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By Alexander Smith, Kurt Chirbas, Caitlin Fichtel and Saphora Smith
Twelve people including a police officer were killed by a gunman at a crowded bar in Thousand Oaks, California, late Wednesday, officials said.
Several hundred people were inside the venue, which was hosting a “college country night” for students, police said. Ventura County Sheriff Geoff Dean described the incident at the Borderline Bar and Grill as a “tragic, tragic situation.”
Authorities confirmed that the shooter had been killed, but did not immediately identify him. Dean said it was too early to determine whether there was any link to terrorism.
The gunman apparently was not carrying any form of identification and it will take time to take his fingerprints and run them through databases, local and federal officials said. The gunman was described as a white male, armed with a single handgun, a law enforcement source said.
Sgt. Ron Helus died after being struck “multiple times by gunfire,” Dean said. Helus was a 29-year police veteran with a wife and son who was looking to retire in the next year.
“He was hard-working, he was totally committed, he gave his all and, tonight, as I told his wife, he died a hero,” an emotional Dean said. “He gave his life to save other people.”
Helus arrived at the scene alongside a colleague from the California Highway Patrol within three minutes of reports of shots being fired at around 11:20 p.m. (2:20 a.m. ET Thursday), according to Dean.
After hearing more gunfire, Helus and the Highway Patrol officer entered the building and Helus “was struck multiple times with gunfire,” according to Dean.
The other officer went back into the building and dragged Helus out of the line of fire, but he died in the hospital hours later, the sheriff said.
When additional units entered the building they found 11 people dead.
“They found people hiding in restrooms, people hiding in attics,” Dean said. “It’s a horrific scene in there, there’s blood everywhere.”
A single shooter was also found killed by a gunshot wound, Dean said, adding that it was unclear exactly who had killed the suspect. “We don’t know who shot anybody at this point,” he said.
Between 10 and 12 people suffered injuries of varying severity, others with more minor wounds escaping and taking themselves to the hospital, Dean added.
Pepperdine University, in nearby Malibu, said it believed some of its students were at the bar. It said it was working “to identify and provide support to those students.”
Located around 40 miles west of Los Angeles, Thousand Oaks was recently ranked as one of the country’s safest cities.
“I’ve been a cop for 41 years,” Dean said. “But I’ve learned it doesn’t matter what community you’re in, it doesn’t matter how safe your community is, it can happen anywhere.”
One survivor, Matthew Estron, told NBC Los Angeles that the shooter was tall, dressed “all in black” and armed with a handgun.
“We heard shots, I looked up and knew exactly what was happening. I tried to pull down as many people as I could,” he said. “As soon as we heard a break in the shooting we knew he was reloading and we threw a couple of bar stools through the closest to us so we could get out.”
He said the gunman started at the coat check area before eventually working his way to the bar.
“He didn’t say anything, at least not that we could hear,” Estron added. “Everyone was just trying to get out.”
John Hedge told NBC News he and his stepdad were in the bar and were forced to take cover when the shooting started.
“I was actually about to leave when you start hearing pop, pop, pop. It sounded like fireworks or something,” he said. “My stepdad dove and took cover and yelled at me, ‘John, hit the deck! Hide!’ So I get down. And the gunman started opening fire on the cashiers, the people working the cash register on the front desk.”
He said they both managed to escape.
“I saw somebody on the floor as I was running to the front door to get out,” he said. “I saw the security guard was down and he had been shot.”
Kayla Simmons said she was inside the bar when shots were fired directly behind her. Bullets continued as she managed to escape outside into the parking lot.
“I saw the shots go off, although I didn’t really see the guy,” she said. “I knew something was wrong straight away. I just wanted to get down as soon as I heard the first shot go off.”
One college student who said he was a regular at the Borderline told NBC Los Angeles he had at least 10 friends inside.
“No one’s gotten back to me,” he said on camera without giving his name. “I’d like to hope for the best, but I have no idea.”
Two passersby who said they had friends who visited the bar frequently told NBC Los Angeles that they spoke to one man who had managed to escape the bar.
“He told his story, how he broke windows and he and a couple of friends helped push women out and saved them first,” said one of the women, who did not identify herself. “His hands were kind of bloody, he had blood on his face. His friend was shot in the shoulder.”
The venue opened in 1993 and describes itself as a “haven for country line dancing folks of all ages.” It says it’s hosted many famous acts including The Beach Boys.
Thousand Oaks was ranked the third-safest city in the United States this year, according to the data analysis website Niche.
It is the 307th mass shooting in the United States this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive.
This is a breaking news story. Please check back for updates.
Andrew Blankstein, Alastair Jamieson and Pete Williams contributed.