Pepperdine’s campus meanders up a California mountainside, ribbons of asphalt switchbacks and clusters of pale stucco structures hanging on steep slopes. Below them lie fathoms of indigo Pacific water that, on hazy days, blurs at the horizon and seems to meld with the sky. With that postcard panorama in front and a bowl of mountain ridges at their backs, the school’s 3,600 undergraduates amble to classes under a temperate Malibu sun. For them, even average days evoke paradise.
But last November, bullets and blood and fire blighted that backdrop. Young lives were lost and reshaped. It began Nov. 7 when a terrorist carrying a Glock opened fire at the Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks. It was a nondescript brown building in an office park 30 minutes northwest of campus where, on Wednesday nights, Pepperdine students gathered with other young locals for line dancing. That evening, though, 12 people, including 18-year-old Pepperdine freshman Alaina Housley, were killed. As the region and campus mourned the next afternoon, a brush fire ignited north of the school. Over the next two days, Santa Ana winds roaring as fast as 50 mph swept the wall of fire toward the Pacific — and Pepperdine.
As the school and surrounding community scrambled to cope with tragedy and terror, a handful of Pepperdine’s teams were either on the verge of wrapping up or embarking on their seasons. Scattered and displaced, student-athletes, coaches and administrators leaned on one another through three difficult days and the uncertain month that followed.
Here, they recount their traumas — and their triumphs.
Comments have been edited for clarity and condensed. Speakers are referenced by their title or school year at the time of the events.
Hearing gunshots fired. One person advising that the subject is inside shooting. The weapon was a black semiautomatic. The subject was at the front shooting everybody. He’s still inside the bar.
I woke up to my dad paging the “Find My iPhone” on my Apple watch — it was beeping with an alarm sound I’d never heard. I woke up and checked my phone immediately, and I saw a text from him that said, “Are you alive?” He said, “There was a shooting at Borderline — you’re not there, right?” So, when I woke my roommate up, we immediately texted all the girls because we knew a ton of people that went.
I didn’t know anything about it until probably 3 a.m. I was already in bed, and I got a text from Heidi in our group text: “Hey, is everybody alive?”
That’s a shocking text to wake up to.
We started to check in on our own staff as well. I have somebody on our staff, Hilary, who is a Thousand Oaks resident, and Borderline is her second family. So I knew that was going to be devastating for her.
The text message didn’t seem real. “There’s a shooting at Borderline.” I’m like, “No, there’s not.” We live in Thousand Oaks. We always call it a bubble. It was one of the safest cities in the country.
Students were coming back to campus, so I met them along with housing staff and counselors. We were asking them basic questions like whether they had called their parents. Some of them lost their phones. They were in shock.
At approximately 11:15 p.m. yesterday evening, an active shooter opened fire at Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks, California. The University has learned that multiple Pepperdine students were at the venue at the time of the shooting.
We had heard at that point that we had one unaccounted-for student, Alaina Housley. So driving in that day, I thought we were going to be dealing with some grief counseling, mental health.
I thought, this is going to be a long day.
Then we came to work, and we weren’t sure what we were going to face. Never in my wildest dreams did I know that this was just the tip of the iceberg.
A vigil for the 12 victims of the Borderline Bar and Grill shooting emerged not far from where the incident took place. The establishment was popular among local college students, who often flocked there for line dancing. Barbara Davidson / Getty Images
A pall fell over Pepperdine as faculty, staff and students streamed into campus on the morning of Nov. 8. Counselors met with students, many of whom were uncertain about the fate of their peers. Borderline’s popular college night regularly drew Pepperdine athletes, including members of the women’s basketball and volleyball teams. The men’s basketball team played its home opener the same evening, which some athletes attended in lieu of the regular trip to Borderline.
I have morning classes at 8 a.m., so just walking through campus, I could already see that the vibe was very different. There were just people on the side sitting and crying.
We had our final race, the regional meet, on Friday. So we left for Sacramento the morning after the shooting. We got on the bus that morning to leave for the meet, and you could feel the tension in the air. We didn’t want to leave. We felt like we were being ripped from our home.
The best word I can use is deflated. Pepperdine is such a beautiful campus, and it’s such an amazing place. Everyone’s so friendly, and people are hugging and chatting and talking all the time. That day, it wasn’t like that at all. It was quiet, and it was sad, and the smiles weren’t real.
They brought in some therapy dogs. People had signs that said, “free hugs.” We ended up finding out there were 10 to 15 students that were there — and there was one that they hadn’t heard from yet.
We had a 10:30 a.m. practice. We let everybody know that today’s practice is optional.
We went into practice, and everyone was there. Everyone was hugging each other. It was cool because everyone just took the time to be like, “I’m so grateful for you.” Even girls that you might not have been as close with.
We didn’t get word until just before noon on Thursday. We were already planning a prayer service, and we didn’t know if it would be announcing Alaina’s death or not. People were already up on the stage as I’m walking in confirming to our president that in fact Alaina had died. That was a heart-wrenching moment.
We are devastated to report that one of our students, Alaina Housley, was among those who passed away at Borderline.
That was one of those times in your life that you don’t forget. You hear about this stuff on the news, and you don’t think it’s going to come this close to you — and it does.
Our athletics chaplain, and then some of our student leaders, put together a quick program. It was mostly music and prayers. That was at 3 o’clock in our trophy room. We probably had 60 to 75 student-athletes there.
The whole baseball team had walked in. I think that was overwhelming — in a positive way: “Wow, people really are needing something right now.” I had heard that they had each brought a rose to Alaina’s dorm.
Everyone within the athletics department was there, and I remember seeing all these guys that I look at as being really tough — like baseball players, basketball players, water polo players — and I realized they were all just wrecked.
Pepperdine has received information from Ventura County Fire concerning wildfires in the Newbury Park area. News outlets are reporting the 101 freeway is closed in both directions from Ventu Park through Santa Rosa.
The trophy room was filled with student-athletes. Then my wife called me. We live in Thousand Oaks, and that’s where it started. She just said, “Hey, there’s been some plumes here and there, but now there’s some big plumes that aren’t going anywhere.” So that was a little nerve-wracking.
On Thursday night, the night after the shooting, me and a few of my teammates drove through the canyon, and we went to Calvary Church, which is pretty close to Borderline. That was definitely one of the more emotional things that I’ve done in my life. They put all the names on the screen, everyone who had passed away. Seeing those names, and hearing the cries of their friends, is just — I’ll never forget that.
Then as we were driving back, we were seeing smoke and ashes in the air, and we could smell it. We thought, this shouldn’t be happening. White ashes were falling in the dark.
David McNew / Getty Images
A recent drought made the trees and bushes on the area’s towering hillsides ideal kindling for the nearby Woolsey and Hill fires, and the Santa Ana winds that can gust up to 50 mph outpaced firefighters’ containment efforts. Pepperdine’s campus is bracketed by the Pacific Coast Highway on the south and U.S. Highway 101, which lies 8 miles north. Those parallel thoroughfares are linked by a handful of perilous roads that wind through the canyons that separate the campus and the shore from the cities and towns along the 101. Many faculty and staff live in those communities — and near the fire’s origin.
I didn’t leave here until about 6:30. It was completely pitch black. We have to go through a canyon to get home. When I came through, I could see flames on the ridge.
My wife and I kept monitoring it. Then about 1 o’clock in the morning, there’s a hillside directly across the street from our house, and we could see the flames. It was at that point that we decided, yeah, we should probably leave. We knew Pepperdine was the safest place we could go.
I woke my husband up and said, “We have to evacuate.” I started throwing clothes into a bag. I knew what box I needed to get with all of the important documents in it. We packed the car, woke the kids up, grabbed the dog, and we headed to my parents’ house.
A number of fires continue to burn in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties. These are strong, wind-driven fires. All manner of firefighting efforts are being employed, including air operations.
We spent the night in my office. We weren’t going to get any sleep — we were in my office the whole time watching the news reports and actually watched my next-door neighbor’s house burn.
The Woolsey and Hill fires continue, and flames have jumped to the south side of the 101 in some locations. Smoke from the fires can be seen on campus. The Malibu campus is currently experiencing a campus-wide power outage.
I came here as a law student back in 1979, and I’ve been through at least four fires. So it wasn’t, “Oh no!” It wasn’t a panic. If there’s any school that knows how to deal with these sorts of issues, it’s Pepperdine.
A mandatory evacuation has been called for all of Malibu between Malibu Canyon Road and Ventura County line. All areas south of the 101, to the ocean, per City of Malibu. Residents, pack up and leave. Do not delay.
There was only one way in, and one way out.
At that point, (the Pacific Coast Highway) was stopped all the way, and it was just horrible. And we all got our cars and we got all our good friends, woke up our neighbors. We did everything we knew we needed to do, and then we just got out of there.
It was Wednesday: shooting. Thursday: grieve, school, practice. Friday morning: Our house woke each other up around 7 a.m. and they said, “Hey, we have to evacuate.”
So, after everyone evacuated, we all went to different places. We made sure before we were leaving that all the out-of-state girls had a place to go, because a lot of us were local. Some of us took a couple. I took two. We all texted. We’re all like, “Be safe. Make sure everyone has a ride.”
The University, in coordination with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, has determined that it is safer to shelter in place — remaining on campus — during this wildfire than it is to leave the campus.
We have a few girls that don’t have cars. We were making sure everyone was either at Pepperdine, because Pepperdine was a safe location to be, or in a car. So we knew where everyone was. We finally got service halfway through the drive, and that was kind of relieving for me and for my parents because they had been trying to call me and text me.
This generation is very good with technology, and when somebody doesn’t respond quickly, you can’t breathe, right? You start breathing better once they respond.
That morning, we woke up, we were down eating breakfast in the hotel lobby, and we see the fires on TV. I get a call from one of my teammates: “Hey, we’re at your house right now because the fires are here. Is there anything you want me to grab?”
At first, it was pretty clear that Malibu was evacuating, and that we were supposed to go to the gym.
We shelter the students in place either in the fieldhouse or in the library and try to keep them as comfortable as possible and try to help them understand that they’re not really in any danger. Our hillsides can burn, and we’re prepared for this. I can understand if you’ve not been through it, it can be a little harrowing.
*URGENT SAFETY MESSAGE* Fire has jumped the 101 fwy near Chesebro and is headed to Ocean Mandatory Evacuations, 101 Fwy to the coast between Las Virgenes Cyn /Malibu Cyn Rd. to the LA County line. Imminent threat! Malibu lakes residents must leave area immediately
One of the keys is the 101 freeway. If the fire crosses the 101 freeway heading this direction, I’ve been told that the campus knows that it’s probably about four hours away.
A lot of our student-athletes live north of Malibu at the Point Dume area. So they were all trying to evacuate. We have about 300 student-athletes. The service was spotty here. I told student-athletes, “If you don’t have a place to go, you go to Pepperdine because that’s the safest place for you.”
We had the smoke masks that are kept in the fieldhouse for such a time, and those were distributed to all the students.
I was tracking those student-athletes who either saw their apartments burning on the news, or their landlords called them and told them it’s gone, or they’d been evacuated and they assumed because they saw fire. At one point, I think I had about 60 student-athletes on that spreadsheet who didn’t know.
They were getting students either into the library or the fieldhouse, and then around 11 a.m., I left campus.
Fire is now burning out of control and heading into populated areas of Malibu. All residents must evacuate immediately.
After the meet, the plan was to go back to the hotel, shower and head straight back to Pepperdine. But our coach had been talking to athletics, and that wasn’t going to happen.
The way the car situation worked out, all but four of us ended up leaving campus, so then it was just me, Jayla Ruffus-Milner, her twin sister, Jayda, and then another freshman. It was the four of us who got stuck on campus for the rest of the night, and the rest of our team went to a teammate’s house.
We knew people were safe. We knew that this was the stronghold for the fire department, but it was crazy to see our school on the news — 24/7 coverage with the flames.
Because our shelter-in-place protocols will be in place throughout the night, all individuals on the Malibu campus are instructed to go to Payson Library or Tyler Campus Center, as this will be more comfortable for overnight accommodations.
We were told we have to relocate to Payson Library. As you’re going, you smell the smoke. It’s getting dark. They did give us masks. So, we go up there, and everyone has their sleeping stuff, and people are setting up on the floor.
“(The fire captain) did say that the next couple of hours, that we should anticipate that there would be some more smoke, maybe even ash, and there will probably be some frightening visuals. Things like a tree on fire. Those kinds of things that you might see out the window. Understandably, that heightens your anxieties. But the building itself he felt very good about.”
There are flames on the Malibu campus hillsides. Pepperdine’s shelter-in-place protocols remain in place. Multiple L.A. County fire department strike teams and fire department air operations are engaging the fire from campus.
We’re on the second floor, and there’s a huge window. Outside, you could see the mountains to the far side, and there was a fire. Everyone was going toward the window with their phones: “Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh!” It seemed so close. It didn’t look like it was going to stop.
I’ll never forget the moment the fire crested over the hill. It went from being pitch black to just roaring flames, and it was very, very close.
I knew one of the student-athletes, Megan House, who had stayed back and was texting with her. She’s our senior, and I knew that she was the mamma bear.
I just knew that, especially my freshmen, that they were under my watch, like I was responsible for them.
You could see the firetrucks and police cars all driving up, and it just seemed so serious. Everyone was scared.
Los Angeles County Fire strike teams and air operations are working to contain the flames on and around the Malibu campus. No permanent structures have been lost. The shelter-in-place protocol remains in effect and all individuals on campus remain safe and are resting in relocation sites.
I just knew I’m not getting three of my freshmen in the car and getting on (the Pacific Coast Highway) to put us in that position. I’d rather be uncomfortable and a little bit scared here than risk that, because I would do anything for them anytime, and so I knew that in this situation what had to be done was to stay put.
If a fire is within sight, there’s a different mood. Part of our role is to create a sense of community, a sense of safety, that there is a plan during the most intense moments. What was lovely to see was a lot of students reassuring each other.
I remember after they went to sleep, being in the bathroom just crying, finally crying on the phone with one of my teammates just expressing, “You guys don’t know what it’s like. I know you’re scared, but you’re not here right now.” And I’m trying not to show them that I was scared, and trying not to show them that I was confused.
It was hard to sleep, because you had to sleep with the mask on. The smoke was all over the library.
I remember falling back to sleep that night at my parents’ house maybe around 3 or 4 a.m., and then I woke up at maybe 5 or 6, and I didn’t have any text messages. Twitter didn’t have any new news, good or bad. Everybody in the house I was in was asleep. That was my moment of a kind of anxiety attack. Just that not knowing what had transpired from the three hours that I had slept — that’s when it all hit me.
So I shot Megan a text message. “How are you doing? How is everything?” When she did text me back 45 minutes later, whatever it was, the text message said something to the effect of, “Everyone is asleep. How is the fire out there?” Which calmed me down so much, because that just proved to me that in the library, everybody was asleep, everybody was calm. They didn’t even know the chaos that was surrounding them.
At this time, Pepperdine has lifted its shelter-in-place order. The University community is safe and individuals are free to move about the campus. Flames on hillsides near campus were extinguished early this morning.
Waking up and hearing, “You’re able to leave,” was probably the best thing ever. They were serving breakfast. I’m like, “I’m getting out of here. I don’t know why anyone is lining up for breakfast. I am gone.”
Grab your stuff. I don’t care that you’re tired — we’re leaving. When we were driving away, it looked like the apocalypse had just happened. The sun was red. The air was so thick.
It almost seemed like it was snowing because of the ash that was falling from the sky. We kept the masks on, even throughout the car ride, but you could just smell it. As you gradually progressed away from this place, you could see civilization. You could see the sun being yellow. I was just glad to be in a place where I could take off my mask. Oh my gosh, fresh air.
A trio of cars burned during the fire, but damage to the campus was minimal.
Pepperdine’s student-athletes found themselves scattered around Southern California after the imminent threat. Out-of-towners went home with locals. Some houses were packed through the weekend.
Administrators and coaches had little time to rest: The women’s volleyball team was in contention for an NCAA tournament appearance with four games left. The men’s and women’s basketball seasons had just started; the water polo teams were finishing. Plus, the cross country runners who ventured to Sacramento for the regional meet had to find a way home — or to whatever was left of it.
I was in constant communication with our volleyball coach. I was talking him through: “Look, this was the team that usually is at Borderline, too. So these girls have been through the worst 72 hours, hopefully, of their lives.
The first moment that we all got to get back together, we went to breakfast, and it was one of those moments of, “Ah, I’m back with my family.”
It was about four days, five days since we’ve seen each other. To have everybody back together again, I think, was the beginning of some healing. Just to be able to laugh, cry, ugly cry. All the emotions came out. So we went straight from breakfast and just said, “Hey, if you guys want to come, we’re going to go to the volleyball club right now. If you have gear, great. If not, we have some gear that we’ve purchased.” So we rolled in, and everybody decided to show up.
Spirits were high! I was really sick because of all the smoke. I got a sinus infection, so I had snot running out of my nose. My eyes were watering. I was in so much pain I couldn’t breathe. But it was so much fun.
At dinner that night, our coach said, “You guys have a decision to make. If we’re going to do this, we have to squeeze in all four games within eight days. I don’t want you guys to feel pressure.”
Scott spoke to me and Blossom Sato, who is the other captain, and said, “We’re going to step aside. We want you guys to talk about it.” So they stepped away, and we talked: “We don’t have to do this. We don’t have to finish our season. We don’t. Enough has happened to us where we could just throw in the towel.” But everyone wanted to.
We ultimately decided that it was for more than us. We can’t let the shooting and the fire define our season. We can’t let it stop our season.
Once I got the all clear, I went to work and I called my friends at UCLA, who are amazing. I said, “I need your help. I need to relocate these three games in the next, I don’t know, four days. Can we use the Wooden Center?” They said, “Of course.”
No one thought we were going to win all four, especially with the tough teams that we had to play.
Our last one, versus San Diego, was just awesome. Back and forth. We win the first two sets, and we’re playing really well. Everybody is contributing. They win the next two, and it’s game five. Our back is against the wall, and everybody just pitched in a little more.
It came down to the last points, fifth game. It was like slow motion. We were crying, we were on the floor all over everybody else. It was amazing. This is for the NCAA tournament. This is for Malibu. This is for Pepperdine. This is for Alaina.
We were able to find the women’s basketball team a little hub with a high school that allowed us to train there. They had a nice weight room, great gym, and there was a hotel within walking distance. So the women’s basketball team, for two weeks, was plopped down there in Studio City.
How do you go back to just practicing basketball, just playing a sport, after everything has changed, and after being so face-to-face with the brokenness and the reality of the world?
I think the word that characterizes our season is “perseverance.” If we could handle all the adversity that surrounds us, then the adversity on the court seems a little bit less frightening.
It wasn’t great that we were practicing and living in a hotel, but it was also, maybe, what we needed. And I know that we definitely needed to be together. Those two weeks were like nothing any of us had ever experienced before, because we weren’t just on an away trip. It was very evident that our lives would be changed forever.
A lot of good came out of the bad.
You knew that they would literally go through a fire with you.
A cross atop a long hiking trail above Pepperdine's campus was destroyed in the fire. Members of a Pepperdine fraternity replaced it last December to honor fallen classmate Alaina Housley.
The Woolsey Fire singed 96,949 acres over 150 square miles before it was fully contained Nov. 22. It destroyed more than 1,600 structures, including homes near Pepperdine in Malibu, and damaged more than 364 others. More than 200,000 people were forced to evacuate as 2,000 firefighters strained to keep the flames at bay. The campus was largely spared because it was designed to withstand wildfires: The stucco structures have no exposed wood; vacant land makes up 500 of the school’s 830 acres, leaving ample room between buildings; and the school routinely clears brush that could fuel a fire. The campus was closed for more than two weeks as staff worked to assess the damage and prepare for the students’ return.
Who would have known that it would have been the worst fire in Malibu in 40 years?
I get a call from my landlord: “Hey, I snuck into the place. Your house, there is nothing there. I just wanted to let you know personally.” I was like, “Thanks.” One of our teammates left his car there, and there were no tires. The rims were melted on the ground, and it’s just charred.
On campus, we lost three cars, a couple of bikes and two storage areas, but no structures.
We lost two homes in our neighborhood, and it was a miracle that we didn’t lose more. Embers are flying through the air, and they land on my neighbor’s house, and it burns. And a house about two or three houses down. My house and the ones in between somehow don’t, by the grace of God. And then the hillside across the street from my house was totally black. It looked like a war zone.
The Malibu and Calabasas campuses are closed and will remain closed throughout the Thanksgiving holiday period.
The Pepperdine Strong fund started, and a lot of donations were coming in quickly. Immediately, we are trying to disburse those funds. Students who needed immediate things like “I need gas to make it all the way home” or “I need to make arrangements of where am I going to live right now” or “I need some groceries.” So we’re just sending out gift cards, phone calls, offering support.
From a student-athlete perspective, we had a group of cross country runners who lost the place they rented. Then we had a swimmer who lost both her off-campus apartment, as well as her family’s home.
As Pepperdine moves toward a return to regular class schedules and normal operations on all University campuses on Monday, November 26, Pepperdine's (Emergency Operations Committee) is thankful for the support and cooperation of the University community.
Driving back to our house for the first time, it was an apocalypse. All the trees were black and pointy. The mountains were all black, and it didn’t seem real.
We realized the fires were probably 100 feet away from my apartment.
We had these support stations where our students could come and have a face-to-face conversation and receive care. There was a line already the second we opened up.
We have a student-athlete award show. I say to one, “What are you going to wear?” And he was like, “Oh yeah, I need to buy something because my home burnt.” This is months later, and these incidences are still affecting our lives.
I had to do an assignment for my religion class — reflect on the current events — and I went to go sit in the rubble of my house to write that. It was really emotional for me. But it was good. It got a lot out.
How can you not be changed by it?
Probably the freakiest part for me was whenever it rained, for a really long time, it smelled like ash. It’s pouring down rain, but it smells like a fire.
I would say one of the most common ways it manifested is exhaustion. An emotional exhaustion, and little bit of a waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Everyone was dealing with their stresses and was already on empty.
So, Borderline, thankfully, another venue hosts it on Wednesday nights. We still see each other weekly. It’s the same DJ. The people who teach the line dances are the same. We’re all here. We’re all together. We’re hurting, but this is something that’s going to bring us together.
We have a cross that’s well known on our campus that you can hike up to. That burned. There’s a new one up there, and it has Alaina’s name on it. Seeing something like that and taking a second to recognize what happened — and all the different kinds of hurt that people experienced — is a good thing.
The events are still in my mind. I don’t think about it regularly, but if someone asks me about it, it’s there. Going through it together, that was huge because you have 3,000 people who understand what you’re going through. It feels like if I need someone to be there for me, I can turn to almost anyone.
I don’t think it’s any accident that we’ve had the most beautiful spring since I’ve been here. It’s gorgeous. All the flowers and everything that are here now mean more because we know how dead it was before.
It was black when we came back, and everything was burnt. But now it’s green. Now we have flowers growing.