Darkest Before the Dawn
“[Suffering] provides communities with opportunities to demonstrate how much they care with true kindness and generosity.”
An old African proverb says, “The night is darkest before the new dawn.”
November 7, 2018, was not a typical day in the City of Thousand Oaks. It was the day after the city council elections and the first time in 24 years that my name was not on the ballot. I would retire as mayor and councilmember at the end of the year as the second-longest serving elected official in the history of the city.
November 7 was also the day of my planned retirement party celebrating 38 years of service as a Los Angeles City firefighter. I had retired from the LAFD as assistant fire chief in September. The day was bittersweet, as I was hit with the reality that my service to the city I love was coming to an end while looking forward to a great evening with my family, friends, colleagues, and fellow firefighters following a remarkable career with the LAFD. Little did I know that on that fateful day, Thousand Oaks, the city identified by FBI crime statistics to be one of the safest in the nation, a city with award-winning schools and majestic landscapes, would find itself on an infamous list that no city wants to be on.
Around 11:20 PM, an armed gunman walked into the Borderline Bar and Grill and in a few short minutes forever changed the lives of 12 families—indeed, the entire nation. Thousand Oaks quickly became the site of the latest mass shooting in the United States. Among the dead were Ventura County Sheriff’s sergeant Ron Helus, who was killed by friendly fire in the chaotic first moments as law enforcement rushed in to stop the killing, and Pepperdine student Alaina Housley, a young woman with the promise of a beautiful life ahead of her. The mass shootings that we read about and see on TV happening in other parts of the country had just happened in my town.
Less than a day after the Borderline tragedy, one of the largest brush fires in the history of the state pushed through Thousand Oaks fanned by strong Santa Ana winds and tinder-dry brush burning nearly 100,000 acres from the western edge of the San Fernando Valley to Pacific Coast Highway. The fast-moving fire completely surrounded Thousand Oaks and required the evacuation of 75 percent of the city. The evacuees included many of the families directly affected by the Borderline incident. Our night somehow became even darker.
Throughout history, suffering has been an inescapable part of the human condition—suffering caused at the hands of another or by the harsh elements of mother nature. In 24 hours, Thousand Oaks had experienced both in large proportion.
As Americans, we know that suffering also offers opportunity. It provides communities with opportunities to demonstrate how much they care with true kindness and generosity, and that is exactly what transpired over the next several days, weeks, and months following the combined tragedies. Examples of people of all faiths practicing the Golden Rule are too many to list, from donating food and clothes to making financial contributions and attending memorial services for people and families they did not know.
In the midst of two simultaneous tragedies that captured the nation’s attention, Thousand Oaks showed its resilience and the strength of community. The memorials have all been completed, rebuilding is underway, and the city is well on its way to recovery. Our city, in its own small way, showed that it’s possible to turn pain and suffering into something good...just like a carpenter’s son did 2,000 years ago at the new dawn on a Sunday morning.
By Andy Fox (MDR ’01)
Former Mayor, Thousand Oaks
Former Assistant Fire Chief, Los Angeles Fire Department
Video Still: CBS Los Angeles