The noises told the story: An empty hairdryer was still running in the background, victims' cell phones kept ringing and survivors were crying.
As three firefighters and two construction workers searched for signs of life among the eight people gunned down at Salon Meritage that Wednesday afternoon, the L-shaped room felt small and cramped.
Salon co-owner Sandy Fannin refused to leave her husband, Randy, unable to accept that he was dead. Two other uninjured survivors had to be pulled outside so paramedics could triage a pair of women with severe gunshot wounds.
Those first rescuers didn’t know there was a third survivor, David Caouette, who had been shot in his car in the parking lot outside.
“The weird thing for me was that all the people’s cell phones were going off," recalled Seal Beach Fire Capt. Alan Ladd. "Word was getting out already that something bad was happening in Seal Beach. … That sound is something I’ll never forget.”
Two Minutes of Terror
Moments earlier, shortly after 1:15 p.m., the salon had been alive with activity. Nearly 20 customers and employees were inside when a graying, heavyset gunman – later identified as by police – came through the door carrying three handguns and wearing a bulletproof vest under his short-sleeved shirt. What transpired over the next several minutes was a whirlwind of horror, bravery and – for those who escaped death – lucky twists of fate.
Kathy McGhee was working in the back when the commotion began. A customer pulled her into the facial room and locked the door behind them. A moment later, someone tried the knob, but didn't get in.
Outside, salon co-owner Randy Fannin attempted to reason with the gunman, according to an eyewitness account relayed to the Orange County Register.
“Hold on a minute, Scott. Please don’t do this,” Fannin said. “There's another way. Let's go outside and talk."
But the shooter opened fire. One of the first people hit was DeKraai’s ex-wife Michelle Fournier, a stylist at the salon. That morning, she and Dekraai had argued on the phone about custody of their 8-year-old son, Dominic.
The gunman was merciless. Firing at close range, he aimed for the head and heart. Two minutes was all it took for him to empty one weapon, reload and continue spraying the room with bullets.
Fannin went down, along with salon employees Christy Wilson, Victoria Buzzo and Laura Webb Elody, who had been doing the hair of her 73-year-old mother, Harriet Stretz.
The fiery-haired Stretz was shot twice, injuring her left arm. Two other customers, Michele Fast and Lucia Kondas, died from their wounds.
Calling for Help
Hiding in the facial room, McGhee and two others dialed 911, summoning help in hushed tones and whispers.
“I can barely hear you,” the emergency dispatcher said at one point.
“I’m trying to be quiet in my room,” the caller replied, “because they can hear me. … I think a lot of people might have been killed or hurt.”
Another employee hid in the bathroom from beginning to end. She didn’t see her friends die, but she heard every sound, as bullets tore through the wall, blood seeped under the door and screams pierced the air.
A few people survived by playing dead. “I got down and put my hands over my neck like an air-raid drill and was just hoping he wasn’t going to kill me,” one woman sobbed to 911 after the shooting ended.
Still others managed to run outside before the killer could take aim. Webb Elody reportedly saved two people by confronting Dekraai.
When the gunman finished, he exited the building and walked through the parking lot, stopping at a Land Rover and firing through the passenger window at Caouette, who was apparently on his way to Patty’s Place, the steakhouse next to the salon. The killer then climbed into a white Toyota pickup and drove off.
Police arrived about the same time. With witnesses pointing to Dekraai’s departing truck, officers followed the vehicle about four blocks before pulling it over. Guns drawn, they ordered Dekraai out of the pickup and arrested him without incident.
Five and a half minutes after the first 911 call, the suspect was in custody. It was 1:27 p.m.
'A Surreal Scene'
Back at the fire station, Ladd and his crew had been waiting in limbo, listening to police sirens race through town but not knowing what was going on or why their pagers were silent. (It's a standard precaution for police to make sure a crime scene is safe before calling in paramedics.)
For five long minutes, they kept checking their pagers. Nothing.
Then, at 1:27 p.m., word came in of "possible multiple gunshot victims." Within three minutes, Engine No. 44 was at the scene.
But on the way, the crew was mystified. "We didn't know what to expect," Ladd said. "We were talking, and it was like, 'A shooting? That doesn't happen in Seal Beach.' "
Inside the salon, firefighters surveyed the chaos. “The whole scene was surreal,” Ladd said. “There was a lot to take in.”
Six people were dead, two women were critical. The employee who hid in the bathroom was the last to leave. Someone escorted her out of the building with a towel draped over her head so she wouldn’t have the image of murdered friends seared into her mind.
Rescuers, aided by construction workers from a nearby project, got to work. It didn’t take long for victims' cell phones to start ringing. The rampage had barely ended, and already there were wives, husbands, children and parents desperate to know if their loved ones survived.
“You just want to go turn them off, but you have a job to do,” Ladd said.
It proved to be a massive undertaking.
All told, some 40 agencies - from police and fire to Public Works and the Red Cross - arrived to treat survivors, sift through evidence and pick up Fournier's little boy at school. In just a matter of moments, investigators had located and arrested a suspect, sealed off two crime scenes, rounded up witnesses and preserved evidence as frantic family members and a crush of media, the likes of which Seal Beach had never seen, closed in.
Editor's Note: This story was based on interviews, court documents, and district attorney and police statements.