Authorities on Friday released a more detailed account of what happened when two radicalized attackers carried out a mass shooting at a work event in San Bernardino, California in December that left 14 people dead.
The 138-page report found that self-deployment by officers amid the chaos and poor communication inadvertently tipped off the gunmen before a police confrontation and shootout that would end in the suspects' deaths.
Husband-and-wife attackers Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik realized cops chasing them had identified their getaway car when a "patrol sergeant driving the wrong way against traffic" with emergency lights flashing stopped nearly parallel to their SUV while they were waiting at a red light, the report said.
"It appears that through this action, the patrol sergeant alerted the suspects to a police presence," researchers from the Police Foundation wrote in a new report on the December 2015 massacre and the response by law enforcement.
That gave Farook and Malik time "don tactical vests and control how they were going to engage officers," the report said.
Twenty-four officers fired at least 440 shots during a five-minute gun battle hours after the massacre at the Inland Regional Center. Farook and Malik fired at least 81 times at police, the report said.
The report, conducted by the Department of Justice and the Police Foundation, examined the events and the police response to the mass shooting in an effort to improve training and spot problems.
The report revisits in graphic detail the carnage the cops witnessed after the black-clad couple barged into a conference room at the Inland Regional Center where some 70 San Bernardino County health workers were meeting a minute before 11 a.m. — and started shooting.
"As the chaos unfolded, a round hit a fire sprinkler pipe causing water to pour out of the ceiling," the researchers wrote. "The water and smoke that filled the room made it difficult for people to see. The shooters walked between tables. If someone moved or made a sound, the shooters fired one or multiple shots into their body."
When police arrived, the researchers wrote, they encountered a horror show.
One patrol officer quoted in the report said: "It was the worst thing imaginable — some people were quiet, hiding, others were screaming or dying, grabbing at your legs because they wanted us to get them out, but our job at the moment was to keep going."
"That was the hardest part, stepping over them," the officer said.
Police worked quickly and effectively to remove the dead and wounded from the room, the researchers said. Lacking stretchers in the beginning, they removed injured with blankets and chairs.
"There really wasn't anyone saying, 'Hey, I am a lieutenant,' or 'I am a captain, I want to be in charge,'" one patrol officer told the researchers. "Everyone wanted to get things done. Rank did not matter."
Still, six hours passed before police they found a bag that the pair had left behind containing three pipe bombs "that were meant to be detonated when the first responders were inside the conference room, giving aid to the wounded."
Farook worked at the health department and was at the gathering earlier that day, before he and his wife returned with guns.
Police identified Farook as a suspect after a survivor of the shooting told a rookie San Bernardino cop that the shooter's "body language" and "body composition" looked familiar.
The rookie officer contacted his father, who was a sergeant in the San Bernardino police narcotics unit, and searches by analysts turned up a handful of the same names nearby, which led them to the suspect, the report said.
Meanwhile, police sent out an alert about a black SUV that was seen leaving the IRC parking lot and several people called to say it had Utah plates, including one who had memorized the number.
A police analyst was able to trace that plate number to a rental car company which confirmed that Farook had rented one of their SUVs, the report states.
The researchers concluded that the number of officers who responded to the shooting was necessary.
But "the manner in which they responded lacked coordination, adding to an already chaotic scene," the report states. "Many officers were not in uniform, and many were driving unmarked vehicles."
While the purpose of the report was to find lessons for other law enforcement agencies in other mass shootings, the researchers commended police agencies for their response.
"San Bernardino area public safety organizations responded to the December 2 terrorist attacks with the utmost bravery and professionalism," the researchers said. "Their actions that day saved lives."