Two Santa Monica College library workers who hid in a small room during a shooting rampage there said the gunman pretended to be a police officer before opening fire on them.
The workers this week recounted the scene as the gunman came into the library.
Jan Juliani was standing behind the counter of the Santa Monica College library about noon when a group of terrified, screaming students sprinted through the entrance. One was running backwards, shouting: “He has a gun!”
Juliani knew exactly what to do. Recalling a lesson from a recent workshop on how to respond during “active shooter” incidents, the library assistant, 34, headed for a set of double doors that led to a locked storage closet in the back office.
Other library workers followed her. Closing the closet door seemed to take forever because of resistance of the pneumatic closer. By then, a gunman had stepped into the library and was headed their way. Moments later, he fired into the rectangular room. Bullets sailed through furniture and walls, narrowly missing those inside.
Police now say the library workers’ actions inadvertently created a distraction that allowed dozens of others to escape the library while the gunman focused on those huddled in the closet.
“The diversion they provided really saved everybody else in this complex,” said campus police Chief Albert Vasquez.
Police fatally shot John Zawahri, 23, inside the library, bringing to an end a rampage during which he killed five people.
This week, Juliani and co-worker Myron Kabwe took a Times reporter into that narrow closet and described what happened June 7. They don’t call themselves heroes, although others on campus have. Still, Juliani’s new nickname for Kabwe is “Captain Awesome.”
Kabwe, 47, a computer support specialist who usually works upstairs, was working behind the counter with Juliani when the incident began. An off-duty student library worker was thanking him for recommending the Richard Wright novel “Black Boy,” which she held in her hand.
Hearing shouts, Kabwe looked up into the eyes of a man, dressed in black and carrying a rifle at his side, who was walking calmly into the foyer.
“Why is a police officer scaring children?” Kabwe wondered before realizing a split second later: “This is not a police officer.” Kabwe slid behind a wall.
Although Kabwe’s instinct was to direct colleagues to an exit perhaps 50 yards away at the end of an exposed hall, he saw Juliani inside the closet and followed her. They helped herd seven other workers inside. Once two women finally closed the balky door, the group pushed a safe in front of it. Kabwe urged everyone to get low, and they sprawled on the floor or huddled under the table.
Crouching on the floor, Juliani texted her father: “I am OK.” Known for his dry wit, James Juliani replied: “I certainly hope so but is there an explanation that goes with your somewhat cryptic text? Love, Papa.”
His daughter matter-of-factly responded: “Shooting in the library. We are hiding out in the cash room waiting for police.” His response: “Hope you blocked the door.”
The library workers heard the gunman say he was a police officer. He banged on the door and, in a conversational tone, said he would count to five. He did and then began firing.
From within, Kabwe, the last to get down, saw holes appear in the walls and door and counted nine rounds. Bullets splintered a table leg and nicked the safe but miraculously missed the seven women and two men inside.
Meanwhile, dozens of students who had been cramming for finals were escaping through a rear door.
What the workers inside the storage closet did not know was that three police officers — two from the Santa Monica Police Department and one from SMC’s force — had rushed into the library and exchanged fire with the gunman, their bullets pocking concrete walls and wooden doors and striking Zawahri. The officers disarmed and handcuffed him and dragged him outside to a sidewalk, where he died.
The library workers stayed put in their hideaway for a while, laughing nervously and checking Twitter and other feeds. Finally, they believed the all-clear messages they were receiving. They emerged and met up with colleagues, including their relieved boss, Mona Martin, dean of learning resources. She was lunching off-campus when the drama began and stayed in touch by text from behind the police tape.