Masked assailants armed with assault rifles opened fire on a holiday banquet for county employees in San Bernardino, Calif. on Wednesday, killing 14 people and plunging a nation already on edge about terrorism and mass shootings into hours of tense uncertainty.

The massacre at the Inland Regional Center set off a surreal day in which hundreds cowered in their offices, schools went on lockdown, SWAT teams swarmed neighborhoods and a four-hour manhunt played out on live TV. The finale was a gunbattle on a residential street that left two suspects dead.

San Bernardino Police Chief Jarrod Burguan said investigators had not determined a motive for the shooting, but an official at the FBI, which is working with local agencies, said he could not rule out terrorism as a motive.

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“It is a possibility, but we don’t know that yet, and we aren’t willing to go down that road yet,” said David Bowdich, assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles office.

Authorities identified the dead suspects as Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, and Tashfeen Malik, 27. A family member said they had been married for two years and had a 6-month-old daughter.

Farook was a U.S. citizen, born in Illinois, and a five-year employee of the government agency holding the holiday banquet. His co-workers said Farook, a Muslim, had traveled in recent years to the Middle East. Malik was Pakistani, a federal source confirmed.

Burguan said he could not rule out that a personal conflict led to the shooting. During the banquet, “there was some type of dispute,” and Farook left the gathering angrily, the chief said, and he returned with his wife and they opened fire.

Farook worked for the San Bernardino County Public Health Department as a health inspector, according to public records and co-workers.

A SWAT team mobilizes on Wednesday near where suspects were shot following a mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

A SWAT team mobilizes on Wednesday near where suspects were shot following a mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

The shooting Wednesday was a grim marker: It was the deadliest shooting since the massacre of 20 children and six teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in 2012. It stood apart from many other mass murders in that there were at least two assailants and one was female.

President Barack Obama said the killings were yet more evidence of the need for stricter gun laws.

“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,” he said in an interview with CBS.

Late Wednesday, Farhan Khan, introduced as Farook’s brother-in-law, appeared at a news conference called by the Los Angeles-area office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

“I just cannot express how sad I am for what happened,” Khan said. “My condolences to the people who lost their lives. … I am in shock that something like this could happen.” When asked if his brother-in-law had been religious, he declined to comment.

The shooting began at about 11 a.m. in a building on the campus of the Inland Regional Center, a nonprofit that serves thousands of children and adults with developmental disabilities.

The county public health department had rented a large conference room for its annual holiday potluck. Employees were gathered for lunch when suddenly the doors burst open.

Olivia Navarro’s daughter Jamile called her just after 11 a.m. and told her she was hiding in a room at the Inland Regional Center, where she works as a case manager for children with special needs.

There were multiple shooters in the building, the daughter said.

Navarro told her to turn off all the lights.

Jamile followed the advice. She told everyone in the room to stay quiet too. Her phone died soon after. Unable to reach Jamile, her mother grew frantic, wondering if her daughter was among the dead.

Police later told Olivia Navarro that her daughter had been evacuated safely. The mother cried as she recalled this and said she didn’t understand why someone would open fire in a place that helps children with disabilities.

“I don’t understand it,” Olivia said as she stood down the street from the scene of the shooting.

Navarro said all she wanted was to see her daughter.

“I want to hold her and thank God that she’s alive,” she said.

Authorities said 21 people were wounded in the attack.

Evacuated workers pray on the San Bernardino Golf Course across the street from a mass shooting at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, Calif., on Wednesday. (Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Evacuated workers pray on the San Bernardino Golf Course across the street from a mass shooting at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, Calif., on Wednesday. (Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

The mass shooting prompted at least eight other California nonprofits that serve people with developmental disabilities to close their doors early on Wednesday “out of an abundance of caution,” although officials said there are no known threats against any other facility.

“The victims of today’s shooting were connected to us by service to those in need. Our hearts are with all those affected,” said Anne Struthers, the board president of the Association of Regional Center Agencies, an umbrella group that represents California’s 21 regional centers, adding that the centers are working with law enforcement.

In a statement Thursday, the association said that all of Inland Regional Center’s employees were safely evacuated and none of the individuals with disabilities served by the center were harmed.

Inland Regional Center is the largest of the nonprofits, which contract with the state to provide services to nearly 300,000 people with autism, cerebral palsy and other developmental disabilities. Regional centers are the product of the Lanterman Act, the landmark 1969 California law that began to shift the state’s residents with developmental disabilities out of state-run institutions.

About 31,000 clients and their families in Riverside and San Bernardino counties receive help through the center, which in turn contracts with businesses and nonprofits for transportation, job-placement, day programs and other services. About 600 people work there.

Wednesday’s mass shooting reportedly took place at the smallest of the campus’ three buildings, which houses a large meeting room.

“This is a tragic and heartbreaking moment for the disabled community in California,” April Lopez, the chairwoman of the State Council on Developmental Disabilities, said in a statement.

Phil Bonnet, the executive director of the Alta Regional Center that serves people with developmental disabilities in the Sacramento region, said Wednesday that he and other workers at the center are “in a state of shock.”

“We’re all part of the same family,” Bonnet said of Inland Regional Center. “We’re just in a state of shock that a place that caters to taking care of California’s most vulnerable citizens would be a target of something so heinous.”

© 2015 Los Angeles Times and The Sacramento Bee
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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