I’ve interviewed so many survivors of the mass shooting a year ago at the Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks that I’ve lost count. Two wildfires broke out within hours of the massacre, and each wildfire this fall has triggered flashbacks to those dark days last November — especially the Easy fire that erupted Wednesday and initially forced many in the region to flee.
I’ve heard so many accounts of the shooting and the fires from slightly different angles that when I close my eyes, I see the terror in 360 degrees.
I see survivors smashing out windows and running screaming into the night. I see the police rushing into unknown danger and the terrified faces of parents of the victims arriving at the crime scene. I see the open space surrounding the city erupting into a ring of fire that would eventually burn 100,000 acres and leave three people dead. I see the haggard faces of firefighters unable to find the pulses of the Borderline victims and the harrowing Woolsey fire they would still be fighting two weeks later.
For me, and my community, the sight of flames and the smell of smoke were the backdrop to mass murder. Death and ashes are forever linked.
I have written down so many details about the 12 lives lost in the shooting, I feel like I know them. I’ve seen them dance and laugh in home movies. I know the sounds of their voices as they told their moms “I love you.” I know too many details about the deaths they didn’t deserve.
I relive the trauma with each new report of a brush fire. Howling winds fan both flames and flashbacks.
This tape of horror plays in a loop in the back of my mind. The cruel script haunts me. I don’t know how to set it down.
As a reporter for the Acorn, a weekly newspaper in Thousand Oaks, I have spent much of the past year doing two things: hiking with a notebook and a press pass through charred and recovering landscape — and interviewing survivors, first responders and families of the victims of the Borderline shooting.
Mass shootings have become surreally common. But in the case of Thousand Oaks, the shootings last Nov. 7 and the wildfires that followed the next day caused a wound that scarred the community in layers.
Residents of the Conejo Valley — the broader region that encompasses Thousand Oaks — were reeling with anguish from the shooting when many found out they had to evacuate because of the Woolsey and Hill fires. At the height of the fires, 75% of Thousand Oaks residents were under evacuation orders. Locals were forced to push down their Borderline grief.
I interviewed families while their houses were still smoldering and when they returned to sift through the ashes. One resident of a nearby mobile home park invited me to see the charred remains of his house while he searched for the urn containing his father-in-law’s ashes. A year later, empty foundations still dot the neighborhoods where homes once stood.
Houses can be rebuilt, and burned hillsides surrounding the city can explode in a superbloom of wildflowers, as they did last spring. Oak trees whose trunks burned from the inside out survived to sprout new leaves. But nature hasn’t handed us a blueprint to recover from the shooting.
Thousand Oaks is a city of 130,000 people that despite the shooting still makes it onto lists of the safest cities in America. Some residents affectionately refer to it as Mayberry. The streets are wide, the medians are landscaped and the hillsides are mostly undeveloped. It’s the land of biotech and megachurches, of family picnics and manicured parks.
Yet this seemingly idyllic setting didn’t make it immune to mass murder. That’s made recovery all the harder.
My own story of the night of the shooting rampage starts at a women’s prayer group at my church in Newbury Park, six blocks from the killer’s home. The next morning, I stood outside that home as a reporter. I was there to interview residents about their troubled and violent neighbor as FBI agents swarmed the street less than 3,000 feet from my daughter and her elementary school classroom.
For the last 12 months, I’ve tried to respect the wishes of families of the Borderline victims by mentioning the killer’s name as little as possible in print. I’ve also tried to give a voice to Borderline survivors and to craft stories so that the victims might be remembered for the way they lived, not the way they died.
My journey documenting a living nightmare in the town I love has changed me in ways I didn’t expect. I have a constant lump in my throat. Tears are always near the surface, and I break out crying at unexpected times. I carry a bulletproof backpack and can only find sleep by using a weighted blanket that makes me feel safe.
When my three daughters — ages 10, 12 and 13 — tell me about lockdown drills at school, I feel dread. We have family conversations about how to run, hide and fight during an armed attack.
But the agony of this last year has also made me more appreciative of the sheer fact of being alive. It’s taught me to laugh through the tears and to be grateful for even the worst days. It’s deepened my faith and shown me how to focus on the light instead of the darkness.
I wrote the Borderline stories as a journalist. But I also wrote them as a mother. During interviews I always ask the families to begin at the beginning. I ask, “How many pounds, how many ounces?” We flip through family photo albums. We laugh just as much as we cry as they recount vacations, sports teams and favorite foods. Each time, I ask: What do you want your loved one to be remembered for most?
In every interview, I find myself in awe of the way that loss deepens love.
When the interview is over, I sit in my car and cry. Most times, I scream at God. Then I always go home and hold my kids — and feel guilty because I still have kids to hold.
In the community, another subtle change has taken place. When Thousand Oaks residents ask each other “How are you?” we pause to hear the answer in a way we never did before.
Dawn Megli is a reporter for the Thousand Oaks Acorn.