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‘My Heart Is Broken’: Remembering the Nine Victims of the VTA Shooting

As soon as he heard the news, Raul Peralez rushed to the Santa Clara County Valley Transit Authority light rail yard in San Jose, the scene of Wednesday’s horrific mass shooting.

Peralez, a San Jose city councilmember, soon found out his lifelong friend, Michael Rudometkin — an employee at the facility — was one of the nine victims murdered in the deadly rampage.

“My heart is broken. And honestly, it’s gonna take a lot of time for all of us to be able to heal,” he said.

In a Facebook message posted later that day, Peralez wrote, “Eight families are feeling this same sense of loss tonight and our entire community is mourning as well.”

At a Thursday morning press briefing at VTA headquarters to honor the nine victims, speakers repeatedly emphasized just how close-knit the community of workers are at the transit agency.

“You know, many of these folks worked here for 20, 30 years. And so, yes, we do become a family,” said George Sandoval, a maintenance operations manager at the yard, who supervised some of the victims.

Naunihal Singh, the superintendent of the rail yard, said his employees were known for their integrity.

“What I’m hearing from my peers about what happened yesterday, it shows the character of those guys, how they tried to save others while going through that chaotic situation,” he said.

Before listing all nine victims and the jobs they performed to keep the agency’s trains running, Glenn Hendricks, the chair of the VTA board of directors, reiterated that they were more than just co-workers.

“To us here at VTA, they are friends and they are family. And we want to honor their memory,” he said.

Evelynn Tran, VTA’s acting general manager, said she was with some of the victims’ families on Wednesday when they learned the fate of their loved ones.

“Some of us get training on what to do when there is an active shooter event, but not about the aftermath,” she said. “I saw that aftermath and I saw the immense pain in the faces of the families and I heard their cries when they got the news. And it was utterly heart-wrenching. And I felt immensely helpless.”

“We get up every morning, safe in the belief that when we go to work, that we would come home to our family and our loved ones,” Tran said. “That did not happen for Abdolvahab, Adrian. Alex, Jose. Lars, Michael, Paul, Taptejdeep, Timothy.”

What follows is a brief description of all nine victims and some memories of them that will endure. These descriptions will be updated as more information is gathered.

The nine confirmed victims of a mass shooting at a VTA light rail yard in San Jose on May 26, 2021. All nine victims were VTA employees. (Photos courtesy of VTA; designed by Anna Vignet/KQED)

Paul Delacruz Megia, 42

Paul Delacruz Megia, 42, always had a smile on his face, no matter what was thrown his way, said his supervisor Naunihal Singh, the rail yard’s superintendent, who shared an office with him.

First hired in 2002 as a bus operator trainee, Megia went on to serve a light rail operator, climbing the ranks to eventually become the facility’s assistant superintendent. He was known for embracing challenges on the job, said Singh.

“Sometimes my demands could be unreasonable, but Paul always accepted it with a smile, always willing to help his employees,” he said. “They seemed to reach out to him for whatever their needs were.”

“He was a great friend, son, mentor to all. He was so proud of being an employee at VTA and all the accomplishments he made here,” his wife Nicole said during a Thursday evening vigil at San Jose City Hall. “God took my best friend too soon, and I wish I could give you one last hug and tell [you] how much I love you,” she said, choking back tears. “I love you always.”

Megia had two sons, a daughter and a stepson, and was planning to take his family on Thursday to Disneyland, his father Leonard Megia told The New York Times. He said his son commuted to work from his home near Tracy, usually hitting the road by 4:30 a.m., but made sure to call his children every morning to check in before they started school.

“He was a wonderful dad,” he said. “He’s my son and my best friend.”

Taptejdeep Singh, 36

Born in India, Singh joined VTA in 2014 as a bus operator trainee and later became a light rail operator.

He was a hard worker who was trying to build a future for his kids, said Anmol Dhillon, his cousin. He leaves behind a wife, a 3-year-old son and a 1 1/2-year-old daughter, whom he lived with in Union City.

“He’s a great loss to the family, we can’t really get him back. At least he did what he loved,” Dhillon said.

Singh, he said, was smart and generous. Religion was very important to him, Dhillon added, noting that he volunteered and was very involved at his local Sikh temple.

His surviving co-workers say Singh died helping them hide from the gunman.

“He told me he was with Paul (Delacruz Megia), another victim, at the time,” co-worker Sukhvir Singh, who is not related to him, said in a statement. “From what I’ve heard, he spent the last moments of his life making sure that others — in the building and elsewhere — would be able to stay safe.”

At Thursday’s vigil, Karmen Singh said his older brother was always there to offer help to anyone in need.

“Whatever trouble I’m in, he was my first call,” Karmen said. “Not just mine — any of my friends needed help, any of my colleagues needed help, I told them, ‘Hey, you know, I can call my brother and get an answer for you.’ And that was the type of person he was.”

“That’s how he lived his whole life is helping others, whoever he met,” he added.

Karmen extended that spirit to the families of the other victims.

“I want to tell everybody — all the nine families that are here — that I’m here for them. That’s what my brother would want me to do.”

Adrian Balleza, 29

Balleza began his career at VTA in 2014 as bus operator trainee, later becoming a maintenance worker and light rail operator. He was known as the guy who tried to make the workplace more fun for everyone, said Naunihal Singh, his supervisor.

“What can I say about that gem of a person,” he said. “Very kindhearted.”

Balleza is survived by his wife, Heather Balleza, and a 2-year-old son.

“Our hearts are breaking over and over. Adrian was a kind, humble human being and he cared about everyone who surrounded him,” Balleza’s family said in statement, read by San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo at Thursday’s vigil.

“He cared about everyone who surrounded him. He lit up the room with his big smile and his goofy jokes,” Balleza’s family said. “His proudest moment was becoming a father. Joseph [his son] was his world. It breaks my heart that he won’t able to watch him grow up, take him fishing, or to his first football game.”

“He had so much life left and things he wanted to do, and he was loved by so many people.”

Alex Ward Fritch, 49

A substation maintainer at the yard, Fritch died at a hospital late Wednesday, surrounded by his children and parents, said his wife, Terra Fritch of San Jose.

“He was our rock, my safe place to fall. He was the love of my life,” Terra told KTVU-TV.

The couple got married 20 years ago after having known each other for just six months. They were supposed to travel to Hawaii next September to renew their vows, she said.

According to a GoFundMe created by his wife, Fritch was an optimistic and passionate person, who loved Tiki crawls, dirt bikes, Star Wars and his family. He was the sole provider for two teenage boys.

“He always tried to look on the bright side of things. He loved Mr. Rogers. He watched him all the time. He loved the documentaries. He loved movies,” Terra said.

Terra told KTVU that she raced to the hospital after learning he had been shot. She said hospital staff moved him over in his bed so she could lie down with him.

“Alex was really fighting hard. He didn’t want to go anywhere, and I didn’t want him to go,” she said.

Abdolvahab Alaghmandan, 63 Alaghmandan, a substation maintainer, had been with VTA for 20 years. He was dedicated to his job, his son Soheil Alaghmandan, 33, told the Mercury News.

“He worked overtime. He worked through the entire pandemic,” Soheil said of his father. “He’s a tinkerer. He can fix anything.”

When Megan Staker moved to San Francisco from Des Moines in 2018 with her boyfriend Soheil, he took her home to meet his parents at their Castro Valley home, she told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Right away Abdi, as Alaghmandan was known, “became like a second father to me,” she said. “He brought so much joy and laughter to our lives.”

“He was stolen from us,” she added. “Our hearts are broken forever.”

Jesus Hernandez, 35

Hernandez could fix anything, loved his hobbies and lived life with zest, according to his family.

“He was somebody who was so fair. A very, very fair person and always leaning to the right side of things, always looking for the right thing to do,” said his father, Jesus Hernandez II, a retired VTA employee. “He was a really good guy, a great kid, and now he’s gone.”

Jesus Hernandez’s former wife, Sarah, said waiting to find out what happened Wednesday was torturous. She tried to channel her former husband’s logic and calm.

“I just tried to be very logical and think, ‘Thousands of people work there, there’s no way, let’s just wait to hear and not get worked up, I’m sure he’s fine, I’m sure he’s on scene and he can’t have his phone,'” she said.

Michael Joseph Rudometkin, 40

Known as “Mikey” to his close friends, Rudometkin started working for VTA in 2013, as a mechanic, later becoming an overhead line worker.

Peralez, the city councilman, wrote on Facebook that he and his father were already planning their next golfing outing with Rudometkin.

“Now that will never happen again,” he said. “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.”

Lars Kepler Lane, 63

Vicki Lane, Lars’s wife, said he was her “soulmate” and the love of her life. They had been married for 22 years.

He came to VTA 20 years ago, working as an electro-mechanic and then an overhead line worker.

Lane leaves behind his four children, grandchildren and a dog he doted on, Vicki said.

His 64th birthday was this coming weekend.

Timothy Michael Romo, 49

An overhead line worker, Romo had been at VTA for 20 years.

He grew up in the Central Coast town of Greenfield, where his father, Mike Romo, was the mayor and police chief, for many years.

Romo is survived by his wife, Annette, and three children, Audrey, Scott and Tristan.

At Thursday’s vigil, Romo’s children conveyed how much their father meant to them.

“All my friends loved being around him,” said Audrey, his daughter. “Almost every time I talked to my dad, he’d always say ‘Who is my favorite little girl?’ And I’d always respond, ‘I’m your only little girl.’ ”

“He was the funniest man I know,” she added. “I’m going to miss him every day.”

Scott Romo described his dad as his hero.

“[He was] everything I ever wanted to be as a man,” he said. “And he led by example with everything he did.”

This post includes reporting from KQED’s Holly J. McDede, MJ Johnson, Ezra David Romero, Gabriella Frenes, Julie Chang and Michelle Wiley, with additional content from The Associated Press.

Copyright 2021 KQED