San Bernardino school shooting hit first responders harder than other incidents
By Doug Saunders, The Sun
SAN BERNARDINO >> “Walking in the building, you could still smell the gunpowder,” said San Bernardino police Officer Robert Snyder.
He and dozens of first responders had raced to North Park Elementary School that sunny spring day where they found a horrifying scene inside Classroom B1. A teacher’s estranged husband had shot her and two children before killing himself.
Synder had seen other tragedies during his police career, but this one deeply affected him.
“For me, this was worse than the terror attack at the (Inland Regional Center) because of the kids,” he said. “When I arrived on scene at North Park, I immediately put on body armor and was directed to the classroom.”
Snyder went directly to the side of 8-year-old Jonathan Martinez, who had been shot in the head by Cedric Anderson, of Riverside. Anderson also fatally shot his wife, special education teacher Karen Smith.
“Jonathan was still breathing, although he had significant injuries, and I just didn’t leave his side,” Snyder said. “Once the helicopter landed, I stayed with him all the way to the hospital.”
The boy didn’t make it: He was pronounced dead at Loma Linda University Medical Center almost immediately after he arrived.
“It was hard for everyone,” Snyder said, tears welling in his eyes. “Most of us, including the hospital staff, are parents, so something like this is extremely difficult to deal with.”
The crew that flew in and landed on school grounds to take victims to the hospital is part of an aviation team made up of San Bernardino County firefighters and sheriff’s deputies.
“We heard the call come out over the radio and immediately went airborne,” said Cpl. Mike Ells, the crew chief. “Once the information came out, as a crew, we just loaded up and launched.”
The rescue team isn’t required to wait to be dispatched, Ells said.
“We hear the need for help, and we just go,” he said. “We go on a lot of calls that are just plain bad.”
Experience and training keep team members steady under pressure.
Flight Paramedics Jennifer DeShon and Jason Williams were calm and steady as they worked together that day, Ells said.
“They were focused on saving lives,” he explained.
San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office Victim Services Chief Flerida Alarcon and her team quickly made their way to the scene. Tagging along were Lupe and Dozer, 4-year-old black Labrador retrievers, who are the main components of the DA’s Special Victims K-9 Unit.
“We knew the children of North Park were going to be removed from the school grounds to an off-site area where they could be reunited with their parents,” Alarcon said. “They were greeted by Dozer and Lupe when they arrived.”
Students came up and petted the dogs, which are used to calm victims after incidents such as the murder-suicide at North Park school.
“Watching those students surround Lupe and Dozer and petting and loving them gives an added purpose to what we do,” Alarcon added.
San Bernardino County has had more than its share of high profile incidents in recent years from the manhunt for rogue ex-LAPD cop Christopher Dorner in Big Bear to the terror attack at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino and, most recently, the shooting at North Park.
“It’s a sad state of affairs when we get very good at responding to critical incidents,” Sheriff John McMahon said. “The only way you get good at it is when you have a lot of experience dealing with critical incidents like that.”
DeShon, who’s worked as a paramedic with San Bernardino County Fire for more than 20 years, said such incidents keep her committed to her job.
“This unit deals with the worst of the worst incidents, and we debrief after each mission,” she said. “But helping people is why I wanted to get into this.”
Finding an outlet to relieve the stress is important to the police and firefighters.
“Going to the gym helps me deal with what we see out there every day,” Snyder said. “After the North Park incident, I still had my kid’s soccer game to get to. I still have to be able to function as a loving parent. But, honestly, that was an extremely tough day.”
Alarcon, whose team works with victims of violent crimes, including children who have been sexually assaulted and abused, said team members can seek help from mental health professionals if needed, but they also debrief daily by sitting around and talking things out.
They did that after North Park.
“Afterwards, we all sat together to talk about what happened,” Alarcon said. “Many of us were still in a state of shock, but we had to be strong for others.”