California Shooting Witness on Facing the Gunman4 min read

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Inside the Borderline Bar & Grill on Wednesday night, John Hedge and his stepdad, Tim Dominguez, were seated at a table near the front door when the man who would soon massacre 11 others walked in wearing a black jacket and black ball cap.

“All of a sudden, you just hear these loud firecracks, like fireworks,” Hedge, 25, tells PEOPLE, recalling the moment that police say a 28-year-old former Marine, Ian David Long, drew a 9mm pistol and began firing about 11:20 p.m. Wednesday inside the Thousand Oaks, California, venue.

“The room got all smoky and I thought to myself, What the hell is going on? And then I see my stepdad dive to the ground to try to get cover,” says Hedge. “He yelled, ‘John, get down, get down!’ And then you just hear people start screaming and diving.”

Eleven people were shot dead.

Also fatally injured was Ventura County Sheriff’s Sgt. Ron Helus, 54, a 29-year department veteran on the verge of retirement who rushed in after 911 calls reported shots fired inside the venue on “College Country Night,” authorities said.

Shortly afterward, other officers who entered the bar found Long dead, apparently by his own hand, Ventura County Sheriff Geoff Dean told reporters on Thursday. No motive has been released.

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Without the sergeant’s action to confront and distract the shooter while scores of people srambled inside the club, “it could have been much, much worse,” says the sheriff, who called Helus “a hero.”

RELATED: At Least 12 Killed in Mass Shooting at Country Night in California Bar

Sgt. Ron Helus

Sgt. Ron Helus

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Hedge and his stepdad “were probably really the two people that [the shooter] saw first once he got inside,” says Hedge, a Wednesday-night regular at Borderline in recent months.

“It’s always working-class, country-loving people,” Hedge says of the bar. “When I was younger and in school, I used to go a lot and it was just a mellow place.”

The place on this particular night held about 150 to 200 people, he says. “It wasn’t one of the times where it was really crowded,” he adds, remembering patrons playing pool, out on the dance floor or simply tending to their drinks.

“We were just sitting there talking,” he says. “I was getting ready to go and I had just actually closed out my tab.”

Then came that crack of gunfire.

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“I dove and got cover and I looked up to see a guy unloading clips on these poor girls that worked the cash register,” Hedge says.

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“The first people he shot point-blank. It looked like he was going after those specific people near the front door,” he says. “I saw him shoot the security guard and just thought, What do I do or don’t?”

“I ran to the bathroom to try to go hide, and then I saw a couple people make it out the front door,” Hedge says. “I didn’t think I would be able to escape there, because he was in a 10-foot radius of the front door [and] cash register area.”

The gunman began “making his way around the front desk area,” says Hedge. “It seemed like he had a vendetta against the girls working the front desk.”

Law enforcement on the scene of the shooting at the Borderline Bar & Grill in Thousand Oaks, California.

Law enforcement on the scene of the shooting at the Borderline Bar & Grill in Thousand Oaks, California.

MIKE NELSON/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock

The patrons took cover where they could, according to Hedge.

“People started hiding in the closet where you store your jackets and stuff, and then some were able to make it out the front,” he says. “I was able to run out, but I didn’t see my stepdad, so I turned back around to go back in and see if he was okay.”

“I saw a smoke grenade being tossed, and then you couldn’t see anything at that point,” he says. “I started hearing more gunshots and didn’t see anyone near me, but I heard my stepdad yelling, ‘John, John, over here!’ So I ran over to him and we got out the front door.”

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The shooter was then standing behind the cash register, Hedge says: “He had a beard and was wearing a black baseball cap pointed down and it looked like he had on prescription glasses. He was wearing a black jacket and was like 6-foot or so and average build.”

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“He and I looked at each other,” says Hedge. “He couldn’t have been more than like 10 or 12 feet away from me.”

Sheriff Dean said Thursday that no evidence had yet turned up to suggest that Long targeted any particular person in the bar.

Hedge says, in the course of his own escape, he saw people “flooding out and getting into their cars, driving away and running down the street. When we were pulling out is when we saw the first responders.”

Neither he nor his friends were among the casualties. But he did not escape unscathed.

“Today I just want to sleep,” he says, “but I can’t.”