Monica Sendejas has lived in Gilroy since she got married in 2008 and has worked in the Recreation Department for the City of Gilroy since 2012. As a California government employee, she is a sworn disaster service worker and must report for duty if called in the event of an emergency. She drove the City of Gilroy Recreation truck as a shuttle for the city’s Emergency Operations Center (the EOC) beginning on Sunday night, July 28, 2019 until Tuesday, August 7, 2019.
My husband and I didn’t attend the Garlic Festival. We had just gotten home. We were in our living room hanging out. I started to hear a lot of sirens. My first thought was, “There’s a fire,” because it was a really hot day. I looked on my PulsePoint app to see where the emergency was. I could tell by the address location that it was Miller Avenue, Christmas Hill Park.
I turned on the feature where you can hear the dispatching back and forth between communications and the fire department. That’s when I first heard that it was a shooting. My husband turned on his police scanner to hear what was going on. I thought about what scale it was on. Is this like the Las Vegas massacre that happened, or is this something smaller? How many people are being affected by this right now? I knew it was severe when they were calling for CALSTAR, the emergency airlift, to respond. It took a while to get to that point, but your heart just breaks for them. You hear a play-by-play of what’s happening, but there’s pieces missing. It was hard. You could hear on the dispatching too, one person was deceased.
As a lifeguard instructor, my training is I wanted to get in there and help, but I knew that wasn’t my role, so I just stayed and listened until I got the text message that EOC had been activated. Before that text message actually came in, my supervisor had alerted the team, “Be ready. We might be called in.”
I ended up being called in at nine o’clock Sunday night. I was supporting the EOC. I did everything they needed me to do. I ran around and got food for Emergency Operations working in the park ... I had to make several runs, so I went to Christmas Hill Park to deliver to Public Safety. Then I also had to deliver food to EOC, and I had to deliver food to Gavilan College, to their Emergency Center there.
When I drove into the park it was surprising to see how many law-enforcement people were there. I wasn’t prepared for that picture, but I also felt very safe. When I pulled up in the Recreation truck, it was like one or two in the morning. I was bringing food from McDonald’s. McDonald’s donated all the food that night. Your heart breaks, because you know what happened there. You know the pain that people saw and the fear that they experienced. Then you see tons of law enforcement investigating. There’s some firefighters that I’ve worked with over the years doing emergency drills at the pool and different interactions. So you check in, “How you doing? Everything okay?”
EOC got the shelter opened, and I was involved with that process. We contacted the Red Cross. They bring a trailer down with equipment, with cots and food, and little individual bags of toiletries and blankets. The majority of people were able to get either hotel rooms, or they had friends pick them up, or they were able to get their own accommodations. But there were like twenty-seven people that didn't have somewhere to go. Some people weren’t even able to get their vehicles out of Christmas Hill Park. Some of them were vendors. There were even people in the shelter that didn't have their purse and their medicine because it was in their vehicles. When they evacuated Christmas Hill, they left everything behind. Everything that they had. Some people just had what was on their back and that’s it. It’s amazing people’s kindness and understanding in situations like that. They just went with it. One little boy that was with his parents didn’t even have shoes. We were able to get them those kinds of supplies. We opened Wheeler (1) for them. They spent the night there. They slept in the gymnasium. The Red Cross brought their cots, and we set them all up. I think it was three o’clock when we had the cots set up and people were able to sleep. By this point, they’re exhausted, right? They’ve been working all day at the festival, and they experienced this traumatic event. They evacuated to one of the schools and then they evacuated from there to Gavilan. This was their third time being transported. They were just exhausted and wanted to sleep.
I’ve always considered myself a strong person, but I hadn’t pulled an all-nighter since college. I worked until 8:30 Monday morning. I pulled an all-nighter and I was okay. I didn’t fall apart at the end of it. I worked a god-awful number of hours that week and I was okay. I’m stronger than I thought I was. I didn’t lose it because I was so exhausted. You get that adrenaline going, and you want to help and be a resource. I was willing to do whatever people needed me to do to help.
* * *
The majority of that first week, I worked as a shuttle driver. I drove most days into the park to take vendors and volunteers to retrieve their vehicles as the FBI released cars. They would release sections of the park at a time as they completed the process. They had to inventory the whole scene and (complete) their clearance. The busiest days were the first two days. The first night when they opened up the cars was the busiest because we were taking vanload by vanload in. Most days, there were two vans driving. We would go back and forth from Antonio Del Buono School to Christmas Hill Park. Later in the week, vendors could start breaking down their canopies and all their equipment, but in the early days, it was just the vehicles that they were getting out.
We drove them to the rendezvous point. Then the FBI would get information from them, retrieve their vehicle, and bring it out to them. Communication is definitely hard when you are out in the field because you have so many moving parts at once. You’ve got to make sure that they’re all communicating the same way, and some things change on the fly. People were so amazingly patient. They were understanding. They had compassion for the victims. They were inconvenienced beyond what any normal person would tolerate, and they were still like, “I’m glad to be here. I’m glad to be alive. I understand that things are moving at the pace that they need to move for the investigation to continue.”
And then hearing their stories. What they were willing to share. We didn't ask questions. We just let them share with us what they wanted. Some of the stories were pretty profound. One of the ladies, a vendor, had been informed that there were bullet holes in her car. And she was like, “Well, that's what insurance is for.” She wasn’t livid. I think on a normal day, people would be furious, right? But it wasn’t a normal day. It wasn’t a normal experience. It wasn’t a normal week, and people were just grateful and compassionate and kind. There was one moment, on Tuesday or Wednesday, when we were at Antonio Del Buono. Two ladies who hadn’t seen each other since the day of the shooting and had gotten separated were crying hysterically because they were glad the other was okay. It was their first time being reunited. My favorite part was shuttling people because you got to hear their stories. You got to be that fly on the wall and see what’s happening. I got to experience their story and be part of it. It’ll be moments that I will never forget.
* * *
When you work with people for a long time, you see the best, and sometimes not the best in people. When situations like this happen, and you’re working long hours, you wait for that moment when people are cranky, or they’re going to snap at you, or they’re going to say, “No, I can't.” That never came for me. No one ever told me, “I’m too tired, I can’t.” I didn't hear anyone say, “I don’t want to do that.” I didn’t hear anyone say, “No, don’t ask me.” It’s like if someone runs a race, and people get tired and fall behind, someone picks them up and keeps going, but no one complains along the way.
I remember one night having a conversation with our City Administrator. A few of us were taking a break in the kitchen over by the Annex and getting a snack. I remember saying to Gabe, “Gosh, I didn’t realize how nice most of our city employees are.” We don’t get an opportunity to work with all the departments on that level every day. With Emergency Operations, we’re working with Streets, we’re working with Finance, we’re working with Community Development, we’re working with Fire and Police, and we’re interacting for the same goal. Everyone was so positive and helpful and willing to do whatever it took to help. The city people were at their best without being asked to be at their best. For the immediate emergency, when you want people to be at their best because you need them to be, we were pleasantly surprised because they were.
Everyone had their job. The collaborations that were happening with the county and the DA’s office and the library and the fire department and the police department and the FBI. You know how they say it takes a village to raise a child? Well, it takes a community and all the resources within it to survive an incident like this. Without each party coming in, like all the restaurants that helped support things, volunteers coming forward and helping, without everyone doing their part, we wouldn't have come through as strongly as we did. That’s why I tell you when people say, “Gilroy Strong,” those are two words, but the profound meaning behind them is exponential. It’s not one person, it’s not the city, it’s not me, it’s not the library. It’s all of us coming together and doing our part to lift us up. In tragedy you find community and you build community. I was able to see the resilience, determination, compassion, and support. Community’s the best way to say it. The way that people came together. When you say, “Gilroy Strong,” those are just words, but for me, what I saw this community do was show their strength.
I don’t know when Gilroy really became my home and my community. I’ve lived here since I got married in 2008. I’ve always considered myself a girl from Watsonville. Watsonville’s my community. Watsonville’s my home. But in this instance, this was my community, this was my home. I wanted to help my neighbor here, and I realized how much I love Gilroy. When you’re willing to do whatever it takes to help people in your town, you know it’s your town.
1 The Red Cross set up a shelter in Wheeler Community Center in downtown Gilroy the first night. The shelter later moved to Christopher High School.