SAN JOSE, Calif. — They made the trains run on time, got their neighbors to work and, during long shifts and in friendships that deepened over decades, they took care of each other. Nine of them died on Wednesday, victims of a mass shooting at the hands of one of their own.
Relatives and co-workers of the latest mass shooting to shock a community and dull the senses of the nation said the cliché about workmates being a family was really true this time. The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority workers at the San Jose rail yard on West Younger Avenue felt a bond born of odd hours and difficult jobs, a bond now transformed by grief, anger and outrage.
They were drivers and repairmen, expert engineers and office supervisors. They made a decent living and they made things work. They bought houses, which rose in value in one of the country’s most enduring boom regions, and they sent children to college.
They lived, their relatives said, an American dream. But the country that lifted them up the economic ladder is also one where too many people get the worst of all calls — the alert that a loved one is missing and then the news that he has been shot to death, for no reason other than that he had gone to work that day.
“I never saw anything like this,” said Bagga Singh, the cousin of one victim, Taptejdeep Singh. “I see it over the news all the time, and all of a sudden, it’s become reality.”
The men shot by their co-worker, identified by authorities as Samuel Cassidy, were native Californians and immigrants from India and the Philippines. They ranged in age from 29 to 63. Four of them had worked at the transit agency for at least two decades; the others had been there for at least seven years.
After work that had to get done while rail passengers slept, they commuted, some of them long distances, to homes where they built refuges from a harsh outside world. Tim Romo dressed up his garage with neon beer signs, making a man cave where he and his friends could unwind at night. Alex Ward Fritch and his wife built a tiki bar on their back patio, using old fence boards they found around the neighborhood to give their watering hole a rustic shack look.
“The key is escapism,” Fritch told a tiki website last year. “You should feel like you’re stepping into a different world, leaving your day-to-day behind.”
The gunman fired 39 shots as the workers held an early morning union meeting, a setting in which they’d found ways to bridge differences and boost their livelihoods. They died where they worked, except for Fritch, who made it to a hospital, where he died in his wife’s arms.
Singh, a follower of the Sikh faith who immigrated to the United States from India, died trying to save his colleagues. He bolted from a hiding place and helped a woman get into a secure room. Then he ran into the shooter in a stairwell, where Singh was shot down, relatives said.
“I’m angry, I’m sad, I’m at a loss of words,” said Nauni Singh, the agency’s light-rail superintendent, who shared an office with one of the victims and worked closely with several of them. He was not related to the slain worker with the same last name. On Wednesday, “I was there to support the families,” he said, “but I don’t know how. We were helpless inside.”
When Taptejdeep Singh — Taptej to his family — came home from work each day, his 3-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter would be watching from the window. As soon as they spied him, their game began: They’d run and hide, Bagga Singh said.
“Then he’d come and find them under the bed or the backside of the curtains,” the cousin said.
But on Wednesday, Taptej didn’t return home. Bagga got a call from his wife saying there had been a shooting at his cousin’s workplace and he wasn’t answering his phone.
Taptej grew up in a multigenerational home on a farm in Punjab in northern India. He and Bagga considered themselves brothers and loved playing in the fields. After arriving penniless in California in 2004, Taptej missed those fields and had dreams of purchasing land outside Union City to grow fruits, nuts and vegetables.
When they were young, Bagga recalled, he would sleep in his grandmother’s bed instead of his mother’s, and 2-year-old Taptej copied him, trying to squeeze into the same small bed. When they got older, they went to the same school and rode motorcycles.
“We had the same house, same everything,” Bagga said. “Nothing separate.”
In California, Taptej worked his way into the middle class, starting in factories, then in a security job, and then, in 2014, at the VTA, where he rose to become a light-rail operator — a job also held by his brother-in-law. Taptej was also a real estate broker.
Deeply religious, Taptej, 36, wore the Sikh articles of faith, including a comb, a bracelet and uncut hair. He loved volleyball and cricket, his cousin said, often playing in games on weekends.
Wednesday was Singh’s second day back on the job after a vacation. On workdays, he would generally leave home at 4 a.m. to have his train rolling in time for the morning commute.
His brother, Karman Singh, said that after the shooting started, Taptej “reacted quickly to get colleagues into secure offices, and was frantically calling others who would have been coming in for a shift change to warn them.”
“Even in these moments of chaos, Taptejdeep was living by the values of Sikhi: living in service and protection of others,” Karman said in a statement. “We believe that if the shooter had ever asked our brother for help, Taptejdeep would have gone above and beyond for him like he did for everyone he crossed paths with.”
Sukhvir Singh, a VTA worker who is not related to Taptej, said in a statement that during the attack, “Taptejdeep called me to warn me that there was an active shooter in Building B and to go hide or get out immediately. He told me he was with Paul, another victim, at the time … Because of him, so many people were able to go home to their families.”
Paul was Paul DelaCruz Megia, 42, an assistant superintendent at the rail yard and a VTA employee since 2002, who was also killed Wednesday.
Nauni Singh shared an office with Megia and said that “sometimes, my demands could be unreasonable, but Paul always accepted them with a smile.”
An immigrant from the Philippines, Megia had three children with his wife, Nicole Yamada, and a stepson. His job required an early start — he began his commute at 4:30 a.m. — but he took time to phone his children each morning before they left for school.
Megia “was full of love, jokes, energy for life and always up for new adventures,” his wife said in a statement. “God took you too soon & I would do anything to have one last hug & goodbye.”
Relatives and friends said that there was never a doubt that Michael Rudometkin — Mikey to those who loved him — would make it to union meetings, even at 6 a.m. He had always been passionate about the VTA union, said his mother, Rose Rudometkin.
“We lost our son to a ruthless, disgruntled employee of VTA,” she told The Washington Post. Mikey “had just turned 40 and still had more to live and accomplish … He would give his last penny and shirt off his back — anyone could call him for help and he’d be there.”
Rudometkin, who joined the VTA as a mechanic in 2013 and rose to become an overhead lineman, served as a youth minister at his church in San Jose, earned a master auto technician certificate and loved to work on cars.
“He enjoyed sports of all kinds, golf, cars, working at home and the Russian River,” his mother said.
Raul Peralez, a San Jose city council member who serves on the VTA’s board and was a close friend of Rudometkin for most of his life, had been planning a golf reunion with his father and Mikey. “Now, that will never happen,” Peralez said.
Peralez, who met Rudometkin in seventh grade, played football with him in high school, worked with him in the Sears hardware department after school and took automotive classes together at De Anza community college. Rudometkin loved taking motorcycles apart and putting them back together again.
“Mike was friends with everybody,” Peralez said. “Everyone can recall a time when he helped them out, when they leaned on him and he came over to fix their car.”
Rudometkin, who recently drove a VTA line truck to Peralez’s house so his 2-year-old son could gawk at it, had a family cabin near the Russian River, west of Sonoma, where he and his wife would invite friends for themed parties — a sumo wrestling bash, a lip sync battle, a mystery night.
Peralez spent Wednesday evening with Rudometkin’s wife and Thursday morning with his parents and sister. He said they, like the families of the other victims, are left “with a hope that your loved one is still going to come home, yet knowing that that’s never going to happen again.”
Like Rudometkin, Lars Kepler Lane was a lineman, maintaining the overhead electrical cables that powered the rail cars. A VTA employee for 20 years, he was a father and grandfather. He was killed three days before he would have turned 64.
His friends called him “Kep” and he and his wife, Vikki, had three children and lived in San Jose’s Kooser neighborhood, where Lane pursued his interests in photography, travel and wine tasting.
Another lineman who was killed, Timothy Romo, 49, was “a big, friendly, jolly guy,” said Michael Ortiz, Romo’s neighbor in Tracy, Calif., a 60-mile commute from the VTA rail yard.
Ortiz and Romo would trade exhausted sighs at the end of their long workdays and then Romo, an Air Force veteran who lived for a time in Minot, N.D., would sometimes retreat into a garage he’d set up as a beer cave, a place where he could hang out with friends and family.
Many VTA workers called their co-workers family, and in more than a few cases, they were literally related. Adrian Balleza — a rail operator who at 29 was the youngest victim — was drawn to the work by his uncle, as were several other family members, according to Balleza’s cousin, Victor Sevillano.
“My father got everyone into it,” Sevillano said, calling his cousin a “great man, great father, great everything.”
“It still doesn’t feel real,” Balleza’s wife, Heather Muhfin Balleza, said Thursday. “My heart keeps breaking … over and over. Adrian couldn’t wait until our [2-year-old] son was old enough to take him fishing. My heart breaks that he won’t get to watch him grow up … He was my night and day … my forever angel.”
Sarah Raelyn heard about the mass shooting Wednesday morning from someone who texted her a news story and said they hadn’t been able to contact Raelyn’s ex-husband, Jose DeJesus Hernandez III.
“I tried to be pragmatic and just be like, ‘I’m sure he’s OK,’ ” Raelyn told NBC News.
But later in the morning, Hernandez’s godmother called with the news. “The most loving, romantic and giving man that I have ever known” was gone. The couple divorced last summer.
Hernandez, who was 35 and had worked at the VTA since 2012, maintained the electrical system, as did Abdolvahab Alaghmandan, 63, a 20-year veteran of the VTA who was known as Abdi.
As soon as Megan Staker moved from Iowa to San Francisco with her boyfriend, Alaghamandan’s son Soheil, Abdi “became like a second father to me,” Staker told the San Francisco Chronicle. “He brought so much joy and laughter to our lives. He was stolen from us. Our hearts are broken forever.”
On the patio behind their house in South San Jose, Alex and Terra Fritch built their own tiki bar, complete with a fire pit, nautical doodads and sparkling lights. They called it Fred and Ginger’s Exotic Cocktail Bar and Lounge.
“I tend to like drinks just outside of being balanced,” Alex told a tiki-themed website. “Anything slightly tart, bitter, spicy, or on the boozier side is what I gravitate toward.”
Fritch, 49, worked at the VTA for more than eight years, maintaining substations. He’d grown up in the Santa Cruz mountains. He and Terra had been married for 20 years. They had two teenage boys and Fritch also had a 30-year-old daughter.
Terra learned that something was wrong when she got a call from a friend Wednesday morning at 7, asking if Alex was safe.
“Alex was everything to this family,” Terra told KTVU. “He was our sole financial provider, he was our rock, my safe place to fall.”
Severely wounded, Alex managed to hold on long enough for his daughter to arrive from San Diego and his parents from their homes 45 minutes away.
“Alex was really fighting hard,” his wife said. “He didn’t want to go anywhere. And I didn’t want him to go.”
As his condition deteriorated, a nurse moved Alex slightly to make room for Terra on his hospital bed.
“He somehow knew I was there ’cause his hand — it had been twitchy — but it grabbed my hand.”
Then his heart stopped.
We “were supposed to renew our vows on the beach of Hawaii in September,” she said. “And it’s all gone.”
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Siddiqui reported from San Jose. The Washington Post’s Tim Craig, Alice Crites, Andrea Salcedo and Julie Tate in Washington and Michael Oneal in Oakland contributed to this report.