A trained Marine, Doug Childers knew the sound of gunfire. It was a series of "double taps," two shots fired in succession, two shots aimed to kill.
Childers, now working construction, was on his lunch break just yards from Salon Meritage on Oct. 12 when a gunman walked in and opened fire.
Childers didn’t pause for a second.
He ran toward the gunfire and toward the barrel of a gun that had just shot eight people and would kill one more. Childers made his way to the scene of the bloody massacre as alleged shooter Scott Dekraai calmly walked out of the salon, guns in each hand.
“Scott pointed the gun at me. He thought about it,” Childers said. “I didn’t stop. I just kept going. He brought the gun down and turned toward his truck.”
But he wasn’t done killing, according to police.
Dekraai was climbing into his truck to make his escape when he shot his final victim. Sitting in the parked car next to him was 64-year-old David Caouette, who was on his way to his favorite restaurant, just a few steps from the salon. Caouette was shot dead through the passenger window. Dekraai told police he shot Caouette because he thought he was an undercover cop reaching for a gun.
“I don’t know why he didn’t kill me,” Childers said. “My hair was long, so I think he saw that I wasn’t a cop and wasn’t a threat.”
As Childers ran into the salon, he first came upon the body of salon owner Randy Fannin. He passed Fannin and immersed himself in a scene that has given him nightmares every day since. He was looking for a second gunman. He was looking for survivors.
“I was just doing what I would hope anyone would do if it was a member of my family or me, that they wouldn’t run in the opposite direction. That they would provide help,” he said.
Childers will be honored for his heroism by Seal Beach officials later this month along with co-workers John Gallegos, Mike Sauerwein, Brendan Peña and Mark Mason. With two former Marines and an EMT among their group, they were the first on the scene of Orange County’s worst mass murder. They triaged nine gunshot victims.
(Investigators believe Dekraai, enraged over a custody battle with his ex-wife Michelle Fournier, went to the salon to kill her. According to police, Dekraai confessed after his arrest and called the eight other shooting victims “collateral damage.” He faces the death penalty in the killings of Fournier, Caouette, Fannin, Christy Lynn Wilson, Michele Daschbach Fast, Victoria Ann Buzzo, Lucia Bernice Kondas and Laura Lee Webb Elody.)
These unlikely first responders set up a perimeter around the scene and helped police find the suspected gunman within moments of the rampage. They also relayed the victims' dying words to grieving family members, and later grieved for people they never knew at eight funerals.
In the days since, Childers has adopted those grieving families as his own. There have been a lot of tears, but no regrets.
INSTINCT TAKES OVER
It was about 1:20 p.m. when the four men on their lunch break heard the shots. They were just yards from the salon. Childers and Gallegos turned to look at one another. Instinct took over in the former Marines. Childers charged into the salon looking for a second gunman. Gallegos was the spotter, watching to make sure the shooter couldn’t double back and open fire again.
Sauerwein called 911 and relayed the shooter’s path down Fifth Street to police as they arrived on the scene. Peña, an EMT and trained emergency rescue worker, grabbed a first-aid kit and ran inside with Gallegos to help Childers treat the victims.
They cleared the salon. They separated the dead from survivors who were still playing dead, and then did what they could to save the wounded. Only 73-year-old gunshot victim Hattie Stretz would survive.
They also comforted the dying.
Gallegos listened to the final words of love from the last shooting victim and delivered her message to her family.
AN EMOTIONAL SHOCK WAVE
Post-traumatic stress is not new to Gallegos. A veteran of six combat tours in such places as Colombia and Iraq, Gallegos had waded through death before in a search for survivors. He felt no hesitation chasing down the gunfire in Seal Beach, and he never thought twice about treating victims in the midst of a massacre.
But nothing in his 22 years of military experience prepared him for the emotional impact of that day.
“I can’t sleep," Gallegos said. "You see what you saw in there every night. It’s different than the military. These are innocent people who couldn’t fight back.”
What haunts Gallegos most is the suffering of the victims' families and friends—some of whom were on the scene immediately.
“Seeing the expressions on their faces is what’s hard for me,” Gallegos said. “After meeting the families and seeing what they are going through, I keep asking myself, 'Is there something I could have done differently? Could I have gotten there faster?’ ”
Coping with the aftermath has also been a challenge for Peña.
As an EMT and trained emergency responder in Long Beach, Peña has treated gunshot victims before, just never so many at once.
“The emotions come in waves,” said Peña. “The hardest part is seeing the shock waves go through the families and the community.”
Sauerwein is the only member of the crew who hadn’t been trained for such an experience.
“I had just walked through the parking lot, and for all I know, I passed by him sitting in his car," Sauerwein said. All the sudden I heard this sound like tapping metal, and I was waiting for it to stop, but it just kept going. Then the guy comes out the door. He has the guns. It looked to me like he is walking real calmly, and I am thinking this can’t be happening.”
Sauerwein ran to the salon. He saw Fannin at the entrance.
"Doug [Childers] said, 'Don’t come in, so I didn’t,' " Sauerwein said.
Instead, he ran to the corner as a lookout, ready to relay the shooter's route to police.
“I don’t have the military or medical training like the other guys, so I figured I could help in [some] way,” he said.
Sauerwein said he placed himself in harm's way without concern for his own safety.
“You’re raised to do what’s right,” he said. “When people are hurt or in need of help, you try to do what you can.”
'I’LL ALWAYS BE HERE FOR YOU'
Three weeks later, everyday events bring the terror of those few moments rushing back to the surface.
“I got my hair cut recently, and I realized I couldn’t lean back and get my hair shampooed," Childers said. "The images are still too intense.”
Before working in construction, Childers owned a chain of salons—Studio OC in Laguna Niguel and Studio LB in Long Beach. He identifies all too easily with the victims and their families.
Childers is undergoing therapy to help him sleep but remains in too much emotional pain to jump back into life. At some point, he said, he'll return to doing the things he loves—surfing, horseback riding and enjoying the outdoors with his two children.
He knows he will have to testify in the death penalty trial of the man who pointed a gun at him but didn’t pull the trigger. He has spent time with the families of the victims, getting to know them and learning about the people he tried to save that day.
“I went to all eight funerals just because I wanted to get to know who it was that we weren’t able to help,” he said.
While the legacy of pain from that day is still fresh, Childers hopes he can turn it into something positive.
“I went to all those services, and I got to know about the individuals," he said. "The way people talked about them is overwhelming. It makes me want to change the direction of my own life.
"All I ever focus on is my work and my kids, but I want to be more than that. I want to be more like them.”
Childers has grown close to several of the victims' families and friends. They call him a hero, an “angel in white.” Together they have grieved, and although the bond was born in tragedy, it’s built on something stronger.
“To the families, I would say, 'I’ll always love you guys. You took me in as one of your own, and I’m taking you in as my family. I’ll always be here for you.' ”