Ron Sesler was working the lunch rush at his steakhouse just blocks from the beach in this seaside town when he heard a rapid `pop, pop, pop' sound that he at first thought was construction noise.
But when a frantic woman burst through the restaurant and into the kitchen, screaming `"They're shooting people, they're shooting people!" he knew it wasn't jackhammers.
Over the next nightmarish minutes, Sesler watched as hairstylists and customers from the next-door Salon Meritage streamed into his restaurant seeking refuge from the rampage. Hysterical stylists still wearing their smocks with hair clips in the pockets and customers halfway through dye jobs and permanents piled inside Patty's Place as Sesler locked the door and his wife frantically dialed 911. Police soon showed up and used the restaurant as a temporary base to interview witnesses.
"The whole place was filled, it was whoever survived," said Sesler, 68, still noticeably shaken on Thursday as he tried to resume business as usual. "We just locked the doors and waited for police. It seemed like a long time _ minutes _ but it was probably seconds."
Minutes after the shooting Wednesday, police stopped 41-year-old Scott Dekraai a half-mile from the scene and arrested him without incident. Sesler said the witnesses who came to his restaurant believed that Dekraai's ex-wife, Michelle Fournier, was the second person shot in a spree that claimed the lives of eight people and left one woman in critical condition.
The only victim not shot inside the salon was a regular at Patty's Place and a good friend of Sesler, a man named David Caouette. He happened to park directly next to the gunman and was shot while sitting in his car talking on his cell phone, Sesler said.
"I saw him sitting there bleeding before they took him away," he said. "He randomly missed it by three or four minutes either way. If he was late, the guy would have driven away. If he was early, he would have been in here" eating lunch.
Police identified the victims Thursday as Fournier, Fannin, Caouette, as well as Victoria Buzzo, Lucia Kondas, Laura Elody, Christy Wilson and Michelle Fast.
The witnesses who gathered in Sesler's restaurant, many of them longtime friends, said Dekraai first took aim at the salon owner, Randy Fannin, and shot him once in the head and then turned to his own ex-wife, shooting her three times. Fannin's wife, Sandy, escaped only because she was in the back, possibly mixing hair dye, Sesler said.
A masseuse hid in the massage room with two others and locked the door. Two more hid in the bathroom, Sesler said, according to accounts from people who were interviewed by police inside his restaurant in the immediate aftermath.
"They were hiding and calling 911 while the shooting was going on. They all came in here," he said. "If you were there, you were either shot or hiding."
An elderly woman fled the salon after the shots broke out and seemed frozen on the sidewalk. Sesler's wife, Patty, grabbed her through the restaurant's side door and pulled her into the kitchen, Sesler said. The shooter had been staring directly at the woman but didn't fire, he said, adding that he offered her a glass of wine and peanuts to calm her after her police interview was done.
As things calmed down, police swarmed Sesler's restaurant to interview survivors. Every table was filled, with four or five cops attending to each survivor, and some hairstylists took customers with half-finished dye jobs and perms to a salon next door to rinse their hair, he said.
"There were more cops than there was tables," he said. "They were breaking people down on what happened, doing interviews."
Another woman who witnessed part of the shooting, Kimberly Criswell, said she heard two short "pops." Criswell, who owns another salon near Salon Meritage, said her receptionist then screamed out, "He just shot that man!" She gathered her employees and clients and locked them in the handicapped bathroom while calling 911.
"I'm sure I've lost some friends," she said as she waited for news outside a spiritual center and library where victims' family members were taken.
Shannon Dixon, 35, said he followed speeding cop cars to the scene because he has friends who work in the shopping complex and he was worried.
When he arrived, he saw an elderly woman being wheeled out on a stretcher covered in bandages and medical equipment.
His friend, a police officer, was one of the first on the scene and described a grisly scene after the immediate aftermath.
"When he happened upon the scene it was just horrid. When he walked in, there was still the gun smoke in the air and there was just bodies and blood everywhere," Dixon said.
Within minutes, dozens of other residents had gathered, trying to learn who was among the casualties until police pushed them back.
"Everyone was shaking and everyone was like, `Was so and so in there? Was so and so in there? Was so and so?'" he recalled. "And obviously, no one had any answers."
Sesler said Dekraai, the suspect, was well-known in the community and grew up in Seal Beach.
His grandparents' names are inscribed on gold plates the size of playing cards on a weathered memorial bench that sits in the shopping complex between the salon and the restaurant where the victims took refuge. The grandparents had lived in Seal Beach for decades and he lived in an apartment above their house when he was in his early 20s, said Tim Terbush, who was close friends with Dekraai's ex-wife.
Dekraai and Michelle Fournier had been going through a bitter custody battle over their young son, according to court records, and had a court hearing in the matter earlier in the week.
Just hours before the shooting, Sesler said, Michelle Fournier had stopped by the restaurant to ask about the lunch special and promised to come back.
"She never made it," he said.