Twelve people were killed, including a sheriff's sergeant, after a gunman opened fire at a Thousand Oaks, California, bar Wednesday, officials said.
Ventura County Sgt. Ron Helus died responding to the incident at Borderline Bar & Grill, Sheriff Geoff Dean told reporters. A 29-year veteran of the force, he had been looking to retire in the "next year or so," Dean said.
"Ron was a hardworking dedicated sheriff's sergeant," he added, his voice cracking with emotion. "He was totally committed, he gave his all and tonight, as I told his wife, he died a hero; he went into save lives, to save other people."
The suspect forced his way into the bar known for its country, swing and salsa dancing nights late Wednesday. Witnesses said he tossed smoke grenades and then opened fire on the crowd, according to ABC News.
"The gunman was throwing smoke grenades all over the place," a witness told local station KABC. "I saw him point to the back of the cash register ... and he just kept firing. I ran out the front door."
Cole, another witness, told local station KCBS he and other patrons used a pool table to shield themselves from the rain of gunfire.
"I tried to get as many people behind cover," he said. Then, he directed people out a door leading to a patio for smokers. "I told everyone to get out of there and I followed out after."
When the gunman entered the bar, Cole said he saw him out of the corner of his eye, but didn't notice anything in particular. "The first shot went off, I thought it was somebody playing a prank, but immediately I looked at him and he continued shooting," he said.
Tim Dominguez was at the bar with his son. After the gunfire erupted, the two fled out the door, running to their car, Dominguez told CBS News. As he ran, Dominguez said he noticed an officer pulling up and charging into the bar, toward the gunfire.
"I believe that’s the [sheriff's sergeant] that lost his life," Dominguez said. "I want to say I am so sorry for his family. He was a brave man to come into the shots because it was a scary situation for everyone, it really was."
The bar is close to California Lutheran University, and is popular among students at that school.
Authorities said early Thursday that they were still working to determine a motive in the shooting. The gunman, who has not been identified, was found dead inside the bar.
Further details were not immediately available.