(CNN) — Six rapid shots from a rifle — Santa Monica Police Officer Robert Sparks, a former SWAT officer, knew the sound instantly.
“Stop the threat,” his 17 years of law enforcement training screamed at him. Santa Monica was in the middle of a city-wide rampage. A gunman was on the move, randomly killing people.
Sparks, having just parked on the campus of Santa Monica College, ran with his shotgun toward the gunfire he’d heard. It was coming from the library.
Also running toward the library were Santa Monica College Police Capt. Ray Bottenfield and Santa Monica Police Officer Jason Salas.
Bottenfield heard a second round of shots. He was off-duty, wearing jeans and a button-down shirt, carrying his personal gun: a subcompact 9mm pistol. He breathed a sigh of relief that the other two officers didn’t mistake him for the gunman.
Sparks ran up to the two other officers, standing mere yards before the double glass doors of the campus library. Students were running out of the building, yelling that the gunman was inside the library.
Sparks looked at the officers and uttered two words: “Let’s go.”
He took the front position of a diamond formation, his shotgun raised. Salas, carrying his semi-automatic rifle, and Bottenfield with his small handgun flanked Sparks as they approached the entrance.
It was noon on June 7, the midday glare reflecting off the glass doors. Sparks couldn’t see more than a foot inside, essentially blind to the risk beyond the doors. He knew the layout of the library, having assessed the campus for active shooter risk just two years before, and knew that once through those doors, he’d be without any cover to hide behind.
But it was too late to change their minds, because “once you commit, you keep going,” he thought.
Sparks stepped forward, triggering the automatic doors, giving him a clear view of the 10-foot foyer. At that instant, the interior doors, a second set leading into the library, swung open. Dressed in black fatigues, the gunman pointed an AR-15-type rifle at a crouched student.
His back was to the police officers.
Salas shouted for the gunman to drop his weapon.
The gunman turned, holding his rifle in one hand, and pointed it at the three officers.
Gunfire exploded in the entranceway of the campus library.
An ordinary day: A presidential detail, a day off
Bottenfield groaned as he woke up that day. He’d worked three straight days of 16-hour shifts, dealing with a number of significant crimes on the Santa Monica College campus. Bottenfield had one more campus association meeting before the school year ended.
A veteran of the Los Angeles Housing Authority Police and the Los Angeles Unified School District Police, Bottenfield had decades of dealing with gangs and drugs. He cherished his current job, dealing with campus crimes and keeping students safe. But it didn’t make it any easier to come in on his day off after a long week.
On the other side of the beach community, Sparks was responding to a call about protestors. President Obama was in Santa Monica, and local police were called in to keep order outside the event.
Sparks was a patrol officer, with 15 years on the job with the Santa Monica Police Department. Law enforcement wasn’t a calling for him, like so many officers describe. He graduated from college with a finance degree but quickly realized that an office job was suffocating for him. When friends suggested that he join the LAPD, Sparks was hooked, mainly to the tactical elements of the job. Sparks became a SWAT officer but stepped away from the high-risk, time-consuming job after his wife gave birth to twins. It was time to think about his family, he told himself.
Around midday, Sparks heard of a call about a house on fire. Shortly after that, there was a second report of shots fired.
Sparks listened to the radio intently, driving his car toward the address of the shots fired call. Then another call: gunfire at another address; this time a man had opened fire on a city bus.
“Gang shooting?” Sparks wondered. The moving gunfire was confusing.
On campus for his meeting, Bottenfield’s phone rang. “Something’s going on in the city,” said one of his sergeants. He was monitoring the city’s radio frequency and told Bottenfield that the chatter about a gunman was growing and heading toward campus.
Bottenfield grabbed a radio and ran to a patrol car. He didn’t have time to get a long rifle or a bulletproof vest. He jumped in with his street clothes and his personal handgun.
Maybe 75 yards away, Bottenfield heard gunfire and what sounded like a car crashing into a wall. The gunman had shot and killed Carlos Franco and his daughter Marcela. Franco, a groundskeeper at the college, was driving Marcela to campus to buy textbooks for summer classes.
The sound of the SUV ramming into the wall jarred Bottenfield. He had taught active shooter survival classes on campus and suddenly realized the gunman was already on campus.
Bottenfield could hear bullets being fired near the library as he ran closer. Salas, a Santa Monica Police officer Bottenfield knew, ran up at the same time. Students were screaming that a gunman was inside the building.
Seconds later, Sparks ran toward the two officers.
Sparks, carrying his shotgun, led the diamond formation as the three officers approached the library’s front doors.
Bottenfield, flanking one of the sides, saw an injured woman. He knew instantly who lay bleeding on the ground with a single gunshot wound. It was Marguerite Gomez, a senior citizen who came to campus nearly every single day. She collected empty cans for her church group, cheerfully smiling to Bottenfield and students as she listened to music on her headphones. She would not survive the attack.
“One of the hardest things that day was bypassing her,” said Bottenfield. “It goes totally against my nature to bypass an injured person like that. But if you don’t stop the person who’s shooting, not only would you have that victim, you’d have more. If you don’t stop it, each additional second is another victim.”
Sparks stepped in front of the library entrance, triggering the automatic doors. The gunman, his back to the officers, was about to shoot a crouched student. The shooter was wearing black fatigues, the same clothes Sparks wore as a SWAT officer. Was this a cop? Sparks wondered.
He wasn’t a cop. The gunman was John Zawahri, 23. He shot and killed his father and brother, and then set the house on fire. He didn’t reveal his motive in the random shooting, only carrying a note saying farewell to his friends and apologizing for the deaths of his family members. Police said he suffered from mental health issues but still managed to obtain an AR-15-style rifle, multiple handguns and 1,300 rounds of ammunition.
The three local officers didn’t know any of this. What they saw was a man turning and pointing his semi-automatic rifle at them. They had no choice.
Salas ordered him to drop his rifle.
“He was wielding that gun one-handed, shooting at us,” Sparks said. “A rifle in one hand, shooting at us, while being shot at and being hit. It’s scary.”
Sparks remembers seeing the muzzle flash of his gun, his ears ringing, the gunman stumbling around the corner, until he fell in front of the library’s front counter.
Bottenfield, acutely aware that he wasn’t wearing a bulletproof vest, couldn’t see the gunman at first. Sparks and Salas were in front of him, so he couldn’t fire. As the gunman turned and headed to the front desk, he saw the gunman, still holding his rifle, still firing at the officers. Bottenfield fired back.
Sparks pushed aside the thoughts of what he’d just done: fired his gun at a suspect for the first time on the job. Bottenfield had also never fired his gun on the job before. But both men had little time to think about it.
Police had reports of a second gunman on the loose. “Clear the library,” Sparks thought.
Valor and grief
Sparks spent the next two and a half hours walking through the library, his gun raised, searching for a second gunman until later that afternoon, when they determined there had been only one.
Bottenfield, also clearing the library section by section, would run across a member of his family hiding from the gunman. The experience of his personal world colliding with his law enforcement action is still too much for him to talk about.
Five people were killed that day: Carlos Franco and his daughter Marcela, Marguerite Gomez and the gunman’s father and brother, Samir and Chris Zawahri.
Last month, Obama honored Bottenfield, Sparks and Salas with the Medal of Valor during a ceremony at the White House. The medals are the nation’s highest honor for law enforcement and recognize exceptional courage to save human life in the face of personal risk.
“Each of them will tell you very humbly the same thing: They were just doing their jobs. They were doing what they had to do, what they were trained to do, like on any other day,” the President said.
Even with the national recognition, the men still feel grief from that day. “The suspect, that’s someone’s son,” said Sparks. “He was young. Unfortunately, he forced our hand. But it’s hard to know you took that life, whether you compartmentalize to say ‘I needed to; I had to protect other lives.’ But it doesn’t negate the fact that you took a life.”
Bottenfield and Sparks now watch mass shootings occurring across the country, like in Orlando, with a deeper sense of sadness and understanding. “You’re glad you’re not there, a part of you,” said Sparks. “You don’t want to go through that again. If you had to, you would. You just pray that it doesn’t happen again. Unfortunately, history has shown us that it does.”
Three years after the Santa Monica mass shooting, the two men can’t help but reflect on fate. They both had been inside the library together, two years before they would confront the armed gunman. The officers walked through the campus and specifically talked about the risk of an active shooter inside the library.
“Fate? Maybe. There are many words you can call it,” said Sparks. “I believe we were meant to be there.”
Watch “New Day” and “CNN Newsroom” each Friday to see inspiring stories of officers going above and beyond the call of duty.