I think I speak for most people that have lived in Ventura County or Thousand Oaks when I say that this week has been surreal.
Reporting the news is one thing. Knowing the people you are writing about makes the news more subjective than it is expected to be for a journalist.
Just the previous week we had the energy and excitement of the elections. Tuesday, November 6 came and went and most of us were relieved to finally move on to what should have been discussions about Thanksgiving plans and holiday shopping. But the calls received early Thursday morning about a tragic event at Borderline Bar & Grill touched me to the core.
Here is a venue where I have celebrated with friends. The management team has become friends. The folksy atmosphere where everyone is quick to offer a water when I have visited outside of business hours. Borderline has been a hot spot in town since I was in high school. It’s not supposed to be a name you think about related tragedy.
On Thursday, November 8, I arrived to the press location on Moorpark Road and Rolling Oaks where it seemed like every news outlet in the world was now stationed. I heard people reporting the news in Arabic, Japanese, Spanish, and Hebrew. There were easily 25-30 news organizations there. When Sheriff Geoff Dean came to the microphone, I whispered to the reporter next to me, that this week he is set to retire and this is such a horrible way to begin his retirement. She had no idea.
When Sheriff Dean began speaking, he was professional in a way that demonstrated his years of leadership and service. But at one point, when speaking of Sargent Helus, his voice began to crack and his eyes began to tear. All I could think about was Sheriff Dean before he was Sheriff, as a patrol officer whom my family had known forever. When I was 18 years old, I had gotten into a bad accident at the corner or Westlake Boulevard and Thousand Oaks Boulevard. Back then he was a motorcycle patrolman. He comforted me and helped me through that chaos. And now, nearly 25 years later, here he was speaking to the world about his loss, with dignity and sadness. I couldn’t help but start to cry for our community, for him, and for the Helus family.
One reporter asked him what it looked like in there. Dean replied, “Like Hell,” and the pain in his eyes and the sound of his voice could tell all of us he meant it.
After the press conference, I received calls from friends around town who knew the suspected shooter and many who knew the victims. Some of it, I could substantiate and report, much of it I could not.
As I watched the national and local news broadcast their reports, it was frustrating to watch them characterize and talk about our city. “Erbes” was pronounced “Er-bez” and news stations kept listing Conejo Creek South in the wrong cities. So many things kept frustrating me. “Why can’t these people just get it right?!?” I thought to myself. But it was all happening so fast. So many agencies. So many press releases and Public Information Officers (PIO’s) and so much happening on the fly. It was hard to get anything 100% correct. And it was even harder to make sure 100% of the public was getting information quickly.
At 10:00am, the procession of Sargent Helus started at Los Robles hospital. I talked to a personal friend of Helus before it began who said they had just spoke to him yesterday. “He was just a great human being and he and his wife had such a great relationship. He was an unbelievably great marksmen. So well trained. I just can’t believe he’s gone.”
As the procession began, police car after police car after police car drove down the street as 7 helicopters flew over head. Suddenly, it just hit me that this guy lost his life protecting people. He ran into a place with an active shooter and now his wife would not get to see him tonight. This was a guy who loved life and did things right.
Suddenly, someone standing on the street handed us a flag to wave as the hearse drove by. I was recording on Facebook Live and began to weep.
I left in my car parked at the Oaks Mall. For the next 2 hours I proceeded to talk with multiple people about what they knew. At mid-afternoon, I went to the American Red Cross station at the Thousand Oaks Teen Center and interviewed Nicole Maul. She and I started talking and I talked to her about the day as she talked to me about hers. As we spoke, I saw my daughter’s youth pastor walking in. His face was grim and my stomach sank a bit. I turned back to Nicole. She then asked, “Wow, this tragedy seems to have impacted you. Are you sure you don’t want to come inside and speak with some of our grief counselors?” I replied, “You are very kind. Thank You. I think I will be okay.”
After she and I were finished, I was standing next to a crew from ABC 7 News who were getting radio about a small brush fire in Camarillo. The group asked where Camarillo was and I turned around and pointed, “There,” and in the sky was a huge plume of smoke. All of us ran to our cars. This was going to be one of those days.
As we drove towards Newbury Park, the freeway was getting smoky. We got off at Borchard and headed towards the Amgen campus. I finally jumped out of the car and began to walk towards Target down Wendy Drive. The fire had already jumped the 101.
It looked like a scene from a movie.
All I could think about was how Camarillo Springs and the Conejo grade and Dos Vientos had all been so impacted by events in the last 5 years. Hopefully this would reduce the amount of loss.
The 101 freeway was closed and smoke could be seen moving over the freeway.
After being there for 2 hours, I went to school to pick up my daughter and headed straight to the candlelight vigil at the Civic Arts Plaza for the victims of the shooting.
Outside on the lawn were groups assembled that were singing songs and praying. At close to 6:00pm we were luckily able to get in and sit in the press designated area. Looking down at the stage and seeing our leaders there, I was sad for many, many people that were texting saying they could not get in because the venue was full. They wanted to mourn but because of capacity limitations were denied that time with the community. It made me sad and I apologized to them.
Leaders on stage attempted to comfort those in attendance. Even though their own grief they gave hope that tomorrow would be a better day.
We went back home and began watching the local and national news on TV. It was pretty awesome to see how much information they could deliver to the community because they had resources like helicopters and cool software to show from the sky which streets were affected by the fire even at night. Our community was being impacted and the information just couldn’t get to us quickly enough from the fire department. The local television news stations were really helpful to the community by assisting in reducing panic.
We packed our bags and got the cars loaded. I had half a bag for me, another half for my husband, and 20 bags for the kids. I stayed up watching, and reading every announcement and data source I could find. I shared all that I could on social media and is new posts to TheVoiceCalifornia.com.
On Friday morning at 4:00am, we received the call and text to evacuate. I had not slept at all.
Within 10 minutes we were out of the house. We were texting neighbors and checking in to see if everyone else received word also. Certain neighbors refused to leave. I was terrified for them.
When we got into the car, my 5 year old smelled the smoke and asked me if there was a fire. I told him there was and that we were going to a safe place. He replied, “Mommy, I am scared. Are we going to be ok?” My heart sank. I held his hand and said, “We are going to a safe place and everything will be fine.” My 3- year old daughter just watched and listened.
Since Friday morning, it has been a non-stop barrage of information and posts coming from so many sources. It has been hard to sieve through it all. Fellow writers on the team jumped in and handled social media, website news posts, pictures, and more. While each contributed before, this event made it all congeal so much more.
As of this evening, the Woolsey Fire is now 30% contained with an expectation of 100% containment by Saturday, November 17. What this event has taught me is the importance of all the pieces that make up communication to a community: agency PIO’s, national / international news organizations, regional TV news channels, and local print news. Each group played a key role in communicating to those impacted about what was happening. With nearly 90,000 acres burned, these groups (along with first responders, of course) truly helped to reduce the loss of life.
Thanksgiving is a few weeks away but I know already what I am thankful for. First, the heroism of so many first responders from Sargent Helus paying the ultimate price to our firefighters locally and those coming to our aid from far away. I am thankful for working in such a great community of fellow news organizations that really gave their all to help report as much as they could as fast as they could. Finally, I am thankful to a community that has tuned in to read what we are writing and allowed us to be your news organization. It is a great honor and my team and I could not be any more humbled by your faith in us.
We have much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving.
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