Three women huddled close on a granite bench. They gazed at a pond where 12 water jets shot toward the sky, representing the victims of a mass shooting last year that the women narrowly escaped.
The three friends were at Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks on Nov. 7 last year when a gunman opened fire and killed 12 people. The past year has come with terrifying flashbacks of the massacre, sometimes triggered by loud noises, or sometimes by nothing at all.
“As much as your family and friends are there for you,” said 22-year-old Aubree Hurtado, “no one really understands what you went through.”
But on Thursday, Hurtado and her friends were offered some solace, they said, when they gathered with several hundred people in a park in Thousand Oaks to commemorate the first anniversary of the shooting, the third deadliest in California history.
The shooting, which was followed by devastating fires that broke out less than 24 hours later, rattled the Ventura County suburb.
At the event at Conejo Creek North Park, city officials unveiled a Healing Garden, with 12 granite slab benches and 12 pond jets to symbolize the lives lost. A large oak tree was also planted, its roots placed in soil made of composted flowers that had piled up outside Borderline in the weeks after the tragedy.
“One year ago, and every day since, this community has shown the world that it will not be defined by the violence inflicted upon it,” Ventura County Sheriff Bill Ayub told the crowd in the waning evening light Thursday. “It is this community’s indomitable spirit, not an act of violence, that defines it.”
The park, which cost $250,000 to design, was opened only to victims’ families and survivors early Thursday. Many wore black shirts that said “Borderline Strong” and listed the victims’ names on the back in bright white letters.
Borderline was a popular spot for line-dancing, and many showed up to the memorial wearing cowboy boots and denim. A tight-knit community, people greeted each other with hugs, and often tears.
“The most seminal event in the history of our city, we never want to revisit, we never want that to happen again, but we’ll never forget,” Mayor Rob McCoy said.
Shaina Miller, who attended Thursday’s event, started going to Borderline with her family when she was 12. Many of those killed were her friends, including Telemachus Orfanos, her high school classmate. She took him to Borderline for the first time, she said.
Miller remembered the 27-year-old as a jokester who always wanted to make people laugh. He would give someone the shirt off his back, she said.
Orfanos survived the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting at a country music festival. Since, he had adopted a new motto, she said: “You have to live life for the people who can’t.”
Borderline has not yet reopened, but has transformed into a memorial for those who died. Several of those killed that night worked at the bar.
On Thursday afternoon, the bar’s walkway was lined with people paying their respects. Twelve white crosses adorned with cowboy hats, sunflowers and photographs lined the front wall of the shuttered establishment.
A man knelt with his head in his hands. He had been there that night, he said, and had been lucky to get out.
Several events have marked the anniversary this week. On Wednesday, many gathered for a ceremony dedicating a portion of the 101 Freeway to Ventura County Sheriff’s Sgt. Ron Helus, who died after storming the bar trying to stop the shooter.
On Friday, survivors and those affected by the fires will share their personal tales at a storytelling event. On Saturday, Borderline Bar is hosting a concert in a city park to commemorate the anniversary.
Marking anniversaries of traumatic events can trigger flashbacks for survivors, but it can also help combat a sense of isolation that can rip through a community, said Lawrence Palinkas, a USC professor who studies the psychological effects of trauma.
Permanent memorials that weave a tragedy into the fabric of a city can also help rebuild community bonds by making survivors feel recognized, he said.
“It’s sending the message, ‘We may never understand what you went through, but we acknowledge that you went through something very terrible,’” he said.
At the end of Thursday’s event, city officials invited the victims’ families onstage. One by one, the names of the 12 killed were read aloud. Then 12 doves were released, scattering and then soaring away in a flock.
Hurtado and her friends had been to Borderline only a few times before the shooting, they said. But afterward, they sought people who understood what they went through.
They began line-dancing more, going to events popular with the Borderline crowd that had been displaced and wanted a place to dance. They often met at the Canyon Club in nearby Agoura Hills.
“Because of that we started going weekly,” Hurtado said.
In honor of the victims, Hurtado tattooed 12 butterflies on her arm. Her friend, Jazzmine Mendez, tattooed “11.7.18.” on her inner arm.
Though they have continued dancing, the women have not been back to Borderline in a year. But they said they planned to go for the first time on Thursday night, together.
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