Seal Beach first responders ran toward gunshots
It was ‘a scene of an ambush,’ said a contractor working nearby, among the first in the salon after a gunman exited. | Full coverage of the Seal Beach shootings.
The men ran toward the shots.
As Childers approached the building off Pacific Coast Highway and Fifth Street on Oct. 12, he said a man police later identified as Scott Dekraai stepped out of the salon. The man walked calmly away, carrying what appeared to be a 9 mm weapon.
The gun was pointed up – until the man saw Childers.
“He looked right at me,” Childers said. “Then he pointed it at me. He then put it back up in the air.”
“I was in a reactionary mode. I didn’t stop.”
Childers, 47, was the first responder to walk inside the salon and smell the gunpowder.
A former Marine with eight years as a firefighter at the El Toro Marine Corps base, he had seen combat and been trained for emergencies, but nothing could prepare him for the largest mass shooting in Orange County history. Eight people inside the salon were shot at close range. Seven would die.
At first, no one knew that another man was shot inside his parked car and would become the eighth to die in the shooting spree. A homeless man would spot him and summon police for help.
Other men working as contractors with Childers on a site across the street ran to the salon to help. Two of them had special training: John Gallegos, 46, a Lake Forest resident who served as a Marine for 22 years, and Brendan Peña, 27, an emergency medical technician who had spent 10 years as a volunteer with Long Beach Search and Rescue.
Gallegos called what he encountered “a scene of an ambush.”
“They were civilians. At the end of the day, they were supposed to go home,” Gallegos said. “In combat, you’re either going to get shot or shoot somebody. Here, these guys had no expectation of any of that. They had plans. They had plans. They had lives to live.”
“NOT A SOUND”
When Childers first walked into Salon Meritage, “I didn’t see anybody alive.”
“I couldn’t see anybody moving,” he said.
So he identified himself and called out: Everything is OK.
“I’m here to help,” he said to a room full of bodies.
“When I went around explaining who I was, people started coming out of their spots, so I went from there.”
There were two hairstylists hiding in a bathroom, three more people hiding in a facial room and two more women who came out of other places, he said.
Childers said his goal was to get the survivors out, ensure there was no other shooter, do triage on the victims and see who was left alive that he could help.
Inside the salon, one woman, shot dead, had her head in “the bowl,” what hairstylists call the sink used to wash clients’ hair. That may have been Christy Wilson, a salon employee getting her hair done that day by colleague Michelle Fournier, Dekraai’s ex-wife.
An Anaheim woman who was salon owner Randy Fannin’s client said the day of the shooting that a man walked in, shot Fournier first, then Wilson, who was getting her hair washed by Fournier, and Fannin third. The woman then ran outside to safety.
In an interview with police, Dekraai confessed to the killings and described the same sequence, according to court documents. He called the additional victims “collateral damage.”
In the first moments following the two-minute shooting spree, the salon was eerily quiet, Childers said. “Not a sound.”
As a former Marine, Childers assigned tasks to his colleagues. One would act as a spotter in a safe location across the street and be on the lookout for the shooter, should he return. A second colleague, Mike Sauerwein, 34, worked as “communications” to relay messages from the spotter to Childers.
After an initial check of what was happening, Childers yelled to his communications man, Sauerwein, to get Gallegos and Peña “to come over with all the medical kits we had available.”
Peña ran over with a first-aid kit and a defibrillator. While Childers worked one end of the L-shaped salon, checking rooms and doing triage, Peña said he worked another.
Gallegos was assigned to help Los Alamitos resident Hattie Stretz, 73, the only gunshot survivor. Stretz was in the salon to get her hair done by her daughter, Laura Webb Elody.
All of the men, who had training in combat or emergency work, described locking everything else out of their minds and focusing on what needed to be done.
“You listen for certain sounds, commands,” said Gallegos.
“My yelling,” Childers added.
Gallegos, who has known Childers since 1994, said, smiling: “We were able to communicate.”
Sauerwein, meanwhile, stayed just outside the door but Childers didn’t let him come inside. When he first approached the salon, Sauerwein said he, too, saw the man he later identified as Dekraai in a photo line-up coming out of the salon.
“He was pulling on his pocket, trying to stuff something,” said Sauerwein, a Lakewood resident. “He was walking casually, as if he was just walking down the street.”
Then Sauerwein heard what he recalls were three more shots outside the salon. And he called 911.
It wasn’t long before people started to come out of the busy shopping center that houses restaurants, doctors’ offices, a MacDonald’s, beauty salons and other businesses.
Witnesses pointed the arriving police to the man in a white truck, Sauerwein said. Police arrested Dekraai at Central Avenue and Twelfth Street about a half-mile away, some five minutes later.
Police arrived at the salon only minutes after the first call. After ensuring it was safe for paramedics to come in, firefighters from Station 44 were called in. They were only a few blocks away and could hear the police sirens.
Scott Belshe was the first Seal Beach paramedic from the station to step inside the salon. He remembers “a lot of things going on, people in shock, victims, people in need of assistance.” Before long, cell phone ring-tones filled the room, as news of the killings began spreading locally and across the nation.
Belshe immediately focused on the victims. There were two who were still alive. One of them wouldn’t make it. Paramedics checked for lung sounds and ran an EKG on each victim to check for heart rhythms. When the monitor recorded a straight line, paramedics handed the flat-line strip to police.
“A few minutes later, we found out there was a third patient outside,” Childers said.
A VICTIM IN THE PARKING LOT
That was David Caouette, who had parked in his black Land Rover before heading to one of his favorite restaurants, Patty’s Place. In court documents, police said Dekraai apparently thought Caouette was an off-duty or undercover police officer and shot him.
Childers said he also hadn’t heard about Caouette until he walked outside. “One of the officers said there was another victim in the parking lot,” he said.
In the chaos of the shooting, police apparently did not immediately realize that Caouette was shot outside, in his parked vehicle. Managers at the McDonald’s in the same shopping center said they saw a man they know as “Homeless Mike” or “Seal Beach Mike” point out Caouette’s Land Rover to the police.
Michael Vosburgh, a Seal Beach man who lives in his car and hangs out regularly in the shopping area of the salon with his dog, said he noticed Caouette slumped over in his car.
“I yelled ‘Hey, hey,’ but got nothing,” Vosburgh said. “I’m just amazed how nobody else walking around saw him.”
Caouette was alive. “He was struggling to breathe,” Vosburgh said. “When I realized he needs help now, I ran around, opened his door and yelled, ‘Hey, hey, you alright?’ “
Vosburgh said he then closed the car door and ran toward the salon, ducking around the police yellow tape, looking for somebody to help.
According to Vosburgh, who grew up in Seal Beach, there was a quick exchange with a police officer:
“Mike, get the hell out of there.”
“Hey, you got a gunshot victim over here.”
“Over here, in the Land Rover.”
The paramedics were all inside tending to the victims in the salon, Vosburgh said. He called to another officer he knew and told him he would run over to a private ambulance that was just arriving. “We have a gunshot victim who needs attention now,” Vosburgh said he told them.
Vosburgh couldn’t say how many minutes had passed between the time he heard the gunshots as he was parking in front of the McDonald’s on Pacific Coast Highway and the time he found Caouette.
“Too long, which bums me out,” he said, “although it probably wouldn’t have made a difference.”
Seal Beach police and District Attorney representatives said this week they could not discuss any details of the case.
In the aftermath of the shootings, some of the men who first ran to the site said they have been deeply affected.
Childers talks about nightmares.
Gallegos, who already was struggling with post-traumatic stress from his days as a Marine, said this has made it worse and it’s difficult to sleep. Gallegos helped take care of and comfort Hattie Stretz, the lone gunshot survivor. She was in the salon to get her hair done by her daughter, Laura Webb Elody, who died.
To help bring closure and in honor of the victims, many of them have attended some if not most of the victims’ memorials. Childers went to the ceremonies for all the victims: Fournier, Wilson, Fannin, Caouette, Webb Elody, Victoria Buzzo, Michelle Fast and Lucia Bernice Kondas.
For Childers, of Garden Grove, the tragedy has led to new connections. He said he’s found strength in new friendships with hairstylists, area restaurant owners and others affected by the shooting. Ironically, his background not only includes military and fire department work but he was the former co-owner of Studio OC hair salon in Laguna Niguel.
Childers said he’s not new to death or emergencies. He was 22 or 23 when he was shot in the foot by a guy trying to rob him.
“I hit the gun out of his hand and as I did, it discharged,” he said. Then, a few years ago, he was on his way back from Amsterdam when he had to deal with two medical emergencies, including a passenger who went into cardiac arrest before the pilot made an emergency landing.
“I’ve been in really weird situations,” he said.
In City Hall, there’s been talk of honoring the men later this month for their bravery. The men dismiss the idea and said they did what they had to do.
“We’re all of the opinion,” Childers said, “we just did what we thought was right.”
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