It was a party to celebrate the Lunar New Year, and dance students gathered at a beloved studio in the heart of Monterey Park, California, once marketed as a city of dreams for Chinese immigrants newly arrived in America.
Attached to an Asian herbal store, the exterior of Star Ballroom Dance Studio was humble, its entrance off a parking lot marked by a small awning. Yet, its expansive dance floor attracted marquee teachers and high-level performers from around the world. It was considered a refuge for its clientele, many of whom were older Chinese Americans who had found a comfortable space to twirl and socialise. Emanating from its doors late at night was music fit for the waltz, foxtrot, tango and more.
But Saturday night, sometime after 10pm, a gunman strode inside and shattered any feeling of sanctuary.
Five men and five women were fatally shot and 10 more were injured before the gunman, police believe, left the scene and entered a second dance club in nearby Alhambra, where two patrons were able to disarm him before he fled in what investigators described as a white cargo van.
The drama came to an end on Sunday afternoon, when after an hours-long manhunt, a Swat team pinned that van in a parking lot in Torrance, some 30 miles from the scene of the shootings. Officers heard one shot as they approached the van, and discovered that the suspect had shot himself, Los Angeles County Sheriff Robert Luna said.
The man, identified as Huu Can Tran (72), was pronounced dead at the scene.
“I’m here to report that the suspect responsible for this tragedy is no longer a threat,” Luna said.
The attack was the deadliest mass shooting in the United States since the massacre in Uvalde, Texas, in May, when 19 children and two teachers were killed, and the second major shooting in less than a week in California, after gunmen killed a family of six in Tulare County last Monday in what police said was probably a gang-related incident.
The killings Sunday occurred on the eve of the Lunar New Year, a significant holiday for Asian Americans that had drawn thousands of people out to celebrate in Monterey Park earlier in the day, with plans to continue Sunday. Neighbours would later be horrified to learn that what they thought had been the sound of celebratory fireworks was actually the explosion of gunfire.
Dozens of people were at the dance studio Saturday night, many of them facing a mirror as they performed a Chinese square dance, according to a student named Grace who was there and who said she had been dancing at the studio for about four years.
She said many people did not notice when the gunman first arrived. Then, a round of rapid-fire shots rang out. “No one dared to flee. We all got down to the ground, hiding wherever we could,” said Grace, who asked to be identified only by her English first name. She said the gunman appeared to run out of ammunition, left and then returned. “No one could get out,” she said.
People fled to the back, she said, trying to hide in the restrooms and in a room used for karaoke.
She said she heard at least 10 shots. “First time was five or six or seven in a row. And then he ran out of bullets and then he came back and kept shooting.” All told, the gunman was inside the studio for about five minutes, she said.
[ Suspect found dead after attempting second shooting ]
Jeff Liu (62), had been standing near the entrance when the gunman entered, according to his daughter, Juno Blees. Liu was grazed by bullets on his shoulder and his back, she said.
Blees said her father told her the gunman had appeared to shoot indiscriminately at those inside, including a worker selling tickets at a booth.
Liu’s wife, Nancy, collapsed, and as of Sunday afternoon, the family did not know her location or condition, she said. “We called all of the hospitals, but we could not locate her.”
Monterey Park police chief Scott Wiese said the officers who arrived at the ballroom less than three minutes after the first call were among the youngest on the city’s force. The scene they encountered was “chaos,” he said, with dead and injured people inside the building and witnesses running out of the doors.
“My young officers did their job, searched for a suspect and then came back and had to deal with the carnage that was inside,” he said. “And it was extensive.”
Officials learned that the suspect had gone next to the dance club in Alhambra, Luna said, where he was disarmed by two community members who he said should be considered heroes.
“I can tell you that the suspect walked in there probably with the intent to kill more people,” he said.
After the alert for the white cargo van went out, tactical teams surrounded a vehicle matching that description in Torrance, Luna said. They pinned it with armoured vehicles, broke its windows and entered. Luna said evidence found in the van linked the man inside, who had shot and killed himself, to both crime scenes.
A handgun was recovered from the van, Luna said, adding that the weapon confiscated from the suspect in Alhambra, a magazine-fed semi-automatic assault pistol with an extended large-capacity magazine attached to it, was probably not legal in California.
Monterey Park, a city of about 60,000 residents, is more than 60 per cent Asian American. Located about seven miles east of downtown Los Angeles, it is considered a mecca for Chinese immigrants, a place where they could find comfort in the food and language of their birth land while putting down American roots for their children. With more space than Los Angeles’ Chinatown, it is a suburban enclave that a well-known developer once advertised as “the Chinese Beverly Hills,” and it remains a destination in the San Gabriel Valley, a region known for its immigrant populations and Asian and Latin cuisine.
After a three-year hiatus during the pandemic, the city’s two-day Lunar New Year celebration had been a much anticipated event. On Saturday afternoon, Garvey Avenue, a main thoroughfare, was a cheerful scene of vendors and carnival rides. But it would soon be closed off with police tape.
Congresswoman Judy Chu, whose district includes Monterey Park and who served as its mayor three times, said the attack “tore a hole through all of our hearts.” She said she had become a member of an unfortunate club: a civic leader with a mass shooting to respond to.
“It has been happening on a daily basis now, and we can barely keep count of these mass shootings,” Chu said.
She said it was important to curtail the availability of weapons, “so that it is not so easy for someone to walk into an establishment and shoot people and ruin their lives,” she said.
On Sunday, families of the victims and others who have long gathered at the dance studio were trying to make sense of what had happened.
Blees, whose father was injured and whose mother was missing, said her parents had emigrated from China to Monterey Park more than 20 years ago and rarely left each other’s side. She said her father was resting at home, torn by the lack of news about his wife and the dear friends he had made over the years.
“My parents go there a lot. They love it. They know everyone there,” she said. “It is terrible what happened.”
Elizabeth Yang, who dances at the studio on Mondays, said that at 40 years old, she is typically the youngest in attendance. The students take their craft seriously, she said, with women arriving in long jewel-encrusted dresses. But they arrive to a welcoming environment, with refreshments and warm greetings, she said.
“They are folks who are enjoying the rest of their lives and wanting to have something fun,” Yang said. “They were so friendly, they would put me in front of the class, so I can be closer to the instructor.”
Heather Smith, a dance coach who trains competitors at Star Dance Ballroom, said she and the owner of the studio were at a ballroom competition and gala at a different location when the shooting occurred, but that the owner’s boyfriend had died in the shooting.
“Our dance community is very close-knit,” Smith said. “We are all just in complete shock.”
Smith said that the studio owner had been intent on reopening the dance studio during the pandemic “because she knows that dancing makes everyone happy.”
Thomas Wong, a Monterey Park City Council member who grew up in the city and whose council district includes the site of the shooting, said many of his acquaintances had taken lessons at the studio.
“It’s a long-time business in the community, and a gathering place,” Wong said. “It’s shocking, especially this weekend, of all weekends,” he added. “We were welcoming everyone back for the first time since the pandemic. To start off the year like this is just tragic.”
– This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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