He may be the hero, but she is the one who rescued him.
They met at a funeral. It was his seventh funeral that week and day four of a drinking binge ― his attempt to quell the nightmares.
In the days that followed, he would become known as the hero of the Salon Meritage shootings, where nine people were shot and eight were killed on Oct. 12 in Seal Beach. But on this day, as he attended two funerals, he felt more lost than heroic.
It was her fifth funeral that week. A former stylist at Salon Meritage, she lost several friends in the massacre.
She had seen him at all the funerals but didn’t know who he was, and she spent the week working up the courage to meet him. They were at a cloudy morning memorial service for hair stylist Laura Webb Elody, and Elody’s family called on the crowd of hundreds not to be overcome with hatred or anger because of the tragedy. The crowd held hands and shouted, “Love is louder.”
With the chant hanging in the air, Tammy Hetzel introduced herself to Doug Childers.
For the second time in a week, their lives were forever changed.
They have been together every day since and will marry Saturday in a small beachfront ceremony in front of 20 friends and family in Seal Beach.
‘She saved me’
Though tragedy brought them together, theirs is a love story.
She noticed him first.
“I thought he was hot,” laughs Hetzel. “It was my mission in life to give him my card. I prayed and prayed and prayed about it. Finally it was the last (funeral), and I went up to him. I was totally nervous. But then when I talked to him, it was easy.”
After Hetzel walked away, her friend teased Childers, telling him, “I see you met your future wife.”
“He called me before I even got home,” said Hetzel.
A friend had introduced the two under the pretense that Childers, a construction worker and former hair stylist could help out Hetzel, who owns Hair Therapy Salon on Katella Avenue.
“We talked about me helping out at the salon, but that never happened,” said Childers. “Instead we met for coffee at Starbucks ― that became our spot.”
“We talked for two and a half hours that first day, and I think I’ve seen him every day since,” added Hetzel.
A recovered alcoholic, Hetzel understood how Chidlers was using alcohol to suppress his pain. She helped pull him back from the edge, and she was the one person who never pressed him for the details of the salon shooting, said Childers.
“She saved me.”
On the day of the shooting Childers was working at a nearby construction site. A former marine, he recognized the sound of a “double tap,” two shots fired in succession, two shots aimed to kill.
Childers and his coworkers John Gallegos, Mike Sauerwein, Brendan Peña and Mark Mason didn’t hesitate to rush toward the gunfire.
Childers ran straight toward the salon and came face to face with alleged shooter Scott Dekraai as he walked away from the massacre, gun still in hand.
“Scott pointed the gun at me. He thought about it,” Childers recalled after the shooting. “I didn’t stop. I just kept going. He brought the gun down and turned toward his truck.”
According to police, Dekraai had just shot eight stylists and customers inside the salon, killing seven people because he was enraged over a custody dispute with his ex-wife, a stylist at the salon. After the encounter with Childers, Dekraai shot and killed another man in the parking lot before fleeing in his truck, according to police.
Childers and his co-workers directed police toward Dekraai’s fleeing truck and ran into the salon and tried to save the wounded. Eight of the nine shooting victims died that day. Childers carried their last words to their loved ones.
The nightmares started immediately after.
“The last one that I had. I was staring at him, and he pulled the trigger, and I felt the impact, and I felt myself going to the ground, and everything went black,” said Childers. “It was like I was in their shoes. It was like it happened to me.
“I was on a quick downhill run ― A lot of drinking. I had the nightmares, so I would drink more. After we started hanging out, the nightmares sort of stopped, didn’t they?” Childers asked Hetzel as they sat outside Bogart’s Coffee overlooking the Seal Beach pier on a recent afternoon. “I had two in one night, and that was it.
“I had been having them every night, and then they just stopped. Just by being there she pretty much stopped them,” said Childers. “I think I loved her from day one. I can relax with her. She makes me laugh.”
We Found Love in a Hopeless Place
At first, Hetzel worried that a relationship born of such tragedy and intensity couldn’t last.
“But a couple of weeks into dating him, I thought he was the one for me,” said Hetzel. “I have so much respect for him. He’s everything I could ever want in a husband.”
It didn’t take long for friends and family to realize the two were serious about one another. And their families grew in ways they never expected.
In the days and weeks after the shooting, the couple grew close to the people who lost loved ones that day. They have been invited to weddings and on family vacations.
And at Saturday afternoon’s small ceremony at the beach near the First Street jetty, the brother of shooting victim Michele Fast will be Childers' best man.
The ceremony will be casual and open to the public. A friend will sing their song, Rhiana’s ‘We Found Love in a Hopeless Place.’
Because the wedding is at a public park, the couple is only permitted to invite a small group of people, but they are happy to share their day with the community, said Childers
The pair knows their story is meaningful to many who were touched by the tragedy. They know their union is part of the proof that love is louder.