President Obama made a solemn visit Friday night to San Bernardino to meet privately with the families of victims killed in the deadliest terrorist attack on United States soil since 9/11.
Obama and his wife, Michelle, landed at San Bernardino International Airport just before 7:40 p.m., speaking briefly with local officials before departing for a nearby high school.
The library of Indian Springs High School had been arranged with 14 tables, one for each victim in the Dec. 2 attack. For more than an hour, the Obamas walked from table to table, speaking quietly with the victims’ families and loved ones.
At the table for Daniel Kaufman, who ran the coffee cart at the Inland Regional Center, the president expressed his grief over the family’s loss and offered the sympathies of the government and the nation.
“I could see that they were pained by what had happened,” said Ryan Reyes, Kaufman’s boyfriend.
Obama told Kaufman’s loved ones he hoped the United States could “work together to eradicate the problems that cause tragedies like these,” Reyes said. He stopped short of calling it gun control, Reyes said, and did not discuss any specific policies — “perhaps for political reasons.”
“Even under the circumstances,” Reyes said, “I consider it an honor to have met the president.”
Drivers stopped at traffic lights honked as the motorcade moved through San Bernardino on Friday night. Crowds lined the route, cheering, snapping photos and waving American flags.
The president has made multiple trips to Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley, but Friday’s visit is his first in San Bernardino County.
“This isn’t New York or L.A. or Boston,” said Gloria Lerma of Redlands, fighting back tears, after the motorcade passed. “I never expected a terrorist to be living in my community.”
Lerma and her sister, Linda Mendoza, both Obama supporters, debated whether to return later in the evening to watch the president’s motorcade leave.
“There’s still enough time for me to go home and grab my Obama shirt so I can hold it up,” Mendoza said, laughing.
Hours before Obama landed in California, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency, clearing the way for state agencies to provide financial assistance to San Bernardino County officials dealing with the aftermath of the violence.
Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik opened fire Dec. 2 at a holiday party at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, killing 14 and wounding 22. Farook and Malik, who were married, were killed in a gun battle with police hours later.
The subsequent investigation has revealed that Farook, a U.S. citizen, and Malik, who entered the U.S. on a so-called fiancee visa, had been plotting an attack for months. Both pledged allegiance to Islamic State.
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Obama’s visit to the Inland Empire was added to his previously scheduled trip to Hawaii, where he and the first family will celebrate Christmas, as has been their tradition during his presidency.
Across the street from the airport, Deneen Ramirez, 51, waited to catch a glimpse of Air Force One. Ramirez, who was born and raised in San Bernardino, said she welcomed the president’s visit despite her differing views on gun control.
“I’m glad he came to give these people condolences,” Ramirez said. “He didn’t have to come here, but he did.”
Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Redlands) told media at the airport Friday that “the focus should be” on comforting the grieving families of the victims.
“That’s the most important thing,” Aguilar said. “Having the presence of the First Lady with him sends a tremendous signal to those families.”
Near the site of the shooting, where mourners erected a memorial with flowers, candles and signs, Marie Cabrera set up a prayer booth and cleaned up the debris from last weekend’s rain.
“All I can say is, we thank God he’s here,” Cabrera said of Obama. “He brings comfort and relief.”
Times staff writer Anh Do contributed to this report.
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