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From a mass shooting to a major wildfire, two California firefighters recount a harrowing 24 hours

Two firefighters went beyond the call of duty when they responded to a mass shooting at the Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks, California - then nearly 12 hours later, they responded to the Woolsey fire just a mile away. CNN's Stephanie Elam reports.

Posted: Jun 14, 2019 2:20 PM
Updated: Jun 14, 2019 2:20 PM

It took just three minutes for Ventura County firefighters Martin Gonzalez and Damon Zielinski to respond to the late night call of shots fired at the Borderline Bar & Grill, back in November. But it would be days before either would truly sleep again after what would be some of their most emotional days on the job.

"Before we even left the station, our dispatcher goes, 'Hey, we're getting reports of numerous shots fired and you might have two victims,'" said Gonzalez, a fire captain who's been in the fire service for 31 years, 16 of those years with Ventura County.

They arrived to a still active scene so they staged three blocks away.

"Probably 13, 14 shots -- and loud," Gonzalez recalled. "Seemed like they were right outside the engine."

"Almost like two different people were exchanging gunfire," Zielinski added.

Thinking they might be in the middle of the shooting, Gonzalez directed the rig to move under a freeway overpass.

"We backed up and pulled on the off-ramp. Just as we backed in, you could see probably 20 to 30 people running across the intersection," Gonzalez said.

As people ran away, others were just arriving, looking for family and friends as news of the shooting spread on social media. It was country college night at Borderline, so many of the people arriving were parents looking for their sons and daughters.

Gonzalez understood their fear. On the way to the shooting, a moment of panic swept through him as his thoughts momentarily turned from his job to his two eldest daughters who frequented Borderline.

"I had to text my wife just, 'Hey, are the girls home?'" Gonzalez recalled, his emotions caught in his throat. "She texted back, 'Yeah, what's going on?' I go 'Okay.' I didn't have time for anything else."

Earlier in the night, Zielinski had seen his friends posting pictures on social media from inside Borderline of everyone having a good time.

"Just knowing there's people that are inside that I know," said Zielinski, 31, a US Marine veteran. "You're just trying not to think about it."

Once the shooting stopped, people began coming to their engine.

"A lot of it wasn't anything major. It was just cuts from glass," said Gonzalez, noting that the first responders began putting on their bulletproof vests.

Then a sheriff's deputy pulled up and said his partner had been shot.

"A lot of us pull him out, put him on the ground, start cutting off his uniform to find out where the gunshots were and started doing CPR," Gonzalez said, remembering how they knew they needed to get the officer to the hospital as quickly as possible by ambulance. "We load him up on the gurney. Damon and myself jump in."

Gonzalez and Zielinski couldn't help but think of the man's family. Although neither knew the wounded officer personally, they recognized him as one of their own.

"We've been on several calls with him," Gonzalez said. "From working with him, he was a real jokester, you know, a nice guy. We were on with deputies all the time and they're like one of us ... one of our family."

As soon as they got to the hospital, medical teams were at the door, immediately taking over chest compressions while at the same time trying to stop the officer's bleeding. The firefighters had counted several gunshot wounds, but they hoped somehow this man would survive.

The firemen were cleared around 1 a.m. and headed back to the station for a debriefing. During the debriefing, Gonzalez received a text from his wife. She had just seen friends of theirs on the news. They hadn't been able to get in touch with their son, who went to school with Gonzalez's daughters. He was at Borderline.

"I'm looking at this text and trying to go through our debriefing at the same time. And I go, 'No! This can't be happening,'" Gonzalez said, his eyes soft as he recalled this painful memory. "I find out the next morning he was one of the victims."

Jake Dunham, 21 years old, was one of the 11 people killed when the gunman, a US Marine veteran, entered the packed venue in a black trench coat and began shooting.

Adrenaline still pumping and their phones ringing nonstop as word of the shooting spread, neither of the firefighters was able to sleep after their lengthy debriefings.

After daybreak, they learned that Sgt. Ron Helus of the Ventura County Sheriff's Office, the officer they tried to save, had also died. A 29-year law enforcement veteran known for his hard work ethic, Helus was shot six times. He was planning to retire the following year.

Zielinski volunteered to participate in the procession to transfer Sgt. Helus from Los Robles Hospital to the coroner's office.

"The outpouring of support that was already being shown from the community of just civilians going out there, standing on street corners, pulling flags, making posters and signs," Zielinski said, describing the procession.

Gonzalez headed home. "My goal was just to get home and kind of be with my family. That usually makes me feel better when something tragic happens," the 54-year-old said. "I get home talked to my wife, hugged my wife, hugged my daughters. It was emotional."

Hours after the shooting, a fire rages. And then, another fire

After the procession, Zielinski also headed home, filled his roommates in on what happened and then fell asleep face down on the couch. About 30 minutes later, one roommate returned and told Zielinski that it looked like there was a big fire outside.

It was about 1:30 p.m. -- some 14 hours after the shooting -- when Zielinski looked out his window and realized the fire might be a real threat. He turned on the news. The fire was just about a mile away from Borderline.

"That was when the Hill Fire was just cresting the 101 freeway and they were shutting it down and showing it jumping the freeway," Zielinski said. He immediately headed back to work.

Gonzalez had finally fallen asleep when his wife walked in and told him his phone was going off. She figured they wanted him to get back to work.

"She opens the blinds and I could just see the smoke," Gonzalez said. Their house was only about four blocks away from the fire.

After the shooting and then with the Hill Fire, resources were spread thin, so the firefighters ran medical calls well into the evening.

Then the Woolsey Fire started to rage, 15 miles away.

"I hear one of our chiefs on the radio saying, 'Hey, I need at least the six closest engines ... to Oak Park,'" said Gonzalez who directed their rig that way to scout out a neighborhood and get ready. They were told the fire was about three or four hours away. "Within probably half an hour, they're like, 'Fire's at the ridge top already.'"

The wind had picked up, hurtling the Woolsey Fire down the hill and into the residential community within 20 to 30 minutes, the firefighters said. The brush fire spread to backyards and then to the houses. The firefighters were able to save all the homes in the first block where they staged.

It was after it passed through there, that homes began to catch on fire.

So many resources were still at the Hill Fire, and the Woolsey Fire was now moving too quickly for them to keep pace.

On their rig with two other firefighters, the crew pulled two hoses off the fire engine and wet down hot spots as quickly as possible, targeting the towering palm trees so they didn't drop burning embers on the rooftops.

"Those little embers get underneath the eaves and then that's how you start losing homes," Zielinski said.

Then the firefighters turned up a cul-de-sac. A palm tree was on fire. Below it, a car was also ablaze. On the corner, the glow from the back patio of a house appeared to be getting larger. Zielinski looked over the wall into the backyard; Gonzalez tried the front door.

"I'm hoping that door's open because it was a nice wooden door and I didn't really want to break it down," Gonzalez recalled. "I turned the knob and the door opens and the alarm's going off inside. And just as I opened the door, the fire had broken through the living room window. The fire was rolling through the house already."

Zielinski headed into the house with his hose. As he waited the few seconds it took for the engineer to get him water, the fire continued to take over.

"The drapes go up and now fire is like rolling across the ceiling and over my head," Zielinski recounted.

He and the other firefighters were able to stop the blaze from spreading to the second floor.

"If we hadn't went in, taking that couple of seconds just to stop and take a look, I think we would have lost that house," Gonzalez added.

'We're not used to losing homes'

Bob Pondt is the owner of the home the firefighters saved. "I walked in here and I saw the puddles and I saw the footprints," Pondt said of his first time entering his house after the fire. "And I'm going, 'This could have been really bad.'"

In front of the window that was broken by the fire, red marks lightly dot the back of some of the legs on the Pondts' dining chairs. Pondt says he isn't going to remove them because they are a reminder of just how lucky he and his family were.

"God put these guys in a position where they dedicated their lives protecting people and property," Pondt said, noting that the firefighters were there when he and his family needed them. "It was men -- flesh and blood -- who come and help the community and love what they do."

In total, the Woolsey Fire destroyed more than 1,500 structures and killed three people. Losing one house is one too many for these firefighters.

"Here in Ventura County, we're not used to losing homes," Gonzalez said. "And then to have the shooting and then go to the fire the next day and just continue to lose houses -- it's been tough."

With the community on their mind, Gonzalez and Zielinski kept busy with several fires during roughly the next two weeks, not getting any real sleep until about the third or fourth day once resources started to arrive from other agencies.

All the while, the men rode a wave of emotions as they learned more about the Borderline shooting victims, their funerals and fundraisers for their surviving families.

"The fires almost kind of overshadowed it," Zielinski said of the shooting. "It all seemed like a few days later where Borderline was an afterthought."

For both Gonzalez and Zielinski, Ventura County isn't just where they work but also where they live.

"Thousand Oaks has always ranked as one of the safest cities in the nation," Zielinski said. "This is a good, safe community, open."

Gonzalez added that the Borderline shooting changed how they move through the world.

"For that to happen here, you think it could happen anywhere now. It's not the same when you go out anymore," Gonzalez said. "I know that when I go out from now on, I check my surroundings. Even at a restaurant, you watch people as they come through the door. I try not to sit with my back toward the door because, who knows? This could probably happen again."

Several months later, Gonzalez and Zielinski both returned to Borderline for the first time since the shooting. In front of the boarded-up entrance, a memorial to all of the people who lost their lives overflows down the pathway -- a mosaic of pictures, flowers, and art detailed with the victims' names.

Zielinski walked up close to the memorial to pay his respects; Gonzalez stands a few feet back, with his arms crossed and tears in his eyes.

Both know people continue to add to the memorial but, for different reasons, neither has driven up to see it.

"I think it's one of those things where maybe part of me kind of wants to just always remember the good times that I had there with friends and not think of the place now as kind of a place of sadness, tragedy," admitted Zielinski.

For Gonzalez, the memories are still very visceral. "Driving through there, the memories come back," he shared. "The gunshots, you know, just a lot of the chaos. It's hard."

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