Alumnus is first on scene at San Bernardino shooting

University of La Verne alumnus Alex Vasquez, one of KNBC’s Inland Empire reporters, was the first journalist to arrive at the scene of the San Bernardino shooting Dec. 2 at the Inland Regional Center. The news van that Vasquez drives is the only one of its kind, with all-wheel drive. He says NBC gave him the van because he is ambitious and will go wherever he needs to get the story. / Photo By Helen Arase
University of La Verne alumnus Alex Vasquez, one of KNBC’s Inland Empire reporters, was the first journalist to arrive at the scene of the San Bernardino shooting Dec. 2 at the Inland Regional Center. The news van that Vasquez drives is the only one of its kind, with all-wheel drive. He says NBC gave him the van because he is ambitious and will go wherever he needs to get the story. / photo by Helen Arase

Kat Simonelli
Sports Editor

He sleeps with a police scanner next to his bed running 24/7, he keeps clothes laid out so he can hop into them and run out the door to cover something he heard on the police scanner at 3 a.m.

La Verne alumnus Alex Vasquez started out reporting in Palm Springs after he graduated in 2005 and worked his way up to working for NBC 4 News, where he has been reporting as a photojournalist for the past nine years.

Vasquez credits his success in his field to his training at the University.

“La Verne really gave me the tools to be doing what I’m doing today,” Vasquez said. “That’s kind of the cool thing about that school; they made me who I am today.”

He explains it’s the classes that took the biggest toll on him that affected him the most.

“I got a D in Audio and Mixing Controls with Mike. I keep that exam in my office; I look at it all the time,” Vasquez said. “I got a D and now I’m mixing audio for one of the largest broadcasting companies in the world.”

What is your position at NBC?

A little bit of everything, but I am the Inland Empire photojournalist. I work with a guy named Tony Shin. Tony Shin is the reporter who came to us about two years ago from San Diego and he got put into the Inland Empire with me and him and I are a team. The community has come to us and told us, “you guys are the No. 1 station in the Inland Empire” and I think Tony and I have built it to that because he can cover one side of the county and I cover the other so what I do is I go around chasing stories, trying to generate stories. I shoot the story, I do the interviews and I do the editing. I do every aspect of it just as he does. He does my job and I do his job and depending on where the story is that day we determine who’s going to do the story, put it together while the other guy’s chasing the other stories. My job is basically to run the Inland Empire as far as stories go.

I grew up in Glendora. I went to Charter Oak High School, graduated, didn’t have good grades at all so I went to Citrus, was there, got recruited to play basketball, went to Cal State Dominguez Hills and then when I got my grades up and I wanted to come back I went to the University of La Verne. I always wanted to go to La Verne but I just didn’t have the grades to go there right out of high school, so it was a dream to go back to La Verne and graduate from there. And I know this is going to sound so cheesy, because I know (Radio-TV Operations Manager) Shane (Rodrigues) and those guys very well, but if it wasn’t for those guys teaching me what they did I would not be doing what I am doing today. There’s no way.

Last year, I had a really good year, I won some Golden Mikes, I was part of some Emmys and stuff but I never forget that La Verne gave me the edge to do what I’m doing. Editing in those edit bays I thought, “Oh, this is so horrible,” but that’s what I do every single day. I remember when (Professor of Journalism) George (Keeler) and those guys would give me two weeks to put a story together, now I’m lucky if I get 20 minutes. On days like what happened in San Bernardino the information was flowing so fast that I would edit my story and by the time I was done the story had already evolved and evolved so I couldn’t keep up with the story.

What got you interested in working in the media in the first place?

I’ve never been one to sit still, you know. This job is a dream for me because every single day is different. I’m always chasing the next big story. The day before this happened there was a big tanker that exploded on the 15 Freeway. I was the only one there. I got there within the first eight minutes of what happened. My thing is I’m not the best photographer by any means. There are photographers in this market that are way better than me, but nobody I think is as quick as me. I get there, I set up, I shoot my video, and I get it on TV first. That’s always my goal. So I’m motivated every day by chasing the next big story.

Over the past nine years I’ve gotten a lot of big stories. Big things always seem to happen around me and I don’t understand it’s kind of like news follows me instead of me following it. There was a big bus crash on the Superbowl Sunday. A bus was coming down from Big Bear with a bunch of tourists from TJ, the bus flipped over and I think like nine people died. It was in the city of Mento. I’ve never really been to Mento, it’s out in the middle of nowhere. For some reason that day my friend said, “Hey let’s go watch the Superbowl game, there’s this really cool bar and grill in Mento.” I never leave home without a camera and I was at the restaurant, I was sitting there, and a firefighter jumped up out of his seat and said, “Oh my God I’ve got to go there’s been a horrible accident down the street” and I jumped up and followed him and I got this amazing video of this horrific crash where this bus had flipped over and people were severely injured and a whole bunch of people died. I mean it was weird, I was there.

The tanker that happened the day before, I happened to be there, when the shooting happened I was there right down the street. It’s kind of weird it’s like I was born to do what I do and I always seem to get there fast and I always seem to get those compelling images. I have the adrenaline rush for this business and I love what I do but it’s like an emotional rollercoaster. I do sports sometimes and then the next thing I know I’m at the scene of a dead baby, you know, so it’s like constantly all day a fluctuation of emotions.

You were talking about the San Bernardino incident. What did you think when you first saw the extent of what happened when you got there?

I got asked that question by a lot of people and it was one of those things that when you’re shooting pictures or video and you’re looking through a lens or a camera and all these horrific things are going on around you the instinct of a journalist kicks in. The raw video shows me running up to the scene and you see people running from the building who have been shot and they’re all shot and the first thing I do is shoot a little bit of video and I’m seeing people shot and I turn over to the white truck that they’re getting out of and I white balanced, you know, it was like the instinct of training still kicked in. I thought one thing that went through my mind was that these people look like regular people.

I go to shootings every day; I’ve had people die in front of me many times. With gang members it’s kind of like “Eh,” I hate to say that, it’s not like I’m not a human being but I’ve been able to separate myself from death when I watch it through my lens and that specific day I’m watching these people who look like moms, dads, they look like regular people obviously in a state of shock, shot, and I thought these people woke up this morning just figuring “Hey it’s just another ordinary day at work, I’m going to work today,” and they realized that it was now their worst nightmare and I could see that in their faces.

What I saw happen in front of me was obviously horrific and it was kind of in slow motion, but it was also happening so fast. One image that will always stick in my head was there was one woman that they set down next to me while I was shooting and at first she looked injured and I thought, “I need to get interviews from some of these gun shot victims and see what happened” and I was going to go to her but I went to her friend instead and she didn’t want to talk to me. By the time I turned around I saw the woman take a deep breath and she died right there. She took one deep breath, she let it out and she unfortunately passed away. That image will always remain in my head; I’ll remember that I shot that, when she took her last breath and that honestly is the most disturbing part of it.

It becomes real but it’s just one of those things where I didn’t think it was terrorism, I just thought it was some disgruntled employee that showed up but I definitely thought, “This is a nightmare for these people and I just happened to be a part of it.” I was on the 215 at Orange Show when I heard the call come out on the police scanner of an active shooter so I exited and I was there within the first five minutes.

How hard was it to separate your duty as a journalist from your human reaction to the tragedy?

That’s the toughest part. I’ve showed up, like I said, to many tragedies, horrible horrible tragedies, but you really don’t. That specific day when the shooting occurred and I’m shooting all this video I could see that people needed help, they were looking for their loved ones, some people were yelling for their loved ones who obviously weren’t even there, they were at home probably but I could hear them yelling, “Where’s my family, where’s my family,” and so I ran over to a couple people and I gave them my cellphone and I said, “Call your family and tell them you’re OK’ and I gave them my phone.

That was the human being side of me; I put the camera down when I did that. It’s tough, you want to help but there’s nothing we can do. You’ve got to let the fire department and everybody do what they have to do but you do feel the emotions going through you and it doesn’t hit you until hours later, days later, even months later I’ve had it happen. I haven’t really had this specific incident sink in yet. Over the weekend I was watching the news and I saw all my video play out and that’s when it kind of hit me, like, “Wow I can’t believe I was there for this.” Its one of those things, its very hard to separate yourself from a story but when these things are happening I’ve kind of learned that you have to step back and do your job and then reflect on it later but it’s tough. It’s really really tough in that aspect.

What do you think about the way that the networks handled covering the media frenzy in the apartment that was live?

I think in this particular situation we as journalists were trying to keep up with the story. It was several crime scenes, if you will. I think we were respectful and aggressive but I think we did our job as journalists by getting the information out there to the public. As journalists, part of our job is to basically be almost like a sponge. You absorb the information from the officers at the scene and then you come over here to the public and you kind of wring it out and give the information to them. I think we did a good job.

I think that no matter what when you have this kind of a situation, especially if it involves terrorism, there’s always going to be a media frenzy and I know people don’t like that but I know at the same time people want to know what’s going on and were all going to try and get that story, that information first and with this day and age with phones and Facebook and Twitter it’s your average Joe that ends up breaking the story even before we do. So not only are we competing with each other as journalists, we’re competing against the neighbor who has an iPhone who shoots pictures of the shootout and posts it on Twitter before any of us even know about it.

That was really tough, I think we did a good job as journalists, I think we were being respectful but I also think that we did everything we could to serve the public to let them know that their community was basically under attack and that’s kind of what I think our jobs were.

What do you think some of the ethical concerns would be?

I didn’t speak to the owner of the apartment, the landlord, my partner did and I get where he’s coming from. The landlord’s message to everybody was, “Look, I’m going to open this up and show people that these people were living just like me and you. Like average Joes. They weren’t like somebody who was doing something and nobody saw.”

I think that the way the apartment situation was handled was not that it wasn’t ethical, I think that we all were just shocked and surprised that we had access to something like that when normally we don’t. I haven’t seen all of the apartment video but I don’t think we crossed a line of ethics. I think that if we had shot video of the baby, pictures and stuff like that, that may be crossing the line because that poor child is just an innocent victim in this just like a lot of people were, but I’m glad that that happened because it puts out here that these people were just normal to the human eye, they weren’t people that were different from the outside looking in. I agree with the fact that the landlord let us in to kind of expose “Hey, these people were normal, take a look.”

I’m actually happy that he did that, I know a lot of people were angry that we went in there but I think that when you’re talking about terrorism, this isn’t the last time unfortunately that something like this is going to happen so I think we can all learn that these people, whoever it may be, whatever ethnicity it may be are living amongst us so I think it was a good thing we went in there.

What makes you keep wanting to do what you do?

 What keeps me going are the stories that make me feel like I made a difference, whether there is a sex offender on your street or there is a budget cut coming to your local schools. That’s what keeps me going, the stories that really affect people, the stories that people come up to me a month or two months later and say, “Wow I remember that story you did on this and that really made a difference.”

People have told me that, “You’re going to burn out at the pace you’re going” and it’s been almost nine years and I haven’t even come close to burning out. Will it happen? Probably. But when I get to the point where I’m no longer enjoying what I’m doing I’m not going to do it anymore.

Kat Simonelli can be reached at kathryn.simonelli@laverne.edu.

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