MONTEREY PARK, California – My Nhan had been stepping, swirling and tapping her way across the worn wooden floors of the Star Ballroom Dance Studio for decades.
Nhan, 65, was a regular at Star, a single story of brick and stucco tucked between a bank building and a noodle restaurant, in this suburb one valley east of Los Angeles.
Here, where the majority of the population is Asian, where building signs are written in Chinese characters, where half the residents were born in another country, Nhan and countless others found a true community on the floorboards of the dance halls.
When she and her longtime dance partner, a friend for decades, took to the floor at Star or at Lai Lai Ballroom just up the road in Alhambra, they brought everyone with them. They would take a dance lesson and bring 10 friends, then take another and bring 20. They would buy fistfuls of dance-party tickets to give away.
On Saturday night, they were set to go dancing at Star, during the celebration of Lunar New Year.
It’s an important holiday in Chinese culture. But on the dance floor, it didn’t matter where anyone was from. Chinese, Ukrainian, Vietnamese, Latino – they were all dancers together, in the mirrors on the walls.
“Dance was her life,” dance instructor Maksym Kapitanchuk said of Nhan. “Dance was her life and she died dancing.”
Saturday about 10:20 p.m., a gunman armed with a modified semiautomatic handgun and large-capacity magazine walked into Star.
Investigators say they believe he may have shot a man sitting in his vehicle in the parking lot outside before entering. Once he stepped inside, he opened fire, 42 shots in seconds.
Ten people died in the initial attack. Five men, five women. One of them was Nhan.
A sixth woman died Monday at the LAC+USC Medical Center. Authorities said all were 60 or older.
Hattie Peng told CBS News that she saw bodies on the floor almost as soon as she heard the shooting noises. Her dance partner shielded her and was hit twice, she told CBS:
“He’s my hero,” she said. “I owe him. He covered me.”
Much remains unknown about the rampage that shocked this community and the country in the midst of what should have been a celebration. Authorities have not released the identities of many of the victims.
They have not revealed a motive that may have started the attack by the gunman, identified as Huu Can Tran, 72.
They have not revealed where he went or what he did in the nearly 24 hours after the shooting. He was not found until Sunday afternoon, as police closed in on his van.
But they have identified the man who stopped what would have been the next part of the rampage.
Brandon Tsay was standing in the lobby of Lai Lai, his family’s dance hall, when he heard the door open and close.
Tsay’s family has owned Lai Lai for decades. He’s the third generation to run the dance hall. About 10:40 Saturday night, he would later explain, he was getting ready to go home.
He did not know then that a man had just shot up the dance hall down the street. He would tell reporters later that he had never even seen a real gun himself.
He only knew that he heard the metallic click of one being readied to fire.
“My first thought was, I was going to die here, this was it,” Tsay said.
But then he sprang into action, he said, grabbing the gun, punching and levering with his elbows to disarm the man.
“Get the hell out of here! I’ll shoot! Get away! Go!” Tsay said he yelled, appearing on ABC’s Good Morning America with a cut across his nose.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Robert Luna, echoing the tragedy in a news conference Monday, paused to recognize that the person who most likely prevented far more deaths was simply an unarmed dance hall worker who acted decisively.
“What a brave man he is,” Luna said.
A dance community
Both Star and Lai Lai are staples of their communities, drawing dancers back week after week for lessons and performances. A 2019 documentary, “Walk Run Cha-Cha” showcased the Monterey Park dance community, exploring the importance of the dance halls hold for the area.
Kapitanchuk taught at Lai Lai since 2009, when he emigrated to the United States from Ukraine. The students were mostly older adults, he said, and they came for the exercise, the companionship, the fun of it all. Others competed internationally, he said. He said the Tsay family treated him as a son, and many of his dance students helped pay for his parents’ relocation from Ukraine to the United States after Russia invaded.
“We just created this, you know, this family of my students,” he said, tearing up as he recalled Nhan. She was the kind of person who’d show up with 10 friends one week, and another 20 the next, he said.
Former Monterey Park Mayor Judy Chu knows how much the dance halls mean to her community. Although not a dancer herself, she’s been to both halls, and seen how much they mattered to their patrons. She said, learning intricate dance steps provided a sense of pride and accomplishment for older immigrants, many accustomed to working long, hard hours. Surrounded by people their own age, they strutted and twirled proudly, she said.
“They’re swept away as they’re dancing to the music. So to think that this shooter would go into this particular place to do this violent act is just unimaginable. This was their escape from their hard life,” Chu said.
Joom Pfrunder, an immigrant from Thailand who had danced at Star, said people liked the hall because the floor was both big and solid. Pfrunder was already on edge following several years of increasing violence and hate crimes directed at Asian Americans. The Star felt like a safe place to gather.
“It was the place where you meet” people, Pfrunder, 67 said. Now she worries “everybody is going to think twice before going back there again. It’s tragic to hear that someone could go in and start shooting like that.”
No known motive
Investigators say they do not yet have a motive for the attack, but are focusing on reports that the patronized both dance halls. Kapitanchuk told USA TODAY that some of his students recognized the shooter from the dance halls. CNN reported that a former neighbor of the gunman said he held grudges against some of the other dancers, and that his former wife said he got angry if she ever messed up dance steps.
The shooter lived about 80 miles away in a retirement community in Hemet, and investigators said they have found evidence that he was building muzzle suppressors, which commonly reduce the flash and noise of gunfire. They have also found hundreds of rounds of ammunition, said Los Angeles County Sheriff Robert Luna.
Chu said she’s been told the shooter sometimes tried to give free dance lessons to women at Star, and possibly at Lai Lai.
“He thought was pretty skilled at it, offered to give dance lessons to people. That’s how he met his wife,” Chu said, indicated she’s heard reports the man’s free dance lessons might have irritated the professional dance instructors.
One attack, a second attempt
The calls began flooding into 911 at 10:22 p.m., and police officers reportedly arrived about three minutes later. All three of the first responding officers bleeding victims on the ground outside, said Monterey Park Police Chief Scott Wiese, who had been sworn in just two days previously.
As firefighters triaged the victims, the crowd continued streaming out, Wiese said. It’s unclear how many people were inside at the time of the shooting, but patrons said the Star could have easily had more than 100 people inside.
The three officers rushed in, ready to confront the shooter, Wiese said. They didn’t realize he was gone before they even arrived.
Not even half an hour later, authorities said, the gunman was already in the next town over, walking into another dance hall.
Video obtained by NBC News begins with a shot of two men stepping into the frame of what appears to be a building lobby, with a poster for Lai Lai set up on a tripod.
The older man, wearing a knit cap, swings a gun wildly. Then the younger man, Tsay, in a hooded sweatshirt, grabs the gun.
The two struggle for more than 30 seconds. The gun appears to have a muzzle suppressor attached, and Tsay points it at the shooter several times before shoving him, and then yelling and waving his finger at him.
“I really thought I would have to shoot him,” Tsay told ABC News.
Instead, Luna would later say, Tsay likely interrupted the rampage of a “madman.”
The gunman would disappear, the subject of a daylong manhunt. Sunday afternoon, he would be the last to die. As police closed in on his white van near a Torrance warehouse, they said, Tran shot and killed himself.
The next steps
In the aftermath, a memorial has grown up outside the Star, and mourners have been stopping by to pay their respects – and to share how unsettled they are about the attack. Without knowing a motive, many said they remain on edge.
“You just don’t know the next time you go out, are you going to be safe,” said mourner Hong Lee, a Los Angeles resident who became an advocate for Asian-American justice after she was the victim of a viral hate incident in August 2020. “We’re our own personal first responders.”
Chu, the former mayor, said she wants people to know that not only is the community safe, but that it needs to show its strength in public places.
“The shooter is no longer with us,” she said. “There is no reason to have fear and it’s so important for us to come back out into the community, to be together. It’s only by being together that we can get through this.”
For Brandon Tsay, his role in stopping the shooting hasn’t made its aftermath any less painful.
“Some of these people I know personally,” he said, speaking to reporters briefly outside his home in San Marino on Tuesday evening. “They come to our studio.”
He said the attention he had received was overwhelming, and that he was trying to recover from it. “I just hope those people that were affected by this incident also can recover safely,” he said.
Devastated families are still trying to make sense of the attack that stole so many loved. There will be funerals to plan, a community vigil to hold, and a puzzle to solve: Why did the shooter attack?
In a statement, Nhan’s family said they are still coming to terms with the death of the woman they called Mymy, remembering her as a “loving aunt, sister, daughter and friend,” and a woman passionate about dance.
“It’s what she loved to do,” the statement said. “But unfairly, Saturday was her last dance.”
Contributing: Alia Wong