It didn’t seem to matter to some, Sunday night, that reports of an active shooter at the Yuba-Sutter Fairgrounds ended up being unfounded.
There was no time to analyze allegations of gunshots. Instead, panic ensued: hundreds of people reportedly ran toward the gates, some getting knocked down, parents desperately yelling for their children.
The mood was likely influenced by the nationally deadly weekend – 22 killed at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, Saturday, and nine killed outside a bar in Dayton, Ohio, early Sunday. Everyone was on high alert.
While there were reports of shots fired and people were yelling about an active shooter, law enforcement officers quickly cleared the scene and reported that there was no apparent safety threat. That didn’t mean people weren’t scared.
For 19-year-old Kaedie Thayer, the alarming turn of events was too familiar. She was grazed by a bullet, and still bears a scar, from the Las Vegas shooting on Oct. 1, 2017.
Sunday night, Thayer was standing by the grandstand area of the Yuba-Sutter Fairgrounds when she saw fair security chasing after and tackling a man. She said she heard officials talking about how he had been part of gang-related problems at the fair, but was released as he was unarmed. She wandered toward the main stage where the pageant is held and said she heard one gunshot go off in the distance, followed by people running and screaming. Her brother was working security.
“When I heard that, I instantly had PTSD from the Vegas shooting,” Thayer said Monday. “People were panicking, people wouldn’t listen, I heard police yelling.”
She said she tried leading fair-goers toward the livestock gate – off Franklin Avenue – and went back to the carousel to help get kids off. She then took off toward Garden Highway, her post-traumatic stress disorder and asthma kicking in and stalling her breathing. Today, she’s doing better, considering no one was hurt.
“I’m just glad everybody made it out safe,” Thayer said.
Cheryl from Loma Rica, who did not want to give her last name, is also adamant she heard what she believed to be a gunshot from outside the fairgrounds, toward the area of Garden Highway. It was around 10:10 p.m. and she was sitting by the livestock barns waiting for her daughter and a friend to finish up checking out the animals. After she heard the “pop,” no one immediately reacted. Minutes later, a “literal stampede” of people came from the west end of the fair – the opposite direction from where she heard that noise.
“There was a group of young men and they passed by running,” Cheryl said, “but one turned his head and there was absolute fear on his face.”
For seconds that felt like hours, people ran in every direction, confused, and all Cheryl could think about was her daughter. Her daughter called her by phone and said a group of fathers guided them over to the exit off Franklin Avenue; so Cheryl and women and children around her hid near trailers.
“People were very terrified, but they were helpful,” Cheryl said Monday. “People were really looking out for each other, that was beautiful.”
A Yuba City woman, who did not want to be named, said her 12-year-old and 14-year-old daughters were atop the Ferris wheel when people took off running, including the ride operator. Kids stuck on the ride were screaming when another operator came through, got them down, and told them to run, she said. Her 12-year-old agreed to be interviewed.
The young girl tried her best to stay calm and collected, especially since she and her sister were in separate buckets on the Ferris wheel.
“Me and my friends pointed on the ground and saw people running,” she said. “We were all so confused.”
A panic attack set in on the mother’s 14-year-old, who was having trouble breathing. They called their grandpa, who tried to guide them to a well-lit area to meet. The girls and a friend ended up exiting out a gate and to a nearby gas station, where they tried to seek safety inside.
“They wouldn’t let us in the store,” the girl said. “He said we could be the shooters and kept locking us out.”
Finally, their grandfather found them and they were able to get home safely, though Monday was a tough day reliving the events of the night.
“We were all just freaking out and all our friends split up,” the girl said. “It was really scary and we were running a lot.”
Her mother was also having a hard time reckoning with what happened. Despite law enforcement’s assurances that the threat was unfounded, she believes “100 percent” that gunshots went off; her father heard them.
“I’m barely wrapping my head around all of it,” she said. “The fear is still there. As a parent, do you think I’m going to let them go to the fair by themselves again? Or with me? It makes you want to hibernate.”
Harry Mason, CEO of Brass Ring Amusements (also known as Midway of Fun, which provides the rides), disputes that any of his ride operators left children. He said his team had a safety meeting Sunday morning, deciding to enact the company’s earthquake procedure should there be any emergencies. That protocol outlines that operators stay at their post, shut down the machines, unload the ride, secure the rides, then seek shelter. He said every ride was empty and secure within minutes, though he understands in a situation like that, minutes can feel much longer.
“I have 43 years in the fair business and I have never seen a panic like that,” Mason said Monday.
He too, heard a loud noise, though he said he believes it was an illegal firework coming from the area of Wilbur Park. People zig-zagged, bumping into each other, some parents trying to grab their children from moving rides. Others jumped fences and climbed through the game booths.
“I’m mad that it happened, but I’m grateful we didn’t have injuries anywhere,” Mason said. “Whoever promulgated this – you just cannot do that to people. It’s akin to running into a house and yelling fire.”
While his team gears up for the next county fair up near Redding, his employees are also trying to recover from the trauma.
“I had a couple of very, very upset employees,” Mason said. “Like anybody else, they get scared, too.”
While Yuba-Sutter did not become victim to another mass shooting, Cheryl hopes that residents don’t “dumb down” the incident, and hopes that police commit to investigating the incident.
“My concern is … they couldn’t find anybody present when the shots were fired … How are they going to get witnesses when everybody left?” she said. “People were traumatized because they thought there was a shooter.”