog indicated potential explosives, while other law enforcement officials gathered at a San Jose house that was on fire and was believed to be linked to the gunman.

The shooting rampage shook this city in the heart of Silicon Valley and reverberated across a country painfully familiar with devastating gun violence.

The bloodshed came just weeks after recent massacres in Indianapolis, the Atlanta area and Boulder, Colorado, in which people were killed while doing their jobs.

"This is a horrific day for our city," San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo said.

Authorities did not publicly name the victims but confirmed that at least some worked with the shooter at the Valley Transportation Authority, among more than 2 000 employees of an agency that operates light rail and bus services in Santa Clara County. Liccardo praised the transit system's workers for persevering through the coronavirus pandemic, noting that they had been among those who risked potential exposure by going in to work.

"These are the women and men who supported our communities through this pandemic," Liccardo said. "They showed up at work every day as essential workers, despite risks to their health."

Police say they began getting 911 calls about gunfire at the light-rail yard shortly after 6:30 a.m. Wednesday. This facility is near the sheriff's offices, police department and the city's international airport. Laurie Smith, the Santa Clara County sheriff, said deputies rushed to the scene while shots were still being fired.

The deputies who responded did not exchange any gunfire with the shooter, and officials think he shot and killed himself, said Russell Davis, a spokesman for the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office.

This sudden burst of violence added San Jose to the grim roster of communities shaken by mass shootings. It came just weeks after a former employee killed eight people at an Indianapolis FedEx facility, an attack that followed massacres at a Boulder supermarket and three Atlanta-area spas in which a combined 18 people were fatally shot.

These places were communal areas - including schools, churches, synagogues, shopping malls, bars and nightclubs - where someone has opened fire.

The San Jose region has not been immune to such violence. In 2019, a 19-year-old fatally shot three people, two of them children, during an attack at a food festival in Gilroy, California, about 40 minutes from downtown San Jose.

Speaking Wednesday in San Jose, California Governor Gavin Newsom acknowledged the Gilroy shooting and described the "sameness" that surrounds such mass shootings. By now, these attacks are followed by a well-established pattern in which officials make mournful pronouncements, communities hold anguished vigils and then, eventually, a similar attack occurs somewhere else.

"It just feels like this happens over and over and over again," Newsom, a Democrat, said. "Rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat. . . . It begs the damn question, what the hell is going on in the United States of America?"

Newsom spoke after visiting with families awaiting word on their relatives, "just desperate to find out if their brother, their son, their dad, their mom, is still alive," he said.

Outside a Red Cross facility where families were gathering, Bagga Singh waited for answers about a missing cousin who he said worked as a train operator.

Singh said his family has several members working for the transit agency, and they used location tracking to find the cousin's phone. It remained inside the transit facility and their calls to it went unanswered.

Now, he said, they were in the midst of an excruciating wait to find out whether he was okay.

"His cellphone location is showing in the building," Singh said. "Those people [who] are already out in the parking lot, they run away, they're here. He is missing. Very scary."

"You think positive and negative," he said, "you never know."

Christina Gonzalez was waiting to see whether her cousin, who was missing, would turn up Wednesday. "I just pray that he's okay," she said through tears. "We don't know anything - they're not telling us anything. Just waiting and praying and hoping he's okay."

Amalgamated Transit Union International President John Costa said the national group was organizing support for victims and members of its local chapter, ATU Local 265.

"We are working to provide support and assistance to the victims' families, and everyone impacted by this tragic event," he said.

News of the San Jose shooting rippled across the country, and it was invoked even as Republican senators on Capitol Hill were questioning David Chipman, President Biden's pick to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, about his past commentary on gun ownership. Chipman, a former ATF special agent, has for the past five years been a policy adviser at the gun-control advocacy group Giffords.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California was one of several Democrats at the hearing who noted that Chipman was speaking to senators even as police were responding to yet another mass shooting. "This is a gun-happy nation," she said.

"Unfortunately we're not making the laws that can protect people from this kind of gun crimes," she added.

Biden issued a statement noting that "yet again," he had to order flags flown at half-staff in honor of shooting victims. He called on Congress to act on gun violence.

"There are at least eight families who will never be whole again," he said. "There are children, parents, and spouses who are waiting to hear whether someone they love is ever going to come home. There are union brothers and sisters - good, honest, hardworking people - who are mourning their own."

Federal officials responded to the scene, with the FBI and ATF dispatching people to the shooting. The FBI said it was sending investigators, an evidence response team and victim specialists.

The Santa Clara Sheriff's Office dispatched its bomb squad to the facility after a dog detected possible explosives, said Davis, the spokesman. The bomb squad would search "every crevice," Davis said, a process that would take time.

In addition to the eight people killed at the rail yard, one person was critically injured and taken to a hospital, Davis said.

Joy Alexiou, a spokeswoman for Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, said the hospital received two victims from the shooting, one of whom was dead on arrival and the other in critical condition. Both were male, Alexiou said.

Laura Maciel, a landscaping worker, was heading to work at the sheriff's office Wednesday morning when she heard gunshots from the VTA facility and law enforcement officials blocked the roads.

"My stomach was just twisted up," she said.

Soon after, Maciel said, she saw officers running toward the shooting and the gunfire stopped. "It just went quiet," she said.

"How can this man make a conscious decision to go in to work like that?" she said of the attacker. "And to kill people he knows personally?"

The attacker's connection to the transit agency where he opened fire carries echoes of previous violent rampages.

Researchers have found that shooters frequently target places they know, including current and former workplaces. In a study released in 2018, the FBI looked at dozens of shooters and found that most of them had some type of grievance they used to fuel their attacks. Many of these grievances had something to do with the attackers' work or relationships with others, the study found.

These attackers, researchers have found, often displayed behaviors that worried the people around them beforehand. Most of them legally acquired their guns. In some cases, attackers explicitly had expressed their potential for violence.

While investigators released scant details about the gunman Wednesday, law enforcement officials were seen outside a San Jose home believed to be connected with the gunman.

One official briefed on the investigation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing matter, said the gunman apparently set his home on fire before going to the rail yard and opening fire.

The home sits on a quiet residential street, and residents said they heard a commotion in the neighborhood early in the morning.

"I noticed a community officer with a few helicopters going by," said Awne Elrabadi, 41, a real estate agent who lives in the area and was having his morning coffee when he saw news crews show up. "And I noticed some home that had smoke coming out of it."

Andy Abad, 63, said he saw a tall plume of smoke followed by flames coming from a house nearby and called 911 about 6:50 a.m.

"I looked in there, called 911 and the next thing I know there were flames," he said.

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