Editor's note: Liesl Nielsen is a reporter for KSL.com. Her hometown is Thousand Oaks, California.
SALT LAKE CITY — I woke up yesterday morning to discover my hometown had become the newest site of a mass shooting. I went to bed that night wondering if my childhood home would burn to the ground.
Seven years ago, I moved to Utah from Thousand Oaks, California, when I became a student at Brigham Young University. I was excited to leave home, but I found myself sobbing uncontrollably the morning I was supposed to leave as I wrote farewell letters to my family and said goodbye to the city I’d loved since I was 11. (I may have been an overly sensitive teen).
Now fast forward to Thursday at 6 a.m. I blearily stared at my phone as I tried to find the snooze button while my alarm blared. Before I could fall into a blissful 9-minute sleep, however, I noticed an alert from KSL.com.
“13 people dead after gunman opens fire inside a country dance bar in Thousand Oaks, California,” it read.
I may have said a word I’m not proud of.
I jumped up in bed and frantically tapped the alert. I’ve never read the details of a story with such sober intensity and heart-sinking despair.
“The dead included … a freshman at nearby Pepperdine University and a recent Cal Lutheran graduate” — I had friends who went there after high school.
“Police converged on the Borderline Bar and Grill” — I’d been there for a friend’s birthday once. It was just a 10 minutes drive away from my parents’ house where I grew up.
I quickly texted them, but knew they might not be up yet — it was still 5 a.m. in California. I wasn’t too worried about them nor my two little sisters who still lived at home. There was no reason for them to have been at a “college night” country party at a bar after midnight.
Then I thought of the families who would wake up to that news — maybe the worst news of all — that their loved ones were no longer there. I dropped to my knees and said a prayer.
My supplications to the divine were soon interrupted, however, by texts from my dad and mom. It was too soon to know, they said, if someone we knew was at the scene of the deadly shooting. I went to work that day with a pit in my stomach.
It was strange walking into the KSL newsroom that morning as I listened to radio do their normal morning broadcast — something I’d heard so many times before it had become background noise. But today I couldn’t drown it out.
“Twelve were killed in a rampage at a bar in Thousand Oaks, California.” The words felt strange as they washed over me. Tragedy hitting home.
I checked Facebook throughout the day as my friends from high school posted about the shooting and talked gun control.
It was several hours later, as I finished up my last story of the day, when I received a text message from the sheriff’s office of my hometown. I wondered why they still had my number on file.
“You are under mandatory evacuation,” the text read.
I panicked. Was there a second shooter? I knew there was a massive fire destroying homes in Northern California, but that was hundreds of miles away. Why would my hometown be under evacuation?
I did some quick googling. Southern California seemed to be on fire, too. I couldn't believe the universe had the audacity to do this the same day.
I called my mom and asked her if she’d gotten an evacuation notice.
“No,” she said. “But I can smell the smoke.”
Sadly, that’s not too strange of an occurrence for California, even in November.
I quickly tried to look up information on the county sheriff’s website, but it wouldn’t load. Too much traffic, I guessed. I called the dispatch number and waited on hold for 20 minutes before I got in touch with someone. I gave the dispatcher my parents’ address and asked if they were on evacuation notice. She wasn’t able to get on the website either and told me she’d put me on hold until it loaded.
Five minutes later I heard, “Ma’am yes, you are on evacuation.” I thanked her and hung up, then called my mom back. She was already getting ready to leave. But I couldn't relax until I heard they were out of the city and on the way to my grandma’s in Los Angeles.
“What will you do if our house burns?” one of my other sisters asked me later when I met her for dinner in Provo.
It's a strange thing to think about. A house is more than just a house. It's full of memories you want to hold on to. I thought about the patio furniture my parents had finally bought after living there for 14 years. They were so happy to have it. For some reason, I suddenly felt a lump in my throat I couldn't swallow.
Honestly, I wasn’t sure what I would do. And I still don’t have any good answers for anything.
I feel for those who lost family in the shooting. I feel for those who lost homes and lives in the fire — in both northern and southern California. But I don’t know how to end what seems like a never-ending drought in California. I don’t know how to bring together two sides of the political spectrum long enough to enact meaningful gun control.
The only thing that keeps coming back to my mind, as cliché as it sounds, is a quote from Mr. Rogers — a beloved television personality who made it his mission to help kids make more sense of the world.
“My mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world,” he would say.
Yet, I can't help but feel that it's no longer time to look for the helpers. It’s time to be one.