It has become a sobering pattern of his presidency: Air Force One touches down in a heartbroken town and President Obama rushes toward the grief. He meets moms and dads, fiancés and friends — the newest members of a club no one would choose to join, Americans whose loved ones died in a mass shooting.
On Friday evening, it was San Bernardino's turn.
During a stop on their way to Hawaii for the holidays, Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama came to meet privately with the families of the 14 victims killed two weeks ago in the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil since Sept. 11, 2001.
“The president felt before he could begin his holiday that it was important for him to spend some time with these Americans who are mourning,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said.
The Obamas landed at San Bernardino International Airport about 7:40 p.m. and met briefly with San Bernardino Mayor R. Carey Davis and county Supervisor James Ramos. They then headed to nearby Indian Springs High School, where they met privately with victims' families and first responders.
The school library had been arranged with 14 tables. The Obamas went from table to table, speaking quietly with each family.
Daniel Kaufman, 42, ran the coffee cart at the Inland Regional Center, and trained the developmentally disabled clients who worked there. His boyfriend, Ryan Reyes, said Obama expressed his grief over the family's loss, and offered the sympathies of the government and the nation.
“I could see that they were pained by what had happened,” Reyes said. “Even under the circumstances, I consider it an honor to have met the president.”
Reyes told Obama that he hoped the nation would see an end to the “anti-Muslim sentiment” that has flared up since the shooting. Obama agreed, he said, and told Kaufman's loved ones that he hoped the United States could “work together to eradicate the problems that cause tragedies like these,” Reyes said.
He stopped short of calling it gun control, Reyes said, and did not discuss any specific policies, “perhaps for political reasons.”
The meetings lasted nearly three hours.
Afterward, Obama told reporters that the families “could not have been more inspiring and more insistent that something good come of this tragedy.”
He boarded Air Force One a little after 11:05 p.m.
The visit brought a complicated jubilee to San Bernardino County, where earlier in the day Gov. Jerry Brown had declared a state of emergency, clearing the way for state agencies to help handle the aftermath of the violence.
Protesters and people eager to see the president lined the streets hours before the arrival.
A man in an American flag shirt hoisted his left fist in the air and held a sign reading “Defund ISIS,” and a woman had a sign that read, “No refugees in U.S.A.”
Across the street from the airport, Deneen Ramirez staked out a spot, hoping to catch a glimpse of Air Force One. Although she disagrees with the president's views on gun control, the 51-year-old San Bernardino native said she welcomed his visit and respected his decision to spend time with the grieving families.
“He didn't have to come here,” she said, “but he did.... This is history.”
By 7:55 p.m., the motorcade weaved down Del Rosa Drive and the crowd erupted with cheers and applause.
Gloria Lerma and her sister, Linda Mendoza, watched as the Obamas drove by. The sisters debated returning later in the evening to watch as the president left — they'd bring their Obama T-shirts, they said. The Redlands residents said the trip felt like a comforting reminder of support during a devastating time.
“This isn't New York or L.A. or Boston,” Lerma said. “I never expected a terrorist to be living in my community.”
About 10 minutes away, another crowd had gathered at the memorial outside the Inland Regional Center.
For Marie Cabrera, who helped set up a prayer booth at the memorial and had tidied the area after the weekend rains, Obama's visit felt like an answer to prayer. People in the community had wondered whether the president would visit, she said, and had begun to lose hope as days passed.
“All I can say is we thank God he's here,” she said. “He brings comfort and relief.”
San Bernardino is now the sad coda of a growing list.
Obama's first visit to the site of a mass shooting came after 13 people were killed at the Ft. Hood military base in Texas in November 2009.
In January 2011, Obama spoke at the memorial for the victims killed in a shooting in Tucson.
The next summer, he visited a Colorado hospital after a shooting at a movie theater in Aurora. A month later at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, a white supremacist shot and killed six people. That time, Michelle Obama made the trip.
Six months later, 11 days before Christmas, a gunman killed 20 children and six adults in an elementary school in Connecticut. That trip, Obama would later say, to meet with the grieving families of the young children was the “hardest day of my presidency.”
“And I've had some hard days,” he said.
Times staff writers Marisa Gerber and Stephen Ceasar, and the Associated Press, contributed to this report.
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