THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — At least 11 bar patrons and a sheriff’s deputy were killed late Wednesday in a shooting at a country and western dance hall in Thousand Oaks, Calif., that was holding an event for college students, officials said.
The gunman is dead, officials said early Thursday, adding that there was no longer a threat to those at the bar, the Borderline Bar & Grill, which had been filled with about 100 people at the time of the attack. Witnesses described a chaotic scene: A gunman opening fire, first at a security guard, as patrons dropped to the dance floor, hid under tables and broke windows to escape.
The Ventura County sheriff, Geoff Dean, said there were “multiple other victims of different levels of injuries.” His voice cracking, he identified one of the dead as Sgt. Ron Helus, who was shot when he entered the building.
“He died a hero because he went, he went in to save lives, to save other people’s lives,” Sheriff Dean said.
When other law enforcement officers arrived at the scene, he added, the suspect was already dead. Sheriff Dean said that the suspect had not been identified, that the authorities had “no idea” whether he had links to terrorism, and that it was not clear if he had taken his own life. President Trump said on Twitter that he had been “fully briefed on the terrible shooting.”
Country music was playing in the dimly lit bar when people first heard gunshots some time before midnight. Some said they had initially mistaken the sounds for firecrackers.
Chyann Worrell, a junior at California State University Channel Islands, said she was at the bar to celebrate the 21st birthday of her friend Nellie Wong for a night of line-dancing with a live D.J. Shortly after 11 p.m., Ms. Worrell said, the gunman, wearing dark clothing and a dark baseball cap, drew his gun. He aimed it at a man near the front of the bar.
Ms. Worrell ducked for cover and heard a barrage of bullets follow. As she ran out of the bar, she said, she saw several bodies sprawled on the floor. Hours after the shooting, she had still not heard from two friends who had been with her at the bar.
One young woman inside the bar, Teylor Whittler, said the gunman appeared focused and did not appear to be targeting anyone in particular.
“I saw him shoot,” Ms. Whittler said, adding that someone had yelled, “Everybody get down.”
She said she saw him quickly reload his gun and fire again. “He knew what he was doing,” she said. “He had perfect form.”
“People started running to the back door,” she said, and she heard someone shout, “Get out — he’s coming.” She then fled the venue and heard another burst of gunfire.
Brendan Kelly, 22, helped several people escape from inside. “It’s your worst nightmare,” he said. “It’s terrible.”
The shooting came just over a year after 58 people were killed at a country music festival in Las Vegas when a gunman opened fire from a high-rise hotel room.
That attack — and the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., in February — renewed the debate about the prevalence of guns in the United States and their connection to the high number of mass shootings in the country.
The rampage in Thousand Oaks, a city of 129,000 people about 40 miles west of Los Angeles, was the deadliest shooting in Southern California since 14 people were killed in a terrorist attack in San Bernardino, Calif., in 2015.
The first 911 call reported “shots fired” at the club, said Capt. Garo Kuredjian, a spokesman for the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office. “As deputies responded, they also heard shots.” Additional units from the California Highway Patrol, Simi Valley and the F.B.I. responded, he said.
Captain Kuredjian said about 100 people had been inside the bar, many of them young people who turned out for a college country music night. The bar is not far from Pepperdine University, which said in a statement that it had received reports that several students were at the bar when the shooting occurred.
The bar’s website says that for a quarter century, it “has stood as the Ventura County’s largest country dance hall and live music venue,” with more than 2,500 square feet of open dance space.
Ms. Wong, who was celebrating her birthday, was trapped in the club until the police arrived. She described the scene as a blur.
“I’m so sorry your birthday got ruined,” her friend Sarah DeSon told her when they were reunited later.
“She’s alive though. She’s alive for her 21st birthday,” said Ms. Whittler, whose badly scratched leg had just been bandaged by emergency medical workers. Moments later, Ms. Whittler’s parents arrived in a truck to check in on her.
“Were you hit?” her mother asked, with panic in her eyes. “No it’s just a scratch, I’m fine, I’m fine,” Ms. Whittler said.
A witness interviewed by ABC7.com said that the violence started when the gunman walked up to the entrance to the bar, shot a security guard and a cashier, and deployed a smoke bomb.
“I just started hearing these big pops,” said the witness, a man who was not identified. “The gunman was throwing smoke grenades.”
Then, panic ensued as people tried to flee.
“He just kept firing,” the witness said, adding that “people were trying to get out the window” to run away from the gunman, who had “a big handgun.”
Michael Miller, 25, who lives near the Borderline and is a regular, was on his way to the bar Wednesday night when people began to call him frantically asking if he was inside.
He said that the bar was popular with police officers and firefighters, and that it was often busy on Wednesdays because it hosts a college night and allows students under 21 to enter.
As Mr. Miller and his friend Chris Weber walked toward the bar, which was surrounded by police tape, they received a call that a friend who worked the door had been shot. “She’s the sweetest, nicest girl,” Mr. Miller said, trailing off. “Nobody would expect this in Thousand Oaks.”
Mr. Weber said that many of the people he believed were at Borderline on Wednesday night had attended the music festival in Las Vegas last year where dozens died. He was frantically calling friends early Thursday to try to confirm who was inside.
Young women who were at the Borderline expressed disbelief that the bar, which they sometimes go to several times a week, could become the site of such violence.
“It’s safe. It’s a safe place to be,” said Erika Sigman, a sophomore at Cal State Channel Island. “You can stay out all night at Borderline because there’s major security.”
Jose A. Del Real reported from Thousand Oaks, and Gerry Mullany and Russell Goldman from Hong Kong. Tiffany May contributed reporting from Hong Kong, and Matthew Haag and Matt Stevens from New York.