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In San Bernardino center, first responders faced surreal scene

People attend a vigil at the San Manuel

People attend a vigil at the San Manuel Stadium to remember victims of the San Bernardino, Calif. shooting Dec. 3, 2015. Credit: Getty Images / Joe Raedle

Screams of pain. Fire alarms wailing and sprinklers flooding the room from above.

The smell of “fresh gunpowder in the air.”

The scene inside the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California — where a husband and wife killed 14 people and wounded 21 on Wednesday morning at a county health department gathering — was something that no amount of training could ready one first responder for.

“The situation was surreal,” said San Bernardino police Lt. Mike Madden, who was driving nearby, on his way to lunch, when he received the call. “With an active shooter, you talk about sensory overload, they try to throw everything at you to prepare you for dealing with them: what you’re seeing, what you’re hearing, what you’re smelling.

“And it was all of that and more,” he continued, after a pause. “It was unspeakable, the carnage that we were seeing, the number of people who were injured, the number who were already dead, and the pure panic on the faces of the individuals needing to be safe.”

Madden, who normally oversees police records and dispatch units for the 230 officer department, recounted his experience at an evening news conference held Thursday night in the shadow of the crime scene. With little to update on the potential motive of suspects Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, 27, authorities chose to highlight the terror caused by the couple — who were slain later Wednesday in a shootout with police.

The Inland Regional Center conference room, where the attack largely took place, was being rented Wednesday by health department employees for a combination training seminar and holiday luncheon. It was right as the event was transitioning to the party that Farook, a health inspector, and his wife, entered in masks and opened fire.

“There was a Christmas tree in there, all of the tables were decorated,” Madden said. “It just seemed so senseless: here’s people going into their holiday festivities and now they’re dealing with that.”

At first, it was just Madden and several other early arriving officers who tried to coax victims out to safety and check for what they then believed could be additional shooters.

But soon, manpower had come from around the region, in the hundreds.

“It was truly overwhelming to see all of the agencies who got here, and got here in a hurry,” Madden said.

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