After nine employees of the Santa Clara Valley Transit Authority (VTA) were killed in a mass shooting at a San Jose rail yard on Wednesday, their coworkers and bosses mourned them in a press conference Thursday. A refrain emerged in their collective grief: “the VTA family.”
“Many of those folks worked here for 20 to 30 years,” George Sandoval, a light rail maintenance operations manager who worked closely with some of the victims, said at the Thursday press conference. “When you work in a small group … there’s a bond that occurs. You really do become a family.”
Many of the victims had worked different positions throughout the transit organization over several years. They left behind parents, siblings, spouses, and children, but also a tight-knit family of coworkers.
“We’re a relatively small agency. … We all know each other,” Sandoval said. “It’s beyond the facility; it’s agencywide. It truly is a VTA family.”
Naunihal Singh, the superintendent of the light rail yard, has been with VTA for 22 years and worked directly — and daily — with three of the victims.
“I’m that unfortunate leader who lost my VTA family members,” an emotional Singh said at the press conference.
Singh shared the same office with Paul Megia, a beloved and respected 42-year-old superintendent who had worked his way up from a bus operator trainee since he joined the agency in 2002.
“Sometimes my demands could be unreasonable,” Singh said. “Paul always accepted it with a smile. He was always willing to help his employees and they seemed to reach out to him for whatever their needs were.”
Even as they were under fire on Thursday morning, Megia looked out for his employees and told them to take cover, another VTA employee told Mercury News.
Phil Guzman, who worked with Megia, called him “one of the best supervisors [he'd] ever worked for.”
“He honestly had all of my respect,” Guzman wrote in a Facebook post. “Never too busy to listen to whatever stupid, silly or crazy thoughts I had. A truly honest and genuine person. People like this don't enter your life enough. I miss you, Paul.”
Leticia Montuy, another VTA employee, also paid tribute to Megia. “His sincerity, his love, his genuine nature of actually giving a fck will be replaced by no one!” she wrote on Facebook. “I'll miss him so much.”
“This man here was fair and graceful,” another coworker, Taron Davis MacCampbell, wrote in a Facebook tribute to Megia.
Megia, who had two sons, a daughter, and a stepson, was scheduled to leave for Disneyland with his children on Thursday, his father, Leonard Megia, told the New York Times.
Megia immigrated from the Philippines to the US as a toddler and lived with his father and his three children, whom he loved deeply, his father said. They liked to go wakeboarding in the summer and snowboarding in winter, Leonard told the Times.
“He was a wonderful dad,” Leonard said. “He’s my son and my best friend.”
In an emotional tribute to Megia, his childhood friend Monica Lennon, wrote, “Thank you for making my life so much brighter because of your infectious smile, that special twinkle in your eyes whenever you talked, for making me laugh fr your dorky jokes every single time we hung out, and for always making me see the brighter side of life with your humor and positivity.”
VTA employees also remembered Adrian Balleza, a 29-year-old maintenance worker and light rail operator who joined the agency in 2014. He was the youngest victim of the shooting.
“What can I say about this gentleman,” Singh, whom Balleza reported to, said Thursday. “A gem of a person, very kindhearted.” Singh said that Balleza used to volunteer to raise funds for his coworkers in need.
Guzman, who also worked with Balleza at VTA, wrote that it was like having a younger cousin around.
“‘Sup puto’ and a middle finger, is how this guy greeted me everyday,” Guzman wrote on Facebook. “It always made me smile. Sometimes it was the highlight of my day… Adrian Balleza, my friend, I will truly miss talking trash with you.”
Augie Cruz, a VTA employee who knew Balleza and Megia, said he lost “two good friends” in the shooting. “Nothing but good memories with them."
Balleza, whose Facebook profile was filled with photos of his 2-year-old son, was remembered by his relatives and friends as a kindhearted man with a bright smile who loved his family dearly.
He could not wait until his son was old enough so he could go fishing with him, his wife, Heather Balleza, told the New York Times.
“The world needs more people like my husband, not one less,” she said. “He was my night and day. The best father and husband … my forever angel.”
A friend remembered Balleza as a courageous and strong person. “Thank you for being someone to look up to,” Timothy Joshua Peralez wrote on Facebook.
Another friend wrote, “The world won’t be the same without your smile.”
Taptejdeep Singh, a 36-year-old light rail operator at VTA, was killed after alerting his coworkers about the shooting and trying to protect them, his family and colleagues said.
Sukhvir Singh (no relation), another VTA employee, said he got a phone call from Taptejdeep to warn him about the shooter on Wednesday morning and to hide or get out immediately.
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, Sukhvir said that Taptej, as he was known to his coworkers and friends, spent the last moments of his life making sure others in the building and elsewhere would be able to stay safe.
“Because of him, so many people were able to go home to their families,” Sukhvir said.
Taptej’s brother, Bagga Singh, said witnesses told him that Taptej had taken one woman to the control room and told her to hide over there. He could have stayed there too, Bagga said, but instead he chose to save her and then went down the stairwell, where he was shot by the gunman.
Another brother, Karman Singh, said Taptej tried to quickly get his colleagues into secure offices and was frantically calling others who were coming in for a shift change to warn them about the shooter.
“We understand that he was attempting to secure his building when he was killed,” Karman said in a statement to BuzzFeed News. “Even in these moments of chaos, Taptejdeep was living by the values of Sikhi: living in service and protection of others. We believe that if the shooter had ever asked our brother for help, Taptejdeep would have gone above and beyond for him like he did for everyone he crossed paths with; he never harmed anyone, and no one who knew him would ever want to harm him. We choose to remember Taptejdeep as the hero he was, both in those final moments and throughout his life of service.”
P.J. Bath, a VTA light rail operator, was not only Taptej’s coworker but also his brother-in-law.
“He was always helpful to everyone and caring,” Bath told Mercury News.
Naunihal, whom Taptej reported to, said he was always asking how he could help out others. He said that even when Taptej disagreed with him, he would “take it with a smile and accept it.”
Aaron Morrow, who said he knew Taptej through his transit advocacy work, wrote on Facebook that he “would share with [him] how he just wanted to help his community and be a great ambassador for individuals who depend on public transit.”
It was Taptej’s second day back on the job after he had returned from a vacation, his family said. He had immigrated from India to the US about 17 years ago. He and his wife were raising a 3-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter in Union City.
“I think he’s the one who tried to save the people, as many as he could,” Bagga Singh said.
Jose Dejesus Hernandez III, age 35, started at the VTA in 2012 as a transit mechanic, and later became an electro mechanic and substation maintainer. In a post on Facebook, Rochelle Ruizesparza Velazquez described Hernandez as her cousin-in-law’s son.
“I am so heartbroken for what our city has suffered today,” she wrote. “The loss of a family member is just too painful to accept let alone the loss of a child.”
Timothy Michael Romo, 49, was a power foreman at the VTA, where he worked for more than 22 years, according to his LinkedIn profile.
His neighbor Keith Baldwin told the San Francisco Chronicle that Romo and his wife had been planning a vacation to see their son before the shooting. Another neighbor said Romo was friendly and “always ready to help you out.”
Like Romo, Abdolvahab Alaghmandan had also worked at the VTA for two decades. At 63, he was one of the two oldest victims of the shooting.
Alaghmandan was known to friends and family as Abdi. Megan Staker, whose boyfriend is Alaghmandan's son Soheil, told BuzzFeed News in a statement that he immigrated to the US from Iran so that his family could have a better life, "which makes this horrific tragedy just all the worse." The has since started a GoFund Me to cover expenses.
Staker said he was generous and hardworking, and "like a second father of my own."
“He was so funny and kind and loving and could fix anything. Things will never be the same without him. He brought so much joy and laughter to our lives,” she said.
Lars Kepler Lane was another 63-year-old VTA employee killed in the shooting. He built and maintained the VTA’s electrical power system as a journeyman lineman, according to his LinkedIn.
He came from a family of seven brothers and sisters. He had three kids and was a grandfather, Fox 40 reported. He would have turned 64 three days after the shooting.
In an interview with the local outlet, his brother Edward Lane described the agonizing wait for officials to identify the victims on Wednesday
“Why do we have to suffer 10 hours to find out if he’s alive or he’s dead?” Edward said. “If they need someone to walk on the floor and find out if one of them is my brother, I’d be happy to.”
In a Facebook post on Wednesday, Sonja Lea Gilchrist called Lars “a favorite family member” and wrote that her heart “is broken in a million pieces.”
“We sat in a room for 6.5 hours getting no information and then finally the worst news ever,” she added. “I know God has a plan, but why????”
A GoFundMe set up to help with Lars' funeral costs described him as a loving husband, father, grandfather, uncle, and brother who adored his family fiercely.
"To know Lars Lane is to love him," the fundraiser said. "He was the first to help his neighbor, his family and anyone that knew him."
Lars was also friends with another victim, 40-year-old Michael Rudometkin, who was a passionate member of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 265, his family said in a statement. He was at the rail yard on Wednesday for a union meeting when the shooting happened.
While waiting for officials to identify the victims on Wednesday, Rudometkin’s cousin told KCRA that he loved his job and “always stood up for everyone’s rights.”
The president of ATU Local 265, John Courtney, did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but he posted on Facebook in the early hours of Thursday morning, “I lay here shaking with tears in my eyes. Please Lord help the families.”
“He had just turned 40 and had more to live and accomplished. He has always been a wonderful son, brother, loving husband, uncle, cousin and friend to many,” Rudometkin's family said. “He would give his last shirt and penny off his back. Anyone could call him for help and he’d be there.”
On Facebook, Rudometkin showed an affinity for motorcycles, posting photos of his rides and bikes. His family said he loved sports, working at home, and the Russian River.
Raul Peralez, a member of the San Jose City Council and a close friend of Rudometkin's, said they had been planning a golf outing before the shooting.
“My dad and I were just planning another golf day reunion with Mikey, and now that will never happen again,” Peralez said on Facebook. “My family and I have lost a long time great friend and there are no words to describe the heartache we are feeling right now, especially for his family.”
Rudometkin worked at the VTA since 2013 and graduated from a two-year apprenticeship program at the agency in 2018 to become an overhead lineworker, overseeing and maintaining the system’s overhead electrical wires.
When Rudometkin graduated from the apprenticeship in 2018, Lars congratulated him and the other graduates on Facebook, commenting on a photo, “Great accomplishment, gentlemen!”
Alex Fritch, the ninth victim in the shooting, died late on Wednesday at the hospital in the arms of his wife, Terra Fritch, KTVU reported.
Alex was a transit mechanic at the VTA and would have celebrated his ninth year at the organization in June. He had a 30-year-old daughter and two teenage sons, Terra told the local outlet, and the couple had been married for 20 years.
On Instagram, Alex often posted about movies he was watching and photos of cocktails from bars in the Bay Area. He was also part of Sacramento Ohana, a local group that organized events at tiki bars.
In a GoFundMe for Alex’s memorial, Terra describes him as “an optimistic man, passionate man, a dreamer who loved his family with all his heart.”
“Alex Fritch was full of life,” the fundraiser says. “He loved his Tiki crawls, dirt bikes, Star Wars, being with his wife Terra, and loving life with his family.”
Naunihal, the superintendent, remembered his three coworkers, Taptej, Megia, and Balleza, as people who had a calming effect on everyone else.
“I’m angry. I’m sad. I’m lost for words,” Naunihal said. “At the same time, I’m trying to find the reasons why. None of our family members from VTA deserve this punishment.”