Kirk Bertolet says transportation agency needs to change its culture and society needs to deal with mental health issues
By Robert Airoldi
Without warning and within the blink of an eye, lives were forever changed after a gunman calmly walked into his San Jose workplace and murdered nine co-workers before killing himself.
In 10 minutes of violence shortly after sunrise, the disgruntled maintenance worker carrying three handguns went through offices at the Valley Transportation Authority Light Rail Yard and targeted many of his fellow employees.
Morgan Hill resident Kirk Bertolet was in a room in Building B when Samuel James Cassidy, 57, methodically sought out his victims.
That Wednesday May 26 had started normally for the signal maintenance worker as he arrived about 5:30 a.m. to get ready for his 6 a.m. shift. Prepping to head out, shortly after 6:30 a.m. he was startled by an unusual sound in the cavernous building.
“I’m hearing pop, pop, pop and was thinking to myself, ‘What tool makes that sound?’” he recalled. “Then I thought, ‘That’s not right.’”
The 64-year-old Air Force veteran heard the loud commotion in a nearby part of Building B. Someone yelled to call the police. At the busiest time of the morning, more than 100 people were at the facility, according to police authorities.
“I immediately realized this is an active shooter situation,” said Bertolet in an interview with Kruger, his German Shepard, at his side.
He described telling two co-workers they needed to barricade themselves in the room. He then called the control center. Bertolet had no idea who was shooting. He feared the gunman would come into their room, so he did what many have done in mass shootings across America.
“I texted my wife and kids and told them, ‘I love you,’” he said with an emotional tremble in his voice.
The county’s Office of the Medical Examiner-Coroner reported the victim’s names:
- Adrian Balleza, 29
- Jose Dejesus Hernandez III, 35
- Taptejdeep Singh, 36
- Michael Joseph Rudometkin, 40
- Paul Delacruz Megia, 42
- Alex Ward Fritch, 49
- Timothy Michael Romo, 49
- Abdolvahab Alaghmandan, 63
- Lars Kepler Lane, 63
A Gilroy resident, Balleza leaves behind his wife, Heather, and two-year-old son, Joseph.
After the gunfire stopped in Building B, Bertolet heard over the VTA radio that the shooter was heading toward Building A. He hurried past the machine shop and several supervisors’ offices, thinking he might get to his truck and try to run him over. He was too late, however. The gunman had entered Building A. After Bertolet returned to his office area, he heard over the communications radio more gunshots and the screams of victims.
Determined to aid survivors, he started checking on his co-workers. He walked into one room and found several bloodied bodies lying motionless on the floor. There was nothing he could do, he realized.
“It was super quiet,” he said. “There wasn’t a sound coming out of there.”
Meanwhile, Cassidy carried out his deadly rampage. In Building A he deliberately continued firing, selecting his victims, according to news accounts.
There he killed Singh, Megia and Balleza. As officers arrived, he pointed one of the three handguns at his head and fatally shot himself.
In less than 10 minutes, Cassidy had fired a total of 39 rounds from three semi-automatic handguns. They were equipped with 32 high-capacity magazines, which are illegal in California. Police report he carried hundreds of more rounds of ammunition on him.
Bertolet described a firsthand account from a female co-worker who encountered the shooter in Building B. As she lay on the floor fearing she was about to die, she made eye contact with Cassidy. He ignored her. Instead, he shot everyone who was already on the ground, either injured or dead.
When Bertolet realized several of his VTA friends were dead, he decided the best thing he could do to help at that moment was to use bolt cutters to break a chain lock and open the back gate for emergency vehicles.
Law enforcement officials are piecing together the events of that morning and the motives of the gunman.
The VTA mass shooting is the deadliest in Bay Area history. The killings bring up painful memories among some South Valley residents impacted by the 2019 Gilroy Garlic Festival shooting.
A vigil was held May 27 at the San Jose City Hall Plaza where hundreds of people gathered. They left flowers and stuffed toys and lit candles.
San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo issued a statement: “This is a dark moment for our city and our community but we have already seen how people are pulling together in this very tough time.”
Cassidy’s ex-wife, Cecilia Nelms, told The Mercury News she recalls he was often angry at co-workers. He also thought the VTA was unfair in how it assigned work to its employees, she said. They divorced in 2005.
Society in general needs to address mental health issues and the VTA in particular needs to change its culture, Bertolet said. He wonders what complaints Cassidy made to management and what they did to address them.
“The VTA’s policy is ignore, ignore, ignore and then find somebody to blame,” he said. “Maintenance workers are extremely frustrated. They bring up safety issues and management does nothing.”
The room in Building B where five victims died has a small hallway surrounded by lockers, tables and shelving. VTA employees were essentially trapped, Bertolet said.
There are three similar areas in the building and employees want the entire section redone with multiple exits, he said.
Bertolet began therapy May 28 to help him cope with the trauma. Memories of the shooting haunt him.
“I don’t know how messed up I am, but I am messed up,” he said.
He also suffers survivor’s guilt from seeing Fritch lying on the floor and assuming he was dead. Fritch later died at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center.
Bertolet wishes he had been armed so he could have prevented more deaths after Cassidy started shooting. He has a concealed carry permit for Virginia, but it isn’t valid in California.
He said he’s really mad at Cassidy. Looking back, he would be the kind of person who would do something like this. The gunman for years had shown anti-social behavior at work, he said.
“We’d all gather at a table and talk about our weekend or whatever, and he always sat alone,” Bertolet said.
Bertolet said he misses his good friends Lars, Tim, Abdi and Jose.
“They were all really good friends,” he said.