SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. – The girlfriend of one of the 14 people killed in the Dec. 2 shooting in San Bernardino said President Barack Obama immediately asked her for a hug when he came to talk with her.
Obama and his wife, Michelle, met with members of each of the 14 families in the library of Indian Springs High School on Friday night before heading to Hawaii for their annual holiday getaway. A separate table was set up for each family, and the Obamas moved from one to the next, spending about 10 minutes with each victim’s relatives.
When Obama approached the table where Mandy Pifer was sitting, he said, “Words aren’t enough. How about a hug?”
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Pifer’s boyfriend Shannon Johnson, 45, was killed in the attack.
“I’ve been watching you give hugs,” Pifer recalled telling him. “I need a hug.”
“It just felt like they were really present in their conversation with me,” she said. “They are sick and tired of doing these things, meeting our families.”
Obama said meeting with the families was a reminder “of what’s good in this country.”
“As difficult as this time is for them and for the entire community, they’re also representative of the strength and the unity and the love that exists in this community and in this country,” Obama said late Friday after the meetings with family members.
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Pifer had told the Obamas about Johnson, how he loved life, his virtues and their future plans. She also shared with them what she knows about his last moments: His colleague Denise Peraza, who survived the attack, said he huddled with her under a table as bullets flew across the room. He held her close and told her, “I got you.”
Peraza credits Johnson with her survival, and since then the phrase “I got you” has spread across social media.
When she mentioned the phrase to the Obamas, they nodded, indicating it was a story they already knew, she said. She brought a sign stating “#IGotYou” that they all posed for a photo with it. Johnson and Peraza are in the initial stages of planning a foundation in Johnson’s memory.
“I feel like they’re on my side,” she said. “They’re on our side. And that he’s going to keep working to make this better even after he’s left office. It’s personal for them.”
The Obamas encouraged her to reach out and promised to provide whatever support they could.
“Mrs. Obama she did say that she would rap or perform at our fundraising concert,” Pifer said. “I will try to make her keep her word on that.”
Pifer said the Obamas’ visit was helpful.
“It’s helping the grieving process,” Pifer said. “It was very comforting.”
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Obama said the family members were “inspiring” as they spoke with pride about their loved ones.
“As we go into the holiday season, even as we are vigilant about preventing terrorist attacks from happening, even as we insist we can’t accept the notion of mass shootings in public places, in places of work and worship, we have to remind ourselves of the overwhelming good that exists out there,” he said.
Ahead of the visit, two victim relatives described conflicting emotions: One hopeful, the other with doubt.
“It won’t bring any closure to us,” said Evelyn Godoy, whose sister-in-law, Aurora Godoy, the mother of a toddler, was killed in the attack. “But it’s nice he’s going to stop.”
In the aftermath of the massacre, families of those killed have grieved while also slowly learning the unsettling details about the couple, Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, 29, who killed their loved ones. Federal investigators say they pledged allegiance to the leader of Islamic State terror organization before executing the attack at a holiday meeting Dec. 2. Twenty-one others were injured in the attack. Both Farook and Malik were later killed in a gunfight with police.
“Of course we have questions and we would like to know how and what happened,” said Robel Tekleab, whose brother-in-law, Isaac Amanios, 60, was killed. “But that is for another time. Tomorrow is all about grieving together and comforting each other.”
Amanios greatly admired Obama, raising money for his 2008 campaign even through the immigrant from Eritrea was still not eligible to vote, said Tekleab, who worked as a field staffer on the president’s 2012 re-election campaign. Amanios even travelled to D.C. to attend Obama’s 2009 inauguration.
Tekleab said he wants Obama to know who his brother-in-law was. “His presence itself is comforting,” he said.
Evelyn Godoy said she didn’t know what her family was hoping to hear. On the one hand, his visit felt like a nice gesture. On the other, when she read in the news that he was stopping on his way to Hawaii for his vacation she couldn’t help but feel “like we were a throw in.”
“At the end of the day my sister-in-law isn’t coming back,” she said. “It doesn’t bring her back.”