It was just another Thursday morning in November of 2019, when two children left their homes and traveled to Saugus High School, Dominic Blackwell on his own bike, and Gracie Muehlberger via carpool with her best friend. Neither of them would ever come home.
The two children would be killed by a school shooter in a tragedy that would leave the community rattled and families forever scarred by the events of the 2019 Saugus High Shooting.
It was not a typical Thursday in the Muehlberger home when the sun rose on Nov. 14, 2019. Cindy Muehlberger was scheduled for knee surgery early that morning, and she and her husband Bryan planned to head down together.
Only Cindy would see her daughter that morning, as she went in to wake Gracie while Bryan got ready downstairs.
“I didn’t go and give Gracie a kiss goodbye like I normally would. Usually on a typical morning before I leave for work or anything I always went in and snuck a kiss on her cheek,” Bryan said. “But because this wasn’t a typical routine of my day and we were trying to get out the door, I didn’t do that.”
Cindy checked in on Gracie and told her she loved her before leaving with Bryan for surgery in Van Nuys.
Bryan texted back and forth with his children that morning, checking in while sitting in the waiting room of the surgery center where his wife was undergoing treatment. Around 7:17 a.m. he made sure that Gracie had gotten up and was on her way to school.
The Ring doorbell at the Muehlberger home captured one last image of Gracie as she left for school that morning, carpooling with her best friend, Addison Koegle.
The last words Bryan would ever receive from his daughter were “I love you.”
In the Blackwell home, the morning was a hectic affair. Dominic left on his bike to go to school at the same time his father, Frank, left for work. His mother, Nancy, would not get a chance to say goodbye, or even see Dominic that morning.
“The last time I saw him, I gave him a hug and a kiss before I was going to go to work, he was going to go to school and we left at the same time, we took the same path even,” Frank said. “The last time I saw him was that morning right in front of his room when I woke him up.”
Around 7:40 a.m., only a few minutes after the shooting took place, Nancy Blackwell was taking two of her other children to school when she received a text saying there was police activity at Saugus High School.
“I thought that was a little weird, and I texted (Dominic) to see if he was okay. (I) didn’t worry about it too much,” Nancy said. “But on my way taking them to school, I saw police flying down Plum Canyon. I called Frank and let him know that something weird was going on.”
Her cell phone was temporarily out of service due to poor cell coverage at her younger sons’ school, and it wasn’t until about 8 a.m. when Nancy decided to drive toward the high school to check the area for herself. She started receiving several texts, each asking about Dominic and if the family was okay.
“I thought there was something just going on around the school, I didn’t think it was something happening at the school, so I didn’t really feel too worried about it,” Nancy said.
Nancy went to the reunification zone at Central Park, where students were being brought to meet up with parents. However, there was no sign of Dominic. As time wore on, she began to feel more and more afraid that something may have happened. She hoped that the reason no one could contact him was because he had dropped his backpack and cell phone so he could escape harm during the chaos.
Frank Blackwell was on his way to work when he received a phone call from a friend who had seen the news coverage of the shooting and wanted to check in that everything was alright. Frank immediately turned around and started heading back to Santa Clarita, meeting his wife at Central Park.
The Blackwells waited at Central Park for hours, checking in with the incident command post and watching as more and more students were reunited with their parents, but still no Dominic.
“I think once I was at the park somebody had told me he had been near where it had happened, I kind of figured ‘maybe he’s a witness, maybe that’s why I haven’t been able to get in contact with him yet, because he’s being interviewed or questioned’ and… it’s fine,’” Nancy said. “So I would waive at every bus coming, thinking ‘okay at least he’s gonna know I’m here for him.’”
Around the time Nancy was receiving that first text informing her of police activity at Saugus High School, Bryan Muhlberger was in the waiting room of a surgery center in Van Nuys when he received a text from his son, a junior at Saugus, informing him that the school was on lockdown.
See Related: Family Of Gracie Muehlberger Remembers Her Life Before Saugus High Shooting
Bryan immediately opened a group chat with his two children to make sure they could stay in contact. However, Gracie wasn’t responding.
“Of course at this point I’m still thinking, ‘we’re under lockdown, she’s maybe got her phone in her backpack, or she’s got her phone but her teachers are telling them be quiet, don’t text we don’t want any of the lights on, keep the rooms dark,’” Bryan said. “I’m not sure what’s going on, but it’s going through my head like, ‘this isn’t odd yet.’”
Bryan then checked the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff Twitter page, and discovered that there was a possible active shooter at Saugus High School.
Deputies responded to reports of shots fired
— SCV Sheriff (@SCVSHERIFF) November 14, 2019
“The odds of something happening to my child in a situation like this is so, so slim and improbable that I’m still just going ‘even if there is an active shooter, it’s not going to happen to my kids,’” Bryan said.
After countless texts and calls to Gracie, Bryan decided to try using the Find My iPhone app to figure out where she was. Just after 8 a.m., the first try placed her phone in the neighborhood near Saugus High School. Bryan and his son were baffled, but hoped that Gracie had perhaps been at a friend’s house or had made the out-of-character decision to “play hooky.”
Then the app refreshed, and Bryan saw that his daughter’s phone was now travelling quickly down Bouquet Canyon Road. Panic struck as Bryan thought to himself that she may have been kidnapped by the shooter, since at the time his whereabouts were unknown. He dialed 9-1-1 and sat on hold, still watching as Gracie’s phone travelled down Magic Mountain Parkway.
“At this point, I have the realization that I know what’s going on,” Bryan said. “She’s on her way to the hospital.”
When it made a left onto McBean Boulevard, then Valencia Boulevard, moving closer to the Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital, Bryan knew that she was on her way there, but still clung to the hope that she was simply accompanying a friend who had been hurt.
Bryan raced back to Santa Clarita, leaving an unconscious Cindy in the care of medical staff. He drove directly to the emergency room at Henry Mayo and presented himself to officials. Eventually, a staff member took him back into the E.R., and placed Bryan in a room he recognized from a previous visit as being used to give grieving families privacy.
Eventually a surgeon came in, and clinically informed Bryan that after over an hour-and-a-half of attempts to save her life, Gracie had passed away.
“The word wail is the only word I can come up with, crying and having that much pain pour out of my body about the loss of my daughter,” Bryan said. “I’m just sitting there thinking, ‘how can this be happening?’”
Gracie was pronounced dead by Henry Mayo officials at 9:23 a.m. Thursday, Nov. 14, a little over a month after her 15th birthday. However, her family would not be allowed to see Gracie in person until Monday, November 18.
“All I’m praying for is, ‘let me go see Gracie, let me go hold her hand,’ because I’m picturing her laying there alone, at the last moment of her life,” Bryan said. “And I’m not there to be with her and hold her hand, to kiss her one last time, anything.”
A detective with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s department joined Bryan at the hospital, and informed him that unfortunately, he would be unable to see his daughter.
“‘The detective says ‘I’m sorry sir, you can’t do that…she’s evidence,’” Bryan remembered.
It was around 11 a.m., when after nearly three hours of no word on Dominic, and desperately searching for any sign of her son among the surviving students being shuttled into Central Park, Nancy received a call from her husband, informing her that Dominic was at Henry Mayo with injuries.
“(I) had the idea to go and check at the hospital,” Frank said. “They had the children there but they didn’t know their names, and then I found out that he was one of the ones that was injured… but we thought he was grazed by a bullet.”
The Blackwells were at the hospital for only half an hour before a team of doctors approached to give them the terrible news that Dominic was gone. Nancy said that the way the team came in together was just like in a movie, and she knew what was coming before the doctors said anything.
“The doctors came back to let us know that he died right there in the hospital, without anybody there, without his family there, without his friends there, survived by a whole room of strangers,” Frank said.
See Related: Remembering Dominic Blackwell: Before The Saugus High Shooting
The Blackwells shared that there was a sense of unrealness to the situation, that the idea of this sudden, insurmountable loss was almost too much to comprehend, if only because it was so unimaginable that their child would be taken from them in a moment of senseless violence.
“The way that everything happened made it really difficult,” Frank said. “It’s not like he just died of a sickness, now we have to deal with law enforcement, and now we have to deal with media, and we really didn’t get a lot of time to even just process what had happened. It was a horrible time all around.”
Dominic’s death was announced to the media around noon on the day of the shooting, though his identity was not released until later. He had turned 14 just two months before the Saugus High shooting.
Just like Gracie’s family, the Blackwells were not allowed to see their son for several days as the investigation into the Saugus High Shooting took place.
“Not being able to see him there at the hospital, we ended up having to sign his death certificate even before we saw him… it’s just really hard thing to do, and that’s why it took a while for us to even release his name, because I wanted to confirm and see him,” Nancy said. “But I didn’t get that opportunity.”
In the following weeks and months, the Santa Clarita Valley community would rally around the Blackwell and Muehlberger families. However, nothing could replace the insurmountable loss that they had suffered, as they had become yet another family in a long list of those who have lost their children to tragic school shootings.
For more information on the Gracie Strong Foundation, the Dominic Michael Blackwell Foundation, or their mission to give back to the community, visit the websites. You can also learn more about their efforts to dedicate Central Park in honor of Gracie and Dominic at dedicatecentralpark.com.
This is Part 3 in a series about the Muehlberger and Blackwell families in the aftermath of the Saugus High School Shooting. Look for Part 4 in the coming weeks.
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