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A Christmas party with a trivia game — and then the shooting started

A Christmas party with a trivia game — and then the shooting started
Chris Nwadike of Rialto was sitting at the same table with Syed Rizwad Farook during the Christmas party at the Inland Regional Center. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Away from their downtown cubicles for the day, they gathered in a conference room on the south end of town for their annual training and Christmas potluck party. Chris Nwadike brought doughnuts. His colleagues sat around him at a folding table with a festive tablecloth and a decorative fir branch.

Ever the diligent worker, Syed Rizwan Farook had arrived first and took the seat at the head of the table. The tech-savvy restaurant inspector, 28, had taught his co-workers how to use some new computer programs and had won TGI Friday gift cards for his good performance.

Now they would play a game to win more gift cards. The 75 or so workers in the room were handed wireless clickers so they could answer yes or no questions on a big screen. Fun, true-or-false questions about one another at first, then training ones.

The woman delivering the clickers came to their table.

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"Where's Syed?" someone asked.

His jacket still hung from the back of his chair.

They told her to just leave the clicker there, he would be back.

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Born to Pakistani parents in Chicago and raised in Riverside, Farook graduated from Cal State San Bernardino with a degree in environmental studies and was part of the relatively prosperous Muslim community spread throughout the Inland Empire.

He had worked for the San Bernardino County Department of Health for a few years, making $52,000 a year and sharing a cubicle with a friend, Isaac Amanios, a 60-year-old father of three from Eritrea.

Nwadike said the two of them spoke what he assumed was Arabic — with Amanios clearly the native speaker, often poking fun at Farook's poor delivery.

The health inspectors came from all over the world, with all types of beliefs. Nwadike was from Nigeria. Others hailed from Vietnam, Iran, Mexico and Colombia.

They considered Farook a friend. He was quiet but approachable.

"He smiled, but he didn't laugh," Nwadike said.

In 2014, Farook traveled to Saudi Arabia to marry a Pakistani woman he had met online, Tashfeen Malik, 29. When he returned, his co-workers teased him about the beard he'd started to grow. Before their baby girl was born this year, they threw him a baby shower at the office.

But they never met Malik. She mostly stayed to herself, and at family gatherings the men and the women didn't commingle. Nizaam Ali, an acquaintance who worshiped with Farook at a San Bernardino mosque, said that in public Malik wore a head scarf that obscured her face.

One of Farook's co-workers, Nicholas Thalasinos, 57, a Messianic Jew, wore a tie clip with the Star of David. He was outspoken against Islamic extremism, in person and on social media.

Two weeks earlier, he and Farook argued over whether Islam was a violent religion. Recounting the conversation to a friend, Thalasinos said that Farook insisted his God was peaceful but argued that Israel had no place in the Middle East.

Berhane Gebreslassie, left, brother of shooting victim Isaac Amanios, and Zeke Gebrekidane, nephew, with family photos outside the family's home in Fontana.
Berhane Gebreslassie, left, brother of shooting victim Isaac Amanios, and Zeke Gebrekidane, nephew, with family photos outside the family's home in Fontana. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Thalasinos liked discussing such topics. There was no indication that their interaction was anything out of the ordinary.

Farook lived in a rented townhouse on Center Street in Redlands, with all the trappings of a young family: baby bouncer on the living room floor, boxes of Pampers in the entryway, a big carton of Quaker Oats on the refrigerator.

On Wednesday morning, he asked his mother if she could watch the baby for a few hours. Malik said she had a doctor's appointment.

Farook headed to the conference, about a 10-minute drive away.

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The Inland Regional Center serves the developmentally disabled but also rents out its No. 3 building conference room for other events.

The complex along Waterman Avenue sits in a part of the city where new offices and warehouses are spreading north from the city's hotel zone into a poor, dusty area of weedy lots and dilapidated homes. It was a clear winter day, with the San Bernardino Mountains in sharp relief.

During a break after the personal trivia game, Nwadike and Patrick Baccari got up from their table to use the restroom.

It was just before 11 a.m.

Baccari was pulling a paper towel from a dispenser when he heard a blast. A puff of plaster dust rose from the wall and shards of the dispenser flew into his face.

He turned to the other men in the bathroom, who looked at him as if he had caused the commotion.

Blood ran into his eyes. Then he saw a hole in the wall.

"Get down! Get down! Get down!" he yelled.

Everyone hit the floor as a barrage of gunfire sounded outside.

Wearing tactical clothing and black masks, Farook and his wife had burst into the back of the conference room and opened fire with .223 semi-automatic rifles.

Screaming, his co-workers and supervisors ran for exits and ducked under tables.

Bullets struck Amanios, Thalasinos and others at Farook's table. A Muslim woman he prayed with was shot three times.

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For the record

1:33 p.m.: An earlier version of this story reported that a Muslim woman that shooter Syed Rizwan Farook had prayed with was killed in Wednesday's massacre at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino. The woman, Anies Kondoker, 42, was shot three times but survived.

7:53 p.m.: An earlier version of this story misspelled Isaac Amanios' name as Amianos.

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Amanda Gaspard dropped to the floor and slid under her table. She closed her eyes and lay motionless.

One of the assailants stood over her and shot her in the arm and leg.

911 calls started pouring into police dispatch lines. A suspect in black clothing. "He's still firing rounds," a dispatcher told police.

Julie Swann-Paez lay on the floor, bleeding and in pain, shot in the thigh and abdomen, her pelvis shattered. She was supposed to receive an Employee of the Year award.

She sent a text to her family. "Love you guys. Was shot."

After firing at least 65 rounds, the assailants stopped. They set a black duffel bag on a conference table. It contained three pipe bombs tied together and wired to a remote control.

Dispatchers told officers that crowds were racing from the south building and that a person with a machine gun was in the parking lot. A black SUV with Utah plates.

Officers arrived within four minutes of the first calls. They didn't know how many shooters there were or if they were gone.

San Bernardino police Lt. Mike Madden was a mile away, on his way to lunch, when he heard the frantic dispatches.

He pulled up just south of building No. 3 and waited for two minutes until three other officers arrived. They entered the building together.

The carnage they found was "surreal," he said. Dead and grievously injured bodies. Sheer panic in survivors' faces. White smoke and cordite filled the air. Water sprayed from pierced sprinkler pipes as fire alarms blared.

Madden motioned for a group of people in the hallway to run to them. But they didn't want to come. He feared the shooter might be among them around a corner, holding them hostage.

"Come to us, come to us!"

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Finally one made the break, and the rest — dozens of them — followed.

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More officers and sheriff's deputies stormed into the building. Emergency workers set up a triage area. Officers removed the pipe bombs.

"Ida-9, hold for possible suspect info," one officer radioed in.

"Ida-9, go ahead."

"A male subject who was in the meeting left out of the blue. Um, and 20 minutes later the shooting occurred. The subject's name is Farbook — Farook —Frank Adam Roger Ocean Ocean King. First [name] of Syed — Sam Yellow Edward David."

It took hours for Nick Paez, 26, to track down his mother, who had sent the text that she was shot, at a local hospital.

He had thought she was among the 14 people the shooters had slaughtered.

By the time they finally got to see her, just before 10 p.m, Farook and his wife were dead, killed hours earlier in a fusillade of 380 gunshots as they roared down a residential street in the rented SUV.

Paez tried to fill his mom in on what had happened.

"They think it's your co-worker," he said.

"That doesn't make sense," she replied. "They were congratulating him for having a baby."

Times staff writers Joseph Serna, Kate Mather, Richard Winton, Stephen Ceasar and Hailey Branson-Potts contributed to this article.

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