October 17, 2019

After Grieving for Pittsburgh, I Witnessed Thousand Oaks

People comfort each other in Thousand Oaks, CA, where a gunman killed at least 12 people inside a bar on November 7, 2018. AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

This was the “next time.”

Words fail, but words right now are all I can muster.

We were on the dance floor, in the middle of the dance floor. I heard two pops, and my first thought was that it was a prank, or a sound effect. Then everyone understood at once what was happening. We all dropped to the floor, and I dove for the side of the room behind some bar tables. I heard more pops, and people yelling to get out and move. I was a few feet from an exit, and I saw people run for the kitchen. I yelled at people to move, to get out, and I was out of the building within five seconds.

My mind flipped a switch. I had work to do. My job was to get to safety and stay alive.

I heard more shots as I ran across the parking lot and up the side of a hill, jumping over scrubby vegetation and trying not to fall. I heard people yelling “No lights!” and we kept running in the dark away from the bar. On the hillside, I saw the blue and orange lights of a police car pulling into the driveway, less than two minutes after the shooting started. Then more shots. We kept running.

At 11:26 p.m., I called my parents. Then I gave my phone to a girl beside me. She had dropped hers and ran. She called her parents, nervous after dialing a wrong number. An off-duty LAPD officer approached us to check that we were OK. He was bleeding from his ear and the bridge of his nose. He told us to keep moving, that the sheriffs would form an inner and outer perimeter and that we should move to them. We kept climbing the hill, and there was another exchange of shots, this time audibly different between the first pops and the gunfire from police.  

Four of us made our way down the other side of the hill, further away from Borderline. I called a couple friends who I thought were inside. One went straight to voicemail, the other rang and rang. I led the four of us down the slope in the dark, navigating around sharp branches and scrub. One of the girls was on the phone with her parents the whole time. I slipped a few times in the dark, unable to see loose dirt or rocks.

The LAPD officer with us kept us together and organized, and on the other side of the hill, through another parking lot, we made our way to the Ventura County Fire Department vehicles where EMTs were treating injuries. A friend of mine was there, and she told me that one of my friends that I couldn’t reach had gotten out. Sometime later I heard from him that the other friend was OK, too, that her phone was still inside the bar.

“I’m very much in shock. The weight of my emotions haven’t hit me yet. As of this writing, I know that two of the victims were friends of mine, at least five were familiar faces at Borderline.”

I stood and paced and wondered for 20 minutes. It was now almost 12:30 a.m., and I knew that I couldn’t get to my car, which was parked right outside the bar. One of my friends offered to drive me home, and I started making my calls to friends and family to let them know that I was on my way home.

At home, I hugged my parents and we watched the news in dread. I posted to Facebook: “Anyone who has seen the news about the shooting at Borderline, I was there, I got out, I’m safely home.” Over the next several hours, I heard from friends, family, and mentors checking on my safety. Some are thousands of miles away. Some I haven’t spoken to in years.

I’m very much in shock. The weight of my emotions haven’t hit me yet. As of this writing, I know that two of the victims were friends of mine, at least five were familiar faces at Borderline. I’m trying to take action while I still have my wits about me.

I want to convey my immense gratitude to the Ventura County Sheriff Department and the VC Fire Department. Their quick response, within two minutes of the shooting, surely saved lives. I send my sincere condolences to the family, friends, and colleagues of Sgt. Ron Helus, who likely heard the first shots and was there before anyone called 911.

The Borderline community is a tightly-knit and resilient family. We didn’t panic, we acted quickly to preserve life, and we helped each other escape the danger. We continue to support each other in grief as we mourn our friends and family who were taken from us. We did everything right, by instinct and action. And still, 13 people died.

I now join a painful, grief-stricken fellowship of shooting survivors, a membership that I never wished to seek. There is no plan for this. No one ever expects this to happen to them.

Just last week, I met with my rabbi, Paul Kipnes at Congregation Or Ami to talk about the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting. I told him, “I hate how we talk about preparing for next time. This was the next time, and there will be more next times.”

He told me “I don’t need to sugarcoat this with you. It’s going to get worse before it gets better.”

Neither of us imagined that this would be the next time. It couldn’t happen here, right?

And it did. This was the next time.

Ben Ginsburg, 23, lives in Woodland Hills and works remotely for the University of California – Davis, Division of Continuing and Professional Education.