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California apocalypse

In a California town struck by a mass shooting and a wildfire, stunned neighbors and churches offered comfort to one another

California apocalypse

People gather to pray for the victims of the mass shooting during a Nov. 8 candlelight vigil in Thousand Oaks, Calif. (Ringo H.W. Chiu/AP)

For days, the sun and moon were blood-orange—that is, if you could see them through the thick haze of ashes and smoke. Three major wildfires in California in November—the Camp Fire in Northern California, the Woolsey and Hill Fires in Southern California—devoured hundreds of thousands of acres, killing at least 80 people and destroying thousands of homes. In some areas, the haze was so dense that it tinted everything orange-yellow, as though the world had transformed into an old sepia photograph.

But for residents of Thousand Oaks, a hilly, oaky suburbia about 40 miles northwest of Los Angeles, the Nov. 8 arrival of the massive Woolsey Fire—scorching an area the size of Denver—was only the second crisis to hit in one week. The first struck the night of Nov. 7, when a local man shattered the sounds of laughter and country music with gunshots at the Borderline Bar & Grill.

So began a week of chaos in Thousand Oaks: In a Southern California city known for mild weather and quiet, upper-middle-class neighborhoods, residents found themselves blindsided by two life-altering tragedies at once. For Christians in the community, the crisis became a time to minister and weep with those who were suffering—and to grapple with their own losses.

The clock was ticking toward midnight Wednesday, Nov. 7, when the first frantic text messages and phone calls arrived.

Shawn Thornton, the 52-year-old senior pastor of Calvary Community Church in Westlake Village, received his text at about 11:45 p.m. It was from his youngest daughter, who said a mass shooting had occurred at Borderline. Thornton immediately checked a local news website and Twitter, but saw nothing about a shooting. He was about to text his daughter back when the news broke on his screen: “Mass shooting.”

The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images

Residents evacuate as the Woolsey Fire approaches Simi Valley on Nov. 9. (The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)

Thornton’s heart sank. Borderline was a friendly neighborhood bar that doubled as a community center. It was a Western-style venue known for country dancing and theme nights. Every Wednesday was “College Country Night.”

Thornton’s daughter relayed more bad news: Her friend Noel Sparks, a 21-year-old student at Moorpark College, went to Borderline every Wednesday. That night, about 10 minutes before the shooting, Sparks had posted a video of the bar on Snapchat. “It’s quiet tonight,” she had remarked on the app. Sparks also worked for the early childhood ministry at Thornton’s church—a committed, bright-smiling servant who would arrive at church a half hour early and leave a half hour late.

Now, it seemed nobody was hearing from Sparks. That morning, Sparks’ mother, Wendy, had undergone surgery, and she was still recuperating at the hospital when news of the shooting broke. Thornton wasn’t sure if Sparks’ parents knew their daughter was missing.

Thornton didn’t sleep much that night.

Neither did Lacy Williams. The 26-year-old optometrist technician met Sparks while line-dancing at Borderline. They quickly became close friends when they realized they attended the same church.

When Williams first heard about the shooting, at around 11:50 p.m., she immediately messaged Sparks, asking if she was OK. Sparks never responded. Williams texted other friends, asking if anyone had heard from her. They even tried to locate Sparks’ iPhone using a tracking app until the phone eventually shut off.

Early the next morning, Williams and her mother sat at the Thousand Oaks Teen Center, where anxious family members and friends awaited information on their loved ones. All morning, Williams and her friends called various hospitals, hoping Sparks had checked in somewhere.

Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

People gather near Borderline Bar & Grill after the shooting. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

It was several hours before Williams received the news she dreaded. She turned to her mother. “We need to go see Wendy,” she said. “She needs someone right now.”

Around that time, Thornton was busy leading a prayer vigil at Calvary. About 600 people had showed up, tense but still hopeful for good news. By the time Thornton realized Sparks was gone, the church’s executive pastor was already at the hospital, telling the young woman’s parents she was missing. Now he had to tell them she was dead.

By Thursday evening, everyone had heard the terrible story: A Marine Corps veteran, dressed in a black trenchcoat and a dark baseball cap, had walked toward Borderline Bar & Grill with a Glock .45-caliber handgun and shot the security guard. He then shot a 20-year-old woman at the cash register and fired into the crowd. According to survivor testimonies, patrons were momentarily confused, then scattered, screaming in utter chaos. They dropped to their knees, crawled under pool tables and stools, and ran and hid in the attic and restrooms. Bodies tripped over one another, bar stools crashed through windows, and limbs flailed as people scrambled out exit doors and windows.

By the time the gunshots stopped, 12 people were mortally wounded. The 13th was the gunman himself, reportedly killed by a self-inflicted wound. Two victims were military veterans. Two others were planning to enlist. One was 10 days away from his 21st birthday. Another had survived the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, but not this one.

Throughout the day, more details trickled out, giving personality to the 12 victims: A father’s fishing buddy; a proud owner of a new coffee shop; a music-loving freshman at Pepperdine University; a recent California Lutheran University graduate who reportedly died while saving others; a Borderline employee who had just bought her first car. The last victim, 54-year-old Ron Helus, was a 29-year veteran sergeant at the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office. As a first responder, he had charged the scene before the gunman shot him several times.

Jim Crews, the lead pastor of a new church plant in Thousand Oaks, was watching the news about the shooting when he saw a familiar face. “Hey, that’s my Starbucks buddy!” he realized. During his weekly Bible studies at a local Starbucks, Crews would regularly strike up conversations with local police officers: One of them was Helus.

For Crews, it all felt like déjà vu. This September, he launched Atmosphere Church at a golf course right across the street from Borderline. Eleven months earlier, Crews was pastoring another church in Las Vegas when the country’s deadliest mass shooting took place in that city. A member of his original church campus in Bakersfield, Calif., Bailey Schweitzer, was among the 58 concertgoers who died at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival.

Crews remembers hurrying to meet and comfort devastated parents. That first Sunday service after the tragedy, he saw many new faces in the pews, including survivors, hotel employees, performers, and an FBI investigator. The image of their ashen, shell-shocked faces never left his mind.

Now, here he was in supposedly one of the safest cities in the nation, again witnessing the same anguished faces.

On Thursday evening, Crews joined a prayer vigil at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, where people still walked around dazed. Groups from about 10 different local churches stood in prayer circles to pray for victims and survivors. As more people arrived, phones began buzzing with evacuation alerts about a wildfire that had broken out that afternoon. Soon, sirens and honks from ambulances, fire trucks, and police cars reverberated throughout the streets.

“In one day, it went from a sleepy town to the most chaotic city in America,” Crews said. As he drove home that night, he watched the early blazes of the Woolsey Fire soaring some 50 feet in the air: “It was like the apocalypse was happening.”

The community had little time to process the shooting. That evening and for days afterward, thousands of residents in Thousand Oaks and the surrounding areas evacuated their homes.

Williams was one of them. She had just returned from visiting Sparks’ mother at the hospital when she saw the fires fast approaching her house in Simi Valley. She grabbed her Bible; dragged her horses, chickens, and goats into a truck; and fled.

Ringo H.W. Chiu/AP

A picture of Noel Sparks at a candlelight vigil. (Ringo H.W. Chiu/AP)

Thornton too had to evacuate. After leading a second prayer vigil Thursday evening and returning home to Simi Valley, feeling drained, he had just settled on his couch to watch TV when his son called: “There’s a fire in the hill behind you.” Thornton frowned: “No, I heard the fire is way off.” His son replied, “Look outside.” Thornton stepped out, and his son was right: Golden flames glowed beyond the shadows of the trees, and plumes of magenta smoke danced up into the dark sky.

The fire department told him the fires could go whichever way, but that if they began heading toward him, he needed to leave—fast. The fires moved away from him that night, but the next morning, the winds shifted. By noon, Thornton got an evacuation notice. He and his family moved to his brother’s house across town.

MEANWHILE, 2,000 MILES AWAY in Chicago, Greg Zanis had just hopped into his old Nissan Titan and was gunning west on I-80 with a dozen white wooden crosses, a bucket of popcorn, and some canned chicken. On Thursday morning, Zanis, a 67-year-old retired carpenter, had awoken to phone calls from people asking if he was going to Thousand Oaks to erect his signature crosses. He had just returned from the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, where he had set up 11 white crosses with Stars of David near the Tree of Life Synagogue.

While Zanis was driving, 85-year-old Michael Garcia was sitting in his backyard in Malibu (just south of Thousand Oaks), breaking open a bottle of merlot. Behind him, embers from the Woolsey Fire rained onto the cracker-dry hills, igniting flames that roared and gamboled their way onto his property. As his pool house, avocado tree, and apricot tree burned to a black crisp, Garcia removed his dust mask from time to time to sip his wine. He lives alone in his 2,000-square-foot house and ignored the mandatory evacuation notices, even as blazing-hot fires swarmed the hills around his neighborhood and destroyed phone and power lines.

“Eh,” he said. He had already survived the Great Malibu Fire of 1993, which ignited under the same conditions—low humidity, high temperatures, strong winds. He lost his house plus four cars then, but his wife consoled him: “They’re only things. You and me are what’s important.” His wife is now dead, but he has a nice house full of things and three cars. So what if his pool house burns down? “It’s just things, you know?” Both Garcia and his house survived the Woolsey blaze: When I met him, he was trying to resuscitate his blackened avocado tree.

For others, it wasn’t just things. The Camp Fire, north of Sacramento, is now the deadliest U.S. wildfire of the past century, with at least 77 people confirmed dead and nearly 1,000 still missing as of Nov. 19. In Southern California, wildfires killed at least three people, burned more than 100,000 acres, and destroyed 1,500 structures. Los Angeles County closed major highways, and tens of thousands of people evacuated homes. The Thousand Oaks Teen Center turned from a mass shooting victim support center into an evacuation center within a span of hours. Thousands of firefighters worked overtime to save buildings and animals, while some residents tried to save their homes with garden hoses.

ON SUNDAY MORNING, I drove to Borderline Bar & Grill from Malibu, detouring around a closed highway and glancing up at wind-blown plumes of smoke and whirring helicopters.

At a gas station across from Borderline, I met Zanis. He had just arrived in California and had set up 12 white crosses at the corner of the street near Borderline. Each cross had a victim’s name scrawled on it in black marker, a picture of the victim, and a mosaic heart that read Psalm 34:18: “The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” Zanis told me students at a private Christian school in Aurora, Ill., had made 100 of these hearts for this very purpose. By the end of the day, people were calling that intersection “the memorial,” and layer upon layer of fresh flowers and gifts soon stacked up before the crosses.

Ever since Zanis lost his father-in-law to a murder in 1996, he’s been extra-sensitive to such tragedies. He had found his father-in-law lying in a pool of blood at the bottom of the stairs after someone shot him in the head. The trauma sucked 50 pounds out of Zanis, but injected a new mission into his life: He now travels all over the country to the sites of mass shootings and sets up his homemade crosses.

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

A firefighter looks on as the Woolsey Fire explodes behind a house on Nov. 9. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Now his white crosses seem ubiquitous: Zanis was in Littleton, Colo., after the Columbine High School massacre, and he was at Pulse after the Orlando nightclub shooting. He was at the Strip after the Las Vegas shooting.

“I just want to tell people someone loves them, that’s all,” Zanis said. He nodded toward the makeshift memorial by Borderline. “At one point, that gunman was loved, and somehow, that changed. ... That’s what’s wrong in our country.”

With all the wildfire evacuations and road closures, Thousand Oaks was eerily quiet, even for a Sunday morning. But at the Borderline memorial, people streamed in and out. Some were neighbors who still couldn’t believe what had happened. “This is crazy,” one elderly neighbor said, her face crumpling. “We’re the safest community ever. This is utterly crazy. These are all our kids,” she continued, gesturing at the crosses.

A group of survivors from the Las Vegas shooting also showed up, carrying coffee and bagels. Alicia Soto told me she drove here because she was still so grateful for the comfort she had received from other mass shooting survivors after her own traumatic experience: “People who have been through it don’t even have to say much. We just understand. We become family.”

Just then, a police car zipped by, squealing sirens, and everyone from Soto’s group instinctively cringed. “See?” she told me. “Sirens are a trigger. It reminds us of that night when sirens were everywhere.”

I also met parents of victims of other mass shootings. Bob Weiss, 62, had his life uprooted when he lost his daughter Veronika to the Isla Vista shooting in 2014. Veronika was a 19-year-old freshman at UC Santa Barbara when a 22-year-old man shot her seven times and also shot her two friends while they were walking near the campus. “When you send your kid away to college, you don’t expect them to come back in a cardboard box,” Weiss said. He quit his job and now supports other survivors and gun control campaigns.

Weiss lives a mile away from Borderline and also had to evacuate his house. The night before, he and his wife, two sons, and two dogs had slept in their Lexus CT 200h because their local evacuation center was full. The next morning, he was hugging and weeping with mourners: “It never goes away. It’s still shocking when it happens. And it’s still painful, because memories come back.”

Sophia Lee

Greg Zanis sets up crosses. (Sophia Lee)

Crews and his church also showed up for community support. The golf course where Atmosphere Church usually meets for its Sunday service had closed due to the evacuation, but when Crews heard about the memorial, he told his congregation to come ready to serve: “God doesn’t want us meeting in a building today. Our church needs to be taken outside to be the Church.”

As Crews and his church members formed prayer circles, strangers slipped in to hold hands and bow their heads. Many survivors opened up to Crews once they learned he had ministered to the Las Vegas shooting survivors. “By having the church building closed, it was the best church service we’ve had,” Crews later told me. “The love of God was there.”

Crews plans to continue reaching out: Atmosphere Church is currently mobilizing other affiliated ministries to provide supplies for those affected by the fires and is planning ways to further minister to the families and police officers affected by the Borderline shooting.

 Jae C. Hong/AP

Roger Kelton searches through the remains of his mother-in-law’s home leveled by the Woolsey Fire. ( Jae C. Hong/AP)

ON MONDAY NIGHT, I drove back to the memorial, where I met Thornton. He said his week would be busy with memorial services. He said his church would also be helping with disaster relief for fire victims and providing grief counseling for the shooting survivors.
Thornton saw this as more than a short-term project—the effects of the double-punch tragedies to his community would be long-lasting. In addition to the Borderline massacre, hundreds of local residents had lost their homes and belongings. The last time Thornton faced something so challenging in his pastoral career was in 2001: “This is the 9/11 of our community.” (As of Nov. 19 the Woolsey Fire continued to burn, and was 94 percent contained.)

I also met Williams, who had slept little in the past few days. Her house had survived the fire, and she had come to see the crosses along with Sparks’ other friends. Their eyes were red and welled with tears as they shared fond memories of their companion.

“She’s just such a beautiful person,” Williams said, voice breaking. “I don’t know why God needed her, why He called her home. But when I go up there, I’m going to ask Him questions. … Boy, am I angry.”

Another friend agreed: “That’s what I keep asking God too: Why?”

Williams sighed: “Eventually we’ll know. I know where I’m going, I know where Noel is now. She once told me her biggest dream is to work for the church.” Williams paused and smiled. “Well, she got it. She got her dream. She got it down here, and she got it up there too.”

Williams then told me she and her friends had to leave. They were going to visit Sparks’ mother at the hospital with a special order from her: An Orange Dream Machine Smoothie with fresh orange juice, extra sherbet, no ice, and a scoop of soy protein from Jamba Juice. They had written down the precise order so they wouldn’t forget and planned to double-cup the smoothie so it stayed fresh. This was a time to mourn together and love one another, and they were going to do it right.

Sophia Lee

Sophia Lee

Sophia is a features reporter for WORLD Magazine. She graduated from the University of Southern California with degrees in print journalism and East Asian language and culture. She lives in Los Angeles with her cat, Shalom. Follow Sophia on Twitter @SophiaLeeHyun.

Comments

  • West Coast Gramma's picture
    West Coast Gramma
    Posted: Tue, 11/20/2018 11:22 am

    Super great feature article, Sophia, about people pulling together and responding positively to help one another in tragedy. I know that area very well, and you gave a good representation of how these people actually are. It's popular now to say, "Don't send thoughts and prayers!" but I say, "Send even more." The people in Thousand Oaks pray AND serve one another. Good article--thanks!

    Oh, and by the way, there is a substantial immigrant population in Thousand Oaks. They love and are loved alongside everyone else.

  • Daniel Strange
    Posted: Tue, 11/20/2018 11:51 am

    It is an interesting thing, the way mass-tragedies like these seem to bring people together, but the world's so-called "peace" divides us. Thanks for the article. I will definitely be praying, and I hope others will be, as well.

  • SodiumPowered
    Posted: Wed, 11/21/2018 01:25 pm

    Great article. The Christian ministry where I work produced a video about the Tubbs fires in Califorinia in 2017, entitled, 'Where Was God?' Along with discussions with people who lived through those fires, it includes discussion about loss and natural disasters. Maybe it will be a blessing to someone of the people reading this. It can be watched online at https://itiswritten.tv/programs/it-is-written/where-was-god%3F