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‘Active shooter.’ For those trapped in San Bernardino, cellphones were a link to loved ones

“Drill started,” Dorothy Vong texted her husband, Mark.

It was about 11 a.m. Wednesday.

The Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, where Dorothy is a nurse, conducts active-shooter drills every month or so.

Vong assumed that’s why she could see heavily armed law enforcement officers sprinting toward the building.

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She walked to a window and made a cellphone video of the scene. She sent it to her husband.

On the video, a voice can be heard saying: “They’re all geared up! Rifles and everything!”

In the background, there is laughter.

Then reality intruded.

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Vong texted her husband again: “Well, it’s real.”

And a few minutes later: “We’re in a locked office.”

Vong emerged unharmed. Others were not so fortunate.

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Fourteen people were killed and 17 injured when gunmen opened fire on a holiday gathering inside the regional center. For parents, spouses and friends of those inside the building, cellphones were the primary source of information. Through that fragile connection, they consoled, counseled, prayed and hoped.

*

Active shooter.

Mary Campos, 54, received the text at 11:34 a.m.

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It was from her daughter, Monica Siegers, 34, reporting that she and her coworkers were hiding under their desks, crying.

Campos turned on the TV and heard the news: There had been a mass shooting at the building where Siegers has worked for two years as a case manager for adults with disabilities.

“Oh, my God,” Campos thought. “It’s happening everywhere.”

She dressed and drove to the scene. The next text from her daughter reported that SWAT officers were escorting survivors to buses. But her daughter didn’t know where they were being taken, and her cellphone was running out of power.

Campos waited Wednesday at a Shell gas station not far from the regional center, looking for her daughter among the dozens of evacuees who were being led to buses. They were transported to another location to be interviewed by law enforcement officers.

“I just need to see her,” Campos said.

*

Angela Stutte stood on the corner of Waterman Avenue and Orange Show Road, near the center, clutching her phone. Her 21-year-old daughter, Miranda Stutte, had also been inside.

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The younger Stutte, a vector control officer for San Bernardino County, was in a meeting when she heard shots, Angela Stutte said. The daughter locked herself in a bathroom. She emerged unharmed but told her mother that a few friends had been injured.

“I’m relieved,” her mother said. “Now we are just waiting. She has never had an experience like this.”

As she spoke, a group of women feverishly checked their phones. Their loved ones had been in the building too, they said, fighting tears.

Angela Stutte’s phone rang.

“Honey?” she said, speaking to her husband. “I’m going to wait for Miranda, OK?”

*

Olivia Navarro’s daughter Jamile called her just after 11 a.m. and told her she was hiding in a room at the Inland Regional Center, where she works as a case manager for special-needs children.

There were multiple shooters in the building, the daughter said.

Navarro told her to turn off all the lights.

Jamile followed the advice. She told everyone in the room to stay quiet too. Her phone died soon after. Unable to reach Jamile, her mother grew frantic, wondering if her daughter was among the dead.

Police later told Olivia Navarro that her daughter had been evacuated safely. The mother cried as she recalled this and said she didn’t understand why someone would open fire in a place that helps children with disabilities.

“I don’t understand it,” Olivia said as she stood down the street from the scene of the shooting.

Navarro said all she wanted was to see her daughter.

“I want to hold her and thank God that she’s alive,” she said.

Nerves were frayed in the waiting room at Loma Linda University Medical Center.

Kat Kit had been waiting for her daughter to come out of routine surgery at the hospital when helicopters started unloading shooting victims and emergency workers set up triage stations.

“I’m afraid, I’m scared and I’m sad,” said Kit, who lives in Fontana.

“They haven’t caught them yet,” said Linda Frankenbergen, who was waiting for her husband to come out of previously scheduled surgery.

“And that’s scary,” Kit said, “because they could come in here.”

With many streets closed and schools locked down as the manhunt unfolded, residents across the Inland Empire stayed glued to news updates and exchanged urgent calls with friends and family.

Kathy Hotetz, 37, waited anxiously outside Arrowhead Regional Medical Center in Colton. She said her sister, Denise Peraza, 27, had been inside the Inland Regional Center and was being treated for a gunshot wound. 

“She’s alive. That’s all I know,” Hotetz said. “Not knowing any more than that is the scariest part.”

Among a dozen people holding hands in a prayer circle outside the medical center was Carlos Ortiz, 54, whose son Kevin Ortiz, a county environmental inspector, was shot twice in the leg and once in the shoulder.

Amid the chaos, the 24-year-old managed to call his wife of two weeks and father to tell them he was alive.

“Kevin said he had been shot three times and that he was in pain but he was all right,” Dyana Ortiz, 23,  recalled. “ Then he said ‘I love you’ and I said ‘I love you.”

*

Gabriel Torres was reunited with his wife, Katrina, at the Rock Church and World Outreach Center in San Bernardino, near the shooting scene. Katrina, a social worker, was among evacuees who had been bused to the church.

Gabriel said his wife had called him about 11:30 a.m. Wednesday morning to tell him she could hear gunfire. She hid in a filing room.

They stayed on the phone for 30 minutes. She spoke in whispers. He tried to console her.

“She said she didn’t know if she would make it,” Gabriel recalled. “I was terrified.”

About 20 evacuees were gathered in the church driveway. As they waited to be reunited with loved ones, a handful of buses guided by a police escort pulled up.

A man bolted down the driveway, as fast as his legs would carry him. As his mother walked toward him, he flew into her arms.

Times staff writer Doug Smith contributed to this report.

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