Dr. Michael Neeki saw a familiar face amid the dead and dying in the San Bernardino conference room ravaged by gunfire in last week's attack, but there was nothing he could do to save her.
One the first doctors to reach the Inland Regional Center after a militant married couple turned it into a slaughterhouse, Neeki had seen plenty of carnage when he fought in the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s.
But Neeki said he was taken aback when he spotted Benneta Betbadal among the victims.
"I met her in a meeting a couple years before," Neeki recalled Monday.
LIke Neeki, Betbadal was an Iranian exile. But in the chaotic moments after Wednesday's shooting, Neeki said he had to focus on his mission.
"We don't have emotion at the time when we get there, we need to do our work," said Neeki, who is the chief medical officer of the county's probation department and also volunteers as a member of the San Bernardino SWAT team.
"It catches up with you when you see familiar faces," he said. "I wish I could have gotten there earlier... I don't know if the scenario would be changed."
Neeki, who was a political prisoner in Iran before he arrived in California in 2006, made an impassioned plea for support the families of the 14 murdered people.
"I am here because I came for democracy," said Neeki. "Show ISIS what we are made of."
Neeki spoke after San Bernardino County officials announced they reopened for business — and after two health department employees who were in the meeting that became the scene of a bloodbath spoke at a morning news conference.
"I want to ask the community to mourn with us," said Trudy Raymundo, a director at San Bernardino County Department of Public Health.
"We are strong. We are a family. We held each other and we protected each other through this horrific event, and we will continue to hold each other and protect each other through the unimaginable weeks and months ahead."
Raymundo and Corwin Porter, an assistant director, were among the hundred or so employees at Wednesday's training event and holiday party when a colleague, Syed Farook, and his wife, Tafsheen Malik, barged in and started shooting. Twenty-one people were injured along with the 14 who died.
Farook and Malik were killed later in a gun battle with pursuing police.
The FBI suspects Farook and Malik, both practicing Muslims, were radicalized and are now investigating the mass shooting as an act of terrorism.
Neither Farook, who was born in Chicago, nor Malik, a Pakistani who grew up in Saudi Arabia, are believed to have been members of a terrorist cell, although authorities said Malik pledged allegiance to Sunni extremists ISIS on social media just before the attack. ISIS has called the couple martyrs.
In an address to the nation, President Obama on Sunday tried to reassure the country that ISIS would be crushed. He also urged Americans not to stigmatize all Muslim because of the acts of a few.