As a gunman opened fire Wednesday at a Northern California light rail yard, Taptejdeep Singh rushed out of an office where his co-workers were hiding. He wanted to help them escape, they told his family.
Singh, 36, frantically called others to warn them. He ran through the building, trying to secure it. He helped a woman hide in a control room, The Mercury News reported. Then he was gunned down in a stairway.
Singh’s brother, Karman Singh, said in a statement Thursday that his family was comforted hearing how he spent his final moments trying to keep others safe.
“Even in these moments of chaos, Taptejdeep was living by the values of Sikhi: living in service and protection of others,” the statement on behalf of Singh’s family said, referring to his religion. “We choose to remember Taptejdeep as the hero he was, both in those final moments and throughout his life of service.”
Light rail operators, mechanics, linemen and an assistant superintendent were among the victims of Wednesday’s shooting spree at a Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) facility in San Jose.
Many of the victims were longtime employees. They were identified by the Santa Clara County coroner’s office Wednesday night as Singh; Paul Delacruz Megia, 42; Adrian Balleza, 29; Jose Dejesus Hernandez, 35; Timothy Michael Romo, 49; Michael Joseph Rudometkin, 40; Abdolvahab Alaghmandan, 63, and Lars Kepler Lane, 63.
A ninth victim, Alex Ward Fritch, 49, was taken to a local hospital, where he died.
A GoFundMe spokesperson said a centralized hub for identifying and verifying fundraisers for the victims and their families has been set up at gofundme.com/san-jose-strong.
At a Thursday news conference, VTA light rail maintenance operations manager George Sandoval pointed out the strong connection among many of the agency’s employees.
“Many of these folks worked here for 20, 30 years, so yes, we do become a family,” Sandoval said. “Our staff respond to emergencies on the rail and there’s a bond.”
The shooter, also an employee, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, San Jose police spokesman Russell Davis said. Authorities were still trying to determine a motive.
Singh worked as a light rail train driver for at least eight years and had a wife, a 3-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter, according to the family statement, released by the Sikh Coalition. He was born in Punjab, India, and immigrated to California with his parents 17 years ago, the family statement said.
“We can’t believe he’s gone,” said Singh’s uncle, Sukhwant Dhillon.
Sukhvir Singh, another VTA employee who is not related, said in the statement that Singh called him to warn him about the shooter.
“Because of him, so many people were able to go home to their families,” Sukhvir Singh said. “We will never forget how he lived to the highest ideals of Sikhi in a moment of crisis, and my prayers are with his family and the families of all those who lost loved ones in this horrific attack.”
The Sikh Coalition, an organization that works to protect civil rights such as freedom of religion, has reached out to offer help to Taptejdeep Singh’s family. The group’s website said Sikhism is the world’s fifth-largest religion, with more than 25 million followers, including about 500,000 in the U.S.
“The Sikh Coalition is devastated by the loss of life at yesterday’s VTA shooting in San Jose, CA,’’ the organization said in a tweet Thursday that included a photo of Singh.
Through social media postings, interviews and a Thursday news conference, relatives, friends and co-workers shared remembrances of the victims.
His wife, Gloria Rudometkin, remembered his smile and “open heart” and warm, outgoing nature in a Friday statement. After 19 years together, she said she will miss him forever.
“Michael is the first person I gave my heart to and to have it broken this way is utterly cruel,” she said in the statement.
“I will never understand why such a wonderful and gentle person had to be taken from us in this way,” she added. “I am heartbroken that I will never hear another one of his bad jokes, receive one of his great bear hugs, celebrate another joint birthday together or be able to give him a hard time about his terrible driving.”
His parents, Rose and Gary Rudometkin, said in a Friday statement that their son was passionate about his work with VTA and involvement in his union, ATU Local 26. He was a youth minister and pastoral council member at Queen of Apostles Church in San Jose. And he was an avid golfer, snowboarder and San Francisco 49ers fan.
“He had so much life to live, and dreams and goals to accomplish,” the statement said. “Michael was the kind of guy that would give his last penny and shirt off his back. He gave himself selflessly to anyone who needed it before asking for anything for himself.”
His sister and brother-in-law, Janelle and Alfredo Aguirre, described him as “the kind of man that people just naturally gravitated towards.”
“This tragedy has cut his life too short and we are unable to process how we’re feeling and what is happening,” they said in a Friday statement.
San Jose Council member Raul Peralez, a close friend of Rudometkin’s, said in a Facebook post that he and his dad had been planning a golf day reunion with Rudometkin.
“My family and I have lost a long time great friend and there are no words to describe the heartache we are feeling right now, especially for his family,” he wrote. “Eight families are feeling this same sense of loss tonight and our entire community is mourning as well.”
Family members were sharing photos tagging what appeared to be Rudometkin’s Facebook profile. Rudometkin started as an overhead line worker in December 2018, according to the Facebook profile.
His cousin, Christina Marie, mourned Rudometkin on Facebook and posted photos of him alongside family and friends.
“We lost our dear Cousin Mike today in the San Jose’s VTA mass shooting,” she wrote. “He was the nicest person in the world. He loved his family so much. Please pray for our family. We are so devastated.”
Hernandez, a substation maintainer with a knack for fixing things, was partnered at work with Samuel Cassidy, the man identified as the shooter, according to Hernandez’s father.
Jesus Hernandez II, who also used to work at the VTA, said he didn’t know of any problems his son or any other co-workers had with Cassidy, whose former wife said he often complained about working at the agency.
In a tearful interview with The Associated Press, Hernandez said his son was “a really good guy, a great kid, and now he’s gone.”
“I feel really sorry for all those families, because these things aren’t supposed to happen,” he said. “I feel sorry for the family of even the person who did this thing.”
Lane, an overhead line worker who joined the VTA in 2001, was a grandfather and left behind a wife and three children, as well as six siblings, his family told KTXL.
His wife, Vicki, told ABC7 News that they were preparing to celebrate his birthday this weekend. He would have turned 64.
The two had been married for more than two decades and planned to retire next year, according to the station.
“He was my soulmate,” she told the station. “Love of my life. He was a wonderful person. I’m going to miss him. I miss him now. So much. This just doesn’t seem real.”
Lane’s brother told KTXL that waiting to hear news of his loved one was torturous.
“Waiting 10, 12, 14, 18, 28 hours, it’s horrific,” Edward Lane told the station. “That’s devastation.”
Megia was described as “a ray of sunshine” by friend Melissa Santos Poquiz. Light rail superintendent Naunihal Singh said of him: “Sometimes my demands could be unreasonable, but Paul always accepted it with a smile.”
KCRA-TV in Sacramento said Megia was born in the Philippines and arrived in the U.S. as a toddler. He joined the VTA in 2002 and moved up from bus operator trainee all the way up to assistant superintendent in service management.
His parents told the station he and his wife, Nicole, had three children and had been looking forward to a trip to Disneyland this weekend.
“Paul was a wonderful husband and father who was full of love, jokes, energy for life and always up for new adventures,” his wife said in a statement. “I treasure all of our memories.”
Balleza joined VTA in 2014 as a bus operator trainee and then became a maintenance worker and light-rail operator, said Glenn Hendricks, chair of the authority’s board.
Phil Guzman, a friend of Balleza’s, wrote that seeing him was sometimes the highlight of his day. “It was kinda like having a younger cousin around when you were there,” the Facebook post said. “Adrian Balleza, my friend, I will truly miss talking trash with you. I miss you, my friend.”
Romo, an overhead line worker and power foreman, worked at the VTA for 20 years. He was planning a trip with his wife to visit their son before he was killed, his neighbor Keith Baldwin told the San Francisco Chronicle.
“He was a very friendly man, always ready to help you out,” his neighbor Nancy Martin told the newspaper.
KSBW-TV said Romo grew up in the California Central Coast city of Greenfield, where his father, Mike Romo, was the mayor and police chief. The city posted its condolences to the family Thursday.
A substation maintainer known as Abdi, Alaghmandian had been with the VTA for 20 years. His son, Soheil Alaghmandan, told the Mercury News his father was a dedicated employee.
“He worked overtime,” said Soheil, 33. “He worked through the entire pandemic. He’s a tinkerer. He can fix anything.”
Soheil’s girlfriend, Megan Staker, told the San Francisco Chronicle that when they moved to the Bay Area from Des Moines, Iowa, in 2018, the elder Alaghmandian “became like a second father to me. He brought so much joy and laughter to our lives.”
Fritch, a substation maintainer, was the only one of the victims not to die at the rail yard. A GoFundMe page set up to celebrate his life and raise funds for his memorial says, “He loved his Tiki crawls, dirt bikes, Star Wars, being with his wife Terra, and loving life with his family.
“He was known to be an optimistic man, passionate man, a dreamer who loved his family with all his heart.
The page also says Fritch was the sole provider for his family, which includes two teenage boys, and that he “fought to stay long enough to let his loved ones say goodbye.”
Flags flew at half staff as California Gov. Gavin Newsom said victims’ relatives were “waiting to hear from the coroner, waiting to hear from any of us, just desperate to find out if their brother, their son, their dad, their mom is still alive.”
“It begs the damn question,” he said. “‘What the hell is going on in the United States of America?’”
There have been 15 mass killings in 2021, each resulting in at least four victims dying, according to an Associated Press/USA TODAY/Northeastern University database that tracks every mass killing over the past 15 years. All 2021 cases have been shootings, and they have claimed a total 86 lives.
“There are at least eight families who will never be whole again,” President Joe Biden tweeted Wednesday. “Every life taken by a bullet pierces the soul of our nation. We must do more.”
Contributing: Jorge L. Ortiz, USA TODAY; The Associated Press