San Jose shooting: Victims, all VTA employees, mourned by their colleagues as ‘family’
They were described by their colleagues with one word, repeated over and over: family.
The nine men killed in a mass shooting Wednesday at a San Jose light rail yard were all longtime employees at the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, ranging in age from 29 to 63.
As the investigation into the shooting continues, a close-knit workplace has been devastated by incomprehensible loss, officials at the transit authority said Thursday, also speaking at a vigil that night to honor the victims.
— Abdolvahab Alaghmandan, 63, who worked for the VTA for about 20 years as a substation maintainer.
— Adrian Balleza, 29, who started at the VTA as a bus operator trainee in 2014 and later became a maintenance worker and light rail operator.
— Jose Dejesus Hernandez III, 35, who started at the VTA in 2012 as a transit mechanic, later becoming an electromechanic and a substation maintainer.
— Lars Kepler Lane, 63, who started with the VTA in 2001 as an electromechanic and became an overhead lineworker.
— Michael Joseph Rudometkin, 40, who started in 2013 as a VTA mechanic and went on to be an electromechanic and overhead lineworker.
— Paul Delacruz Megia, 42, who started in the early 2000s as a bus operator trainee and, after several years away, returned to work his way up from light rail operator to transportation supervisor to transit division supervisor to assistant superintendent in service management.
— Taptejdeep Singh, 36, who started in 2014 as a bus operator trainee and became a light rail operator.
— Timothy Michael Romo, 49, who was an overhead lineworker for more than 20 years.
— Alex Ward Fritch, 49, who was a substation manager.
A witness to the San Jose rail yard shooting says the gunman appeared to target certain people: ‘He had a specific agenda.’
Glenn Hendricks, chairman of the VTA board of directors and vice mayor of the city of Sunnyvale, solemnly listed the dead earlier in the day. His voice shook as he described meeting with the victims’ family members, and he pleaded with employees to get help and talk to others if they felt overwhelmed.
“All of the families are in pain, but we are here to help,” he said. “We want all of our employees to know, we are all grieving together, and we want to do everything we possibly can to support each other.”
He said he went home Wednesday night and wrote a poem to honor those who had died:
Our friends will be missed
Serving riders makes us smile
Nine will inspire us
Evelynn Tran, acting general manager and chief executive at the transit authority, also fought tears as she spoke of losing people who were part of the “VTA family.”
The gunman set his own house on fire before driving to a union meeting at the VTA facility and shooting, authorities said.
“Some of us get training on what to do when there is an active shooter event, but not about the aftermath,” she said. “Yesterday, I was at the family assistance center, and I saw that aftermath, and I saw the immense pain in the faces of the families, and I heard their cries when they got the news.
“And it was utterly heart-wrenching. And I felt immensely helpless.”
Terra Fritch was by her husband’s side when he died. She described Alex as her “best friend.”
“We had one of those very special relationships that I think most people just dream of,” she told The Times. “We were never really apart. And if he was somewhere without me, it was definitely noticed. Like, where is the other half?”
The two fell in love practically at first sight and were married six months after meeting, Fritch said. They were supposed to renew their vows in Hawaii for their 20th wedding anniversary in September.
Alex loved dirt bikes, tiki bars and “most of all, luckily, he loved me,” she said.
On Wednesday morning, Fritch knew something was amiss when her husband, who worked the graveyard shift, wasn’t home yet. She would learn later he was at a hospital with a gunshot wound to the head.
A nurse gave her the “biggest gift” by allowing Fritch to lie down in the hospital bed next to her husband Wednesday night. As his life slipped away, she rubbed his chest and held his hand. Then his heart stopped, and he took his last breath. “I continued to stay there with him for as long as I could,” she said.
On Thursday night, hundreds of San Jose residents attended a vigil where faith leaders, VTA officials and the agency’s unions gathered to honor the lives lost.
Mayor Sam Liccardo read the names of the victims, pausing a few seconds before each one. He spoke about how healing would be a long and hard journey for many.
“We’re here to share our pain. We’re here to share our love, to share our support for each other,” he said. “We’re here to express a singular message in our community: We will heal, and we will heal together.”
Several speakers, including Hendricks, asked those present to support VTA employees who are grieving.
“When you see a bus driver, when you see someone with a VTA vest on, wave and smile to them,” he said. “The power of a smile is awesome.”
Earlier, Naunihal Singh, superintendent of the light rail yard, said he was struggling to put on a “poker face” to help his colleagues.
“I’m going through a lot of, I would say, confused emotions,” he said. “I don’t know. I’m angry. I’m sad. I’m at a loss for words, at the same time trying to find the reasons why.”
Singh shared an office space with Megia and described him as a man who always did what he was asked with a smile and who was “always willing to help his employees,” who seemed to be reaching out to him all the time.
Singh also supervised Taptejdeep Singh — who, he said, “always had questions ... [about] how he can help others” — and Balleza.
“Adrian? What can I say about that gentleman? A gem of a person,” he said. “Very kindhearted.” He was always trying to make the job fun for his co-workers, he said.
“What I’m hearing from my peers, whatever happened yesterday, it shows the character of these guys, how they tried to save others while going through that chaotic situation,” Singh said.
Law enforcement sources identified the shooter as Samuel Cassidy, a 57-year-old maintenance worker who had been employed at the VTA for at least eight years.
Authorities are searching for a motive in the shooting, although early indications point to a work-related issue that did not involve riders on the Silicon Valley’s light rail system. Investigators said Cassidy, whose body was found at the scene, targeted only co-workers during the attack and did not fire at police.
Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith said Cassidy may have targeted some victims.
“It appears to us at this point that he said to one of the people there: ‘I’m not going to shoot you,’” Smith told the Associated Press. “And then he shot other people. So I imagine there was some kind of thought on who he wanted to shoot.”
On Thursday, loved ones began sharing information about the victims — who were fathers, brothers, sons, friends.
San Jose City Councilman Raul Peralez, a childhood friend of Rudometkin, said he woke up at about 7 a.m. Wednesday to cellphone alerts about an active shooter. His heart sank when he learned where the shooter was.
“I knew automatically that was the yard Michael worked out of,” Peralez, a member of the VTA board of directors, told The Times. “I knew that he worked the overnight shift and so likely would be getting off at that time.”
Peralez had known Rudometkin since they were in seventh grade, and their families were close. Rudometkin babysat Peralez’s sister’s children years ago and was “like an uncle” to them.
Just before the shooting, Peralez, his father, and Rudometkin were planning a golf “reunion.”
“Mike was one of the nicest guys,” Peralez said. “He was literally friends with everybody.”
On Wednesday, Peralez sent his friend a text message and asked if he was OK. There was no response. He called him. No response.
Peralez said he started to panic but didn’t want to jump to the worst conclusion. Hours passed. Rudometkin’s wife, parents and friends waited at the victims’ assistance center, “essentially hoping for a prayer of good news, but I think as the minutes went on it became more and more clear.”
At 6 p.m., authorities confirmed he had died.
Peralez said he is now grappling with the dual role of mourning friend and city leader who must respond officially to the tragedy in his district.
“It’s incumbent upon us, as policymakers and leaders for our respective jurisdictions, to take these instances and be able to make change,” including fighting for stricter gun control laws, he said.
Taptejdeep Singh was described in a statement by his brother, Karman Singh, as a “beloved father, husband, brother, son, and nephew.”
Karman wrote that witnesses have told the family that Taptejdeep spent his final moments trying to help others get to safety.
“From what we have heard, he reacted quickly to get colleagues into secure offices, and was frantically calling others who would have been coming in for a shift change to warn them about the shooter,” Karman wrote. “We understand that he was attempting to secure his building when he was killed.
“Even in these moments of chaos, Taptejdeep was living by the values of Sikhi: living in service and protection of others.”
Taptejdeep was born in India and came to California with his parents about 17 years ago. He leaves behind a wife, a 3-year-old son and a 1-year-old daughter.
Sukhvir Singh, a VTA colleague who is no relation, said in a statement that he got a call from Taptejdeep on Wednesday morning, warning him that there was an active shooter in Building B and to hide or get out immediately.
He told Sukhvir that he was with Megia.
“Because of him, so many people were able to go home to their families,” Sukhvir wrote.
Fritch, who died Wednesday night at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, was married for 20 years and was supposed to renew his vows in Hawaii this September, his wife, Tara Fritch, told KTVU-TV. They had an adult daughter and two teenage sons.
Tara Fritch told the news station that he had worked for VTA for nine years and was the family’s sole financial provider.
“Alex was everything to this family,” she said. “He was our rock. My safe place to fall. He was the love of my life.”
Balleza left behind a 2-year-old son and could not wait until he was old enough to take fishing, his wife, Heather, told the New York Times.
A woman who answered her phone on Thursday said she did not want to speak. She wept.
Times staff writers Maura Dolan and Richard Winton contributed to this report.
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