In California Town Hit by Three Wildfires and a Mass Shooting, Stunned Neighbors Offer Comfort to Each Other

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

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.”

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.

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.

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SOURCE: WORLD Magazine, Sophia Lee