Cynthia Limas said she didn’t immediately notice the black SUV passing her Wednesday on San Bernardino Avenue as she was pulling into her apartment driveway with her 6-year-old granddaughter, Lilly Velez.
She swears she didn’t even pick up on the first sounds of gunfire – until suddenly bullets were whizzing by her family’s Hyundai in a relentless explosion of street warfare.
“I heard a lot of gunshots,” she said Thursday, one day after an explosion of violence wracked the region. “A whole bunch. It just went on. I can’t even explain it. It was so scary.”
On the very block where Limas was bringing her granddaughter home from elementary school, 23 police officers fired more than 380 shots at the SUV after, police said, the suspects in the SUV fired on them with assault rifles and semi-automatic handguns.
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San Bernardino police Chief Jarrod Burguan said 27-year-old Tashfeen Malik was blasting out through the rear window of the van as her husband, Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, opened fire from the driver’s seat.
As the gunbattle went on between police and the couple responsible for killing 14 people at a county holiday party and wounding 21 others, Cynthia and Lilly were stuck in the Hyundai nearby.
An office assistant for the county who didn’t know the slain workers, Limas brought her granddaughter to the floor and held her. Terrified, she fumbled with her cellphone. She punched 911 urgently, finally reaching a dispatcher.
“I wanted to let them know that we were in the car,” Limas said. “I just didn’t want them to shoot at us.”
As the firefight raged, the Hyundai was hit only once – in a tire. Then, suddenly, it was over.
Officers raced to the car and whisked Cynthia and Lilly to safely. She never turned back to look at the carnage behind her, where one suspect’s body lay in the road by the bullet-riddled SUV.
Throughout the region Wednesday, residents looked on in shock at the surreal scenes of armored vehicles ferrying officers through the streets and helicopters hovering overhead.
In Redlands, where the suspect couple lived in a rented two-story townhouse, Linda Hamilton was in her home across the intersection on Center Street and prepared to walk to a neighbor’s for happy hour about 4:30 p.m.
“We started to walk across the street and noticed a police car parked there,” said Hamilton, 72, a resident of the quiet area since 1979. “He was waving frantically at us, go back, go back. We had no idea what was going on.”
She and her husband drove a winding path to their friends’ home and were able to get back in later, but throughout the night they watched and listened as police used a robot and a battering ram to enter the suspects’ home and begin searching.
“I finally did sleep,” Hamilton said. “It was kind of like white noise, helicopters going all night. We could see lights flashing on our bedroom window.”
Hamilton said she did not know the couple and was shocked when she learned their garage had been converted into a bomb-making shop where a dozen pipe bombs were found.
“I’m just speechless, really,” she said. “Redlands is this quiet little university town. It’s a beautiful kind of little oasis.”
By Thursday morning, police were still across the street, and a new army of invaders had arrived in the form of television satellite trucks.
For Limas, the drama continued until Thursday afternoon, when authorities finally let her and daughter Sofia Velez, who wasn’t home during the shooting, slip beneath police tape to return to their home in the apartment building behind the World War II-era bungalows on San Bernardino Avenue.
The Hyundai in which Limas and Lilly had been riding remained in the road, part of the crime scene. Limas gave thanks that she and Lilly were still alive.
“The truth is they actually passed me,” Limas said of the suspects in the black SUV. “They and the police were firing at each other already. I didn’t even know it.
“I’ve run it through my mind many times. I guess I just wasn’t paying attention.”