When Lt. Mike Madden responded to one the deadliest massacres the United States has seen in years, his training kicked in, but those tough drills were nothing compared with reality.
SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. — He had trained for active-shooter situations. He recalled the drills where trainers barraged officers with everything they could — sounds, bright lights, smells — to overwhelm them.
When Lt. Mike Madden pulled up Wednesday to the scene of what would be one of the deadliest massacres the United States has seen in years, his training kicked in, but all those tough drills were nothing compared with reality.
“As we entered into the conference room, the situation was surreal,” Madden, of the San Bernardino Police Department, said at a news conference Thursday, just across the street from the building where 14 people were killed and 21 wounded. “It was unspeakable the carnage we were seeing, the number of people who were injured, and unfortunately, already dead.”
He also recalled the “pure panic,” he said, of the people still alive and inside. Fire alarms were ringing, the sprinklers were spraying water. It was so soon after the shooting, he said, that gun powder hung in the air. He could smell it.
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Madden typically has an administrative job; he oversees dispatch. He had left the office and was on his lunch break about 11 a.m. when the calls came across the radio. He was less than a mile from the scene.
Instantly, Madden, a native of San Bernardino who has been with the department since 1993, could tell something was wrong.
“I know my dispatchers,” he said. “I know the tone of their voice. I know the severity of the calls as they go out, and I could hear it in the tone of their voice.”
He added: “This was actually happening.”
He was among the first to arrive. “It was out of pure luck I happened to pull into the right location,” he said, and he worried there were gunmen still firing.
“It was immediately evident,” he said, “that the reports we were getting were 100 percent true.”
Within two minutes of the call, four officers had gathered, and they went in.
They found horror and chaos.
In addition to the blaring fire alarms, there were much worse sounds, the “moans and wails” of the wounded.
“There were people who were obviously injured, and obviously in great amounts of pain,” Madden said.
“It was unspeakable,” he said, “the carnage that we were seeing, the number of people that were injured and unfortunately already dead, and the pure panic.”
He passed people who were dead and he passed people who were wounded, but he and the other officers made the decision not to render help to the wounded right away. Not knowing the shooters had already fled, the first order of business was to figure out how many attackers were on the scene, and where they were.
“I was asking individuals, but again, panic was obvious and apparent, and so we weren’t getting a lot of further information,” Madden said.
Officers encountered about 50 people cowering in a back hallway. They did not want to come out; Madden worried that an assailant was with them, holding them hostage.
“We had to tell them several times, ‘Come to us, come to us,’” Madden said. “And ultimately, they did, and once that first person took the motions forward, it opened the floodgates and everybody wanted to come and get away from that as quickly as possible.”
Ever since the Columbine school massacre in 1999, he said, police had trained for active-shooter situations, where, “We talk about sensory overload; they just try to throw everything at you to prepare you for dealing with that — what you’re seeing, what you’re hearing, what you’re smelling — and it was all of that and more.”
He added: “My job was to go in there, and you know, people don’t call the police because they’re having a great day. They call because there’s tragedy going on, and this was tragedy that I’ve never experienced in my career, and that I don’t think most officers do.”
For the officers, he said, panicking was not an option. They had to push back their emotions as best they could, he said, tearing up as he recounted the experience to reporters. “These people had dealt with enough,” he said. “The last thing they need is to see their police officers panicking.”
If anything, he was hopeful that officers’ response to the rampage would remind people far from San Bernardino of something good about law enforcement.
“You know, we’ve taken a lot of hits lately, some justified, much of it not justified, and it takes a toll,” Madden said. “I guarantee you that no cop comes into this job with the mindset that, ‘Great, now I have the power to be corrupt and violate people’s rights.’”
His experience Wednesday, Madden said, was a reminder of that. “It solidified that,” he said, “in my heart and my mindset.”
A reporter asked Madden about a widely viewed video of an officer leading frightened people to safety, asking if that was him on the video, assuring survivors, “I’ll take a bullet before you do, that’s for damn sure.”
“No,” he said. “I would like to think I was that cool, but no, unfortunately, that wasn’t.”