Never forgotten: VTA commemorates fallen San Jose workers
Attendees arrive at VTA's rail yard for a vigil ceremony commemorating the one year anniversary of the mass shooting tragedy, Thursday, May 26, 2022. Photo courtesy of Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group.

The VTA community gathered Thursday to mourn workers killed in a mass shooting one year ago—and to find a path toward healing.

Speaking at the Guadalupe light rail yard in downtown San Jose shortly after dawn, General Manager and CEO Carolyn Gonot addressed a group of workers and families who lost their loved ones in the mass shooting on May 26, 2021. Calling it the most tragic day in VTA history, Gonot said the attack shattered families and devastated the agency.

Carolyn Gonot, VTA general manager, walks past a wreath during a vigil honoring the victims of the VTA shooting on the one year anniversary of the tragedy, Thursday, May 26, 2022, in San Jose. Photo courtesy of Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group.

“We will miss our colleagues who died that awful day a year ago, and what happened is truly unthinkable,” Gonot said, adding the 10 men who died because of the attack will never be forgotten. “We can together make VTA a better place in memory of them and the community we serve.”

The attack occurred in the early hours of May 26, 2021 when disgruntled 57-year-old VTA employee Samuel Cassidy opened fire on coworkers in the rail yard building. The shooter, who had a history of insubordination and altercations with coworkers, was reportedly upset about pay and other issues. Nine workers died in the attack. The shooter took his own life shortly after law enforcement arrived. A 10th VTA worker, who struggled with PTSD after the attack, died by suicide months later.

The agency honored the workers with 10 candles sparked from a memorial flame created by a group of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 265 members. A woman began wailing as the candles were lit.

John Courtney, president and business agent of ATU Local 265 and a survivor of the attack, said the planes roaring over the rail yard were the spirits of the workers looking down over the crowd, making sure they’re okay.

Courtney said he’s grateful for some of the actions VTA has taken over the past year to help the workforce heal. But he stressed the agency needs to do more to protect workers from being assaulted and harmed, and to make sure perpetrators of this kind of violence are punished. He also hinted at larger problems afflicting the agency.

“Systemically we face a monster at VTA that wasn’t created overnight,” Courtney said. “It’s not going to be fixed in a year. But God darn it, it’s going to be fixed if it’s the last thing we do.”

John Courtney, president and business agent of ATU Local 265 and a survivor of the attack, embraced another person after the service at a memorial in front of the Resiliency Center. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

San José Spotlight spoke with a worker who was at the rail yard during the attack last year. The worker, who requested anonymity to avoid retaliation, said he clearly remembers chaos and fear. He holds on to the texts and voicemails of a friend who died in the attack, and he struggles to move on with his life.

“For me, it’s never gone, it’s never behind me,” the worker said. “I think about it every day, when I come to work or when I’m at home.”

Attendees at a memorial later in the day cried as a mother spoke about losing her son in the mass shooting. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

‘I shouldn’t be here’

At a public memorial service later in the day, local officials, law enforcement, VTA workers and residents broke down in tears as Karrey Benbow, mother of victim Jose Luis Hernandez III, took to the stage in front of the 526 Resiliency Center to talk about her son. The center was built with state funds after the attack to assist VTA workers and families with mental health issues.

“I shouldn’t be here,” Benbow said through tears to the crowd of more than 100 people. “This could have been prevented, if people had listened to the complaints of my son and the coworkers who are not here today.”

Karrey Benbow, mother of shooting victim Jose Luis Hernandez, asked VTA to create a scholarship in honor of her son’s dedication to the transit agency. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

Benbow said she still remembers the last time she saw her son, who took her out on a motorcycle ride. Benbow wore the same outfit she did on that day to the memorial services.

“I spent six hours with my son, not knowing it was the last time I was going to hug and kiss him goodbye,” she said, asking if VTA could create a scholarship to honor Hernandez’s dedication to the transit agency. “I would have given anything to take those bullets for him.”

San Jose Police Chaplain Bryan Allen overwhelmed with emotions at a memorial service for the slain VTA workers. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

At the service, Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen honored first responders—including deputies with the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office, San Jose police and fire departments and emergency medical services—who responded to the shooting.

“A year ago today, these heroes rushed, sirens on, toward the sound of gunfire at the VTA rail yard,” Rosen said. “That day they showed the courage and compassion, the selflessness that frankly they show every day and every night in our community.”

Courtney, who escaped the shooting after six others had been gunned down, said the law enforcement officers who broke through doors into the VTA building were heroes.

“As I was getting away from a place of such horror, there were some real heroes running into that place,” Courtney said. “I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about that morning.”

Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen honored the first responders who risked their lives at the VTA shooting and called them heroes. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

Local officials—who have spearheaded a number of policies and initiatives in the hope of curbing gun violence—urged VTA workers, law enforcement and their loved ones to seek support services at the newly opened Resiliency Center on Julian Street.

“It is not a sign of weakness to ask for the support you need to get back in and do what it is that you do,” Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez said. “The Resiliency Center is here as a reflection of our deep and abiding respect for all of you and for victims of crime.”

Contact Eli Wolfe at [email protected] or @EliWolfe4 on Twitter. Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter.

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