SAN BERNARDINO, California (AP) — At least two heavily armed attackers opened fire on a banquet at a social services center for the disabled Wednesday, killing 14 people and seriously wounding more than a dozen others in a precision assault that looked “as if they were on a mission,” authorities said.
Hours later, police hunting for the killers riddled a black SUV with gunfire in a shootout two miles (three kilometers) from the late-morning carnage, and a man and woman with assault rifles, handguns and “assault-style clothing” were killed, San Bernardino Police Chief Jarrod Burguan said.
A third person who was spotted running near the gunbattle was detained, but Burguan said it was unclear if that person had anything to do with the crime.
It was the nation’s deadliest mass shooting since the attack at a school in Newtown, Connecticut, three years ago that left 26 children and adults dead.
Police shed no light on the motive for the massacre, but David Bowdich, assistant director of the FBI’s Los Angeles office, said the bureau is looking at several possibilities, including workplace violence and terrorism. He did not elaborate.
The attackers invaded the Inland Regional Center and began shooting around 11 a.m. They opened fire in a conference area that the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health had rented out for a banquet, said Marybeth Feild, president and CEO of the nonprofit center.
Police spokeswoman Sgt. Vicki Cervantes said witnesses reported seeing one to three gunmen.
“They came prepared to do what they did, as if they were on a mission,” the police chief said.
Burguan said that someone had left the county employees’ event after “there was some type of dispute,” but investigators were not sure whether that had anything to do with the subsequent massacre in the Southern California city of 214,000 people about 60 miles (100 kilometers) outside Los Angeles.
Authorities also found a potential explosive device at the social service center.
As gunfire echoed through the large three-building complex, several people locked themselves in their offices, desperately waiting to be rescued by police. Some texted their loved ones or telephoned them and whispered to them what was going on.
Ten of the wounded were hospitalized in critical condition, and three were in serious condition, Fire Chief Tom Hannemann said.
FBI agents and other law enforcement authorities converged on the center and searched room to room for the attackers, but they had apparently escaped.
One witness, Glenn Willwerth, who runs a business across the street, said he heard 10 to 15 shots and then saw an SUV with blacked-out windows pull out “very calmly, very slowly” and drive off.
Triage units were set up outside the center, and people were wheeled away on stretchers. Others walked quickly from a building with their hands up so that police could search them and make sure the attackers weren’t trying to slip out.
As the manhunt dragged on, stores, office buildings and at least one school were locked down in the city, and roads were blocked off.
About four hours later, with police looking for a dark SUV, officers staking out a home in the nearby city of Redlands saw a vehicle matching that description leave. They tried to pull it over, the SUV crashed, and a gun battle broke out around 3 p.m., authorities said. One officer suffered a minor injury.
President Barack Obama was briefed on the attack by his homeland security adviser. He said it was too early to know the shooters’ motives but urged the country to take steps to reduce mass shootings, including stricter gun laws and stronger background checks.
“The one thing we do know is that we have a pattern now of mass shootings in this country that has no parallel anywhere else in the world, and there’s some steps we could take, not to eliminate every one of these mass shootings, but to improve the odds that they don’t happen as frequently,” Obama told CBS.