SAN BERNARDINO, Calif.—At a table inside the Indian Springs High School library, Mandy Pifer sat alone, the last name of her boyfriend killed in the San Bernardino terrorist attack printed on a label in front of her.
Nearby, relatives of the 13 other people killed sat and waited anxiously. Some clutched memorial service programs with the photos and biographies of their deceased. One held the invitation to President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration his brother-in-law had gleefully obtained.
Pifer wrote out a sign with the words, “I got you.”
When President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama entered the room and made their way from one table to the next, spending about 10 minutes with each family Friday evening, the grief, sadness and frustration of the last 17 days were firmly on display.
Some shed tears. Others asked questions. Everyone got a hug.
“It just felt like they were really present in their conversation with me,” Pifer said. “They are sick and tired of doing these things, meeting our families.”
For nearly three hours, the Obamas met with relatives of the nine men and five women killed Dec. 2 when a married couple opened fire on the husband’s colleagues at a work holiday gathering in San Bernardino, about 60 miles east of Los Angeles. Consoling the victims of gun violence has become a grim ritual throughout Obama’s presidency. The meeting Friday came as some families are still burying their dead.
“My brother will never get his daughter back,” said George Velasco, whose niece, Yvette Velasco, 27, was killed. “But at least we know they are taking it very seriously.”
When Obama approached the Velasco’s family table, he told the family he knew nothing he could say would ever truly comfort them, but that he was sincerely sorry for their loss, Velasco said. The family showed the president a picture of Yvette Velasco on a cellphone and her father told Obama how proud he had been of her work as an inspector with the county Department of Environmental Health.
Obama told them he and his wife were parents too and that, “they cannot imagine a loss like ours.”
“I couldn’t believe that he was spending that much time with us,” Velasco said. “It was heartfelt. I could feel it. It was something he really felt and believed.”
The mood in the room was somber, though each family seemed to perk up when Obama arrived at their table. Some families brought many relatives while other chose just one. There were restless toddlers and hungry teenagers. For some, it was the first time they got to meet many of the other families with a relative killed in the attack. They exchanged stories and phone numbers.
The meetings with Obama largely focused on grief, but a few also touched on gun violence and efforts to ban military-style assault weapons. Shooters Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik were armed with two assault rifles and two pistols, investigators have said. Karen Fagan, whose ex-husband Harry Bowman, 46, was killed, said they also spoke about ending hateful rhetoric and bigotry.
“Our hope is that good can arise from the ashes of this tragedy, but that can only happen if we resist the temptation to give into fear and hate,” Fagan said in a statement after the meeting.
When Obama reached the family of Isaac Amanios, the family gave him a copy of a pamphlet with Amanios’ photo and biography that was handed out at his memorial service. Obama asked Amanios’ wife about how long they had been married and about his three children about their lives.
He told Amanios’ children that they were his father’s legacy.
Amanios, 60, had greatly admired the president and raised money for his 2008 campaign, even though the immigrant from Eritrea was still not eligible to vote, his brother-in-law, Robel Tekleab, said. The family showed Obama the invitation Amanios received to attend his 2009 inauguration.
Obama made a joke about how cold it had been that 2009 day and the family laughed.
“I know it helped tonight,” Tekleab said. “I can’t speak about the future. But it certainly did a great thing tonight.”
Pifer sat at one of the last tables Obama and his wife visited. While she waited, she wrote out a sign with her boyfriend Shannon’s Johnson’s final words. Johnson’s colleague, Denise Peraza, who survived the attack, said Johnson huddled with her under a table that morning as bullets flew across the room.
He held her close and told her, “I got you.”
Peraza credits Johnson with her survival, and since then the phrase “I got you” has spread across social media. Pifer and Peraza are in the final stages of planning a foundation in Johnson’s memory.
Pifer told the president about Johnson and how much he loved life. They promised to provide whatever support they could and Michelle Obama even said she would rap or perform at a fundraising concert for the foundation, Pifer said.
“I feel like they’re on my side,” she said. “They’re on our side. And that he’s going to keep working to make this better even after he’s left office. It’s personal for them.”
After finishing the meeting, Obama said speaking with the families was a reminder “of what’s good in this country.”
“As difficult as this time is for them and for the entire community, they’re also representative of the strength and the unity and the love that exists in this community and in this country,” he said.