JESUP, Ga. (AP) — Those close to Shannon Johnson knew him to be fearless — whether he was moving across the country to pursue love, rescuing stray animals in the path of a wildfire, or trying to shield a co-worker from gunfire during the last moments of his life.
The 45-year-old health inspector from Los Angeles received a hero’s funeral Saturday in his home state of Georgia 10 days after the massacre in San Bernardino, California. Funerals also were held in Southern California for two other victims — Tin Nguyen, 31, and Isaac Amanios, 60.
One of Johnson’s colleagues wounded in the attack, Denise Peraza, said later that he wrapped an arm tightly around her as bullets went flying and assured her: “I got you.”
Those would be his last words.
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Johnson was sitting next to Peraza at a holiday luncheon for San Bernardino County environmental health employees on Dec. 2 when Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, and Tashfeen Malik, 29, opened fire. The husband and wife were later killed in a shootout with authorities.
Peraza says she and Johnson sought cover beneath a table when he tried to shield her. Johnson was among 14 people killed in the attack. Peraza was shot in the back, but survived.
“I believe I am still here today because of this amazing man,” Peraza said in a statement soon after the killings.
Inside Calvary Baptist Church in the rural city of Jesup, where Johnson was born about 2,300 miles from the auditorium in which he died, a congressman gave his family a folded U.S. flag while praising him as “an American hero.”
“Shannon’s fearless. He’s always been that way,” Rob Johnson, the slain man’s older brother, told reporters before the service.
“I’m sure that when he saw the young lady, he thought of his sister or his girlfriend or his former wife,” he said. “That’s just the kind of guy he was. He’s a man of action.”
At Johnson’s memorial service, about 200 people filed into the church where roses, lilies and carnations sent by mourners decorated the pulpit amid strands of white lights and potted poinsettias set out for the Christmas season.
The Rev. Ed Bacon, a family relative, noted Johnson’s selfless final act echoed that of his father, who died while saving another man during an industrial accident at a Kentucky paper mill in 1978.
Johnson was just 8 years old, and his father’s death affected him deeply. As a boy, Bacon said, Johnson would sometimes slip away from home and spend the night at his dad’s grave.
“He learned from his father’s death that no one has greater love than this — to give your life for your friends,” Bacon said.
Johnson grew up in the Macon area, where he played baseball and football in high school, Bacon said, and drove a Honda hatchback with a stereo so loud that people could hear him coming from blocks away.
As a young adult, his love of nature — and loud music — led Johnson to live in an isolated cabin in the Georgia woods. Then he fell in love and followed the woman to California, Johnson’s brother recalled, with no job and nowhere to live.
Johnson settled in Los Angeles. When wildfires raged in Southern California years ago, his brother said, Johnson rounded up stray pets in his pickup and took them to a church for shelter. Then he helped first responders dig a trench to protect the church.
Though he lived far away, Johnson kept his family as close to him as possible.
The walls of his Koreatown apartment were lined with framed photos, Bacon said. He also had tattoos for his mother, father and two ex-wives, who shared space on Johnson’s body along with inked portraits of the Virgin Mary and “Gone With the Wind” actress Vivien Leigh.
Johnson’s brother said that as relatives gathered in Georgia to say goodbye, their grandmother, Willie Dell Johnson, helped put the tragedy of his death into perspective.
“It’s just kind of what our family does,” she said. “We save people.”
Nguyen was remembered in a service conducted in Vietnamese at St. Barbara’s Catholic Church in Santa Ana, not far from Orange County’s Little Saigon area. Born in Vietnam, Nguyen was 8 when her family left that country for the United States.
Her fiance carried a large portrait of Nguyen into the church as members of the standing-room only crowd reached out to touch it. The couple had planned to marry in 2017. The day before Nguyen was killed, she celebrated her fiance’s 32nd birthday.
Nguyen’s mother and grandmother, both weeping, followed the casket down the aisle to the altar.
A cousin took a moment in English to thank first responders, local politicians and Nguyen’s co-workers at the San Bernardino County health department, where Nguyen was hired as an inspector after attending California State University, Fullerton.
“We pray the loss of her life will have meaning and the loss of others hopefully will spark something in the right direction for change,” her cousin Binh Nguyen said.
Meanwhile friends and family of Amanios filled St. Mina Coptic Orthodox Church in Colton, California. His wife waved her arms in front of a portrait of Amanios set up next to his casket as their three adult children looked on.
Amanios was a supervising environmental health specialist for San Bernardino County. He fought in Eritrea’s war for independence and believed the U.S. was a refuge from violence and fear.
“I never saw him in a situation he couldn’t get out of,” his son, Bruk Amanios, said during the church service. “He always took care of people around him.”
Amanios was cousins with NFL player Nat Berhe, who has played for the New York Giants.
Associated Press writer Christopher Weber contributed from Los Angeles.