Nine men lost their lives in San Jose on Wednesday, May 26.
One was a father who awoke before sunrise to drive a bus to have more time with his family. Another was days away from his 64th birthday and a much-anticipated trip to Hawaii with his wife. And another sprang into action to alert his fellow co-workers of an active shooter situation.
The men, who worked for Valley Transportation Authority from seven years to 22 years, ranged from ages 29 to 63. They were gunned down Wednesday after their disgruntled colleague opened fire at a downtown San Jose rail yard following a union meeting.
They put their lives on the line during the COVID-19 pandemic to get people to work and doctors appointments. They often worked quietly behind the scenes to keep public transit moving, earning little publicity for their essential work. Now, their names are added to the growing list of lives lost each year in America to gun violence. But they were fathers, husbands, brothers and best friends.
Here is a look at the lives of the nine fallen VTA transit workers.
Abdolvahab Alaghmandan, 63
Abdolvahab "Abdi" Alaghmandan was a Hayward resident and VTA substation manager for 20 years. Alaghmandan moved to the U.S. in 1995 from Tehran, Iran with his wife Firoozeh Davallou and their two sons Sina and Soheil.
Alaghmandan was known as a tinkerer and handyman.
"Those who were lucky enough to know Abdi remember him for his generosity, work ethic, and ability to fix anything and everything," Megan Staker, Soheil's girlfriend, wrote on a fundraising page.
Staker knew Alaghmandan for five years.
"Abdi brought so much joy and laughter to our lives and losing him leaves a huge void in our hearts," Staker wrote. "To say he will be missed is an understatement. Our hearts are forever broken.
Staker said her boyfriend's father was funny, a great father, role model and husband who worked hard for his family.
Alaghmandan had moved to the U.S. with his wife and two sons from Tehran to provide them with a better life. She praised his selflessness and told reporters he moved to the U.S. without knowing any English or having any friends to build a better life for his family.
According to the San Francisco Chronicle, when Staker moved to San Francisco from Des Moines in 2018, Soheil took her to meet his parents, Alaghmandan and Davallou, at their Castro Valley home.
Staker saw him as her second father.
"We hope and we pray that this wouldn't happen to someone we know or love. We never actually think it would happen to us," Staker wrote on Facebook. "It's with great and heart wrenching sorrow to say that our beloved Abdi Alagahmandan was a victim of this horrific act of violence. This is a devastating loss for us and his loss will leave a huge void in our lives."
Adrian Balleza, 29
Adrian Balleza was the youngest of the victims killed in Wednesday's mass shooting.
He and his wife Heather had a two-year-old son named Joseph. Pictures of him fill Balleza's Facebook posts.
Heather, who issued a statement Thursday, described her husband as a kind and humble human being who cared about everyone around him.
"He lit up the room with his big smile and his goofy jokes," she said. "His proudest moment was becoming a father. Joseph was his world. It breaks my heart he won't be 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."
Balleza enjoyed his job with VTA and was happy to be able to provide for his family, said friend Sarahi Cod.
In 2014, Balleza joined VTA as a bus operator trainee and then became a maintenance worker and light rail operator, said Glenn Hendricks, VTA board chair.
Friends say he started his shifts at 4 a.m. so he could spend time with his family in the evening.
"He was a husband. He was a friend. He was a brother," Cod said. "This is incredibly hard."
At a school board meeting Thursday, she said Balleza was a football player, a captain and a student. Cod remembers Balleza as being incredibly fun, kind and really funny.
"I was in the same class as his older brother Juan at Yerba Buena High School," she said. "That's how I met him. He was a genuine person."
They all hung out together in high school. Cod and Balleza's brother Juan, 33, used to ditch school to go to the races.
Those who knew Balleza from Yerba Buena High School were asked to leave flowers, pictures and signs on Lucretia Avenue in front of the school sign to honor him.
Balleza liked to comment on politics, barbeque and go to the beach. Cod said she'll always remember his smile.
"That dude would not stop smiling," she said. "He's just a fun guy. People loved him. My heart goes out to his family."
Heather said Balleza, along with his slain colleagues Taptejdeep Singh and Paul Megia, were in the break room upstairs when the shooting began. All three ran out of the room to warn others and gave their lives.
"They are now our guardian angels forever looking over us," she said.
Alex Ward Fritch, 49
Alex Ward Fritch was a substation manager and resident of San Jose who worked for VTA for about nine years. He grew up in Ben Lomond.
Fritch is described by friends and family as being "full of life."
"He loved his Tiki crawls, dirt bikes, Star Wars, being with his wife Terra and loving life with his family," a fundraising page said. "He was known to be an optimistic man, passionate man, a dreamer who loved his family with all his heart."
Fritch and his wife Terra planned to travel to Hawaii in September to renew their vows after 20 years of marriage, according to news reports. They married after knowing each other for just six months.
"Alex was everything to this family," Terra told KTVU through tears. "He was our rock. My safe place to fall."
Fritch was the family's sole income provider. He is survived by Terra and their three children: a 30-year-old daughter and two teenage sons.
Fritch was the last person to die as a result of Wednesday's mass shooting, and the only victim to make it to a hospital before dying. He died at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose.
According to Terra, their daughter flew in from San Diego and his parents came from Ben Lomond and San Juan Bautista to be with him in his last moments. Nurses moved Fritch in his bed so his wife could be closer to him as he began to slip away.
"Alex was really fighting hard," Terra said. "He didn't want to go anywhere, and I didn't want him to go."
Jose Dejesus Hernandez, 35
Jose Dejesus Hernandez III started his career at VTA in 2012 working as a transit mechanic--rising up the ranks to substation mechanic.
His ex-wife Sarah Raelyn said someone sent her a news story about Wednesday's shooting.
"I tried to be pragmatic and just be like, 'It's OK. ... I'm sure he's OK.' And when I saw the timestamp that the call came in, I knew that he got to work right at 6:30," she told NBC News.
Not only was he a master mechanic, the Dublin resident also enjoyed playing guitar and building motorcycles.
Like fellow fallen coworker Paul Megia, Hernandez's father Jose also worked at VTA, but is now retired.
In a public Facebook post, Rochelle Velazquez said her husband's cousin lost a son--Hernandez--to a senseless shooting.
"I am so heartbroken for what our city has suffered (Wednesday). The loss of a family member is just too painful to accept let alone the loss of a child," she wrote. "I ask you all to please keep this family and the rest of the families that have lost their loved ones (Wednesday) in your prayers," Velazquez said. "It's time to make changes to our society. Stop these killings."
Hernandez's father told reporters that his son and the shooter were work partners, though he was not aware of any issues the shooter might have had with his son.
"He was somebody who was so fair," he said. "A very, very fair person and always leaning to the right side of things--always looking for the right thing to do."
Lars Kepler Lane, 63
Lars Kepler Lane was a San Jose resident and an overhead lineman who worked for VTA since 1999. Some of his closest friends and family knew him as "Kep."
Lane was days short of his 64th birthday and planned to go to Sacramento to celebrate this weekend. Just two weeks after, he and his wife Vicki, both avid travelers, planned to go to Maui, Hawaii.
He was an avid bicyclist, even after he got into a cycling accident.
"Keppie was a good friend and former colleague," wrote friend David Burt in a post on Facebook honoring Lane, calling his death "so senseless."
Lane's childhood friend Brad Fisher told San Jose Spotlight they were close friends for 52 years. When Fisher's family moved to Lake County, more than 180 miles north of San Jose, Fisher insisted on staying with Lane's family for a year so they could both go to the same school.
"He liked to take on projects that pushed his skills into a broader scope," Fisher said. "His follow-through reaped the rewards of making his environment better for him and his family."
The pair remained friends even after Fisher joined the Navy and Lane stayed behind to start a family.
One of Fisher's fondest moments was when Lane took him to visit his workplace at the VTA. Lane's job as an overhead lineman meant he had to inspect and maintain the overhead electrical cables that light rail trains use to operate.
"I was impressed to see that he had a meaningful career and that he took pride in what he did," Fisher said.
Lane is survived by his wife and their four children.
"I am proud to say he was my friend and sad that I didn't get the chance to spend more time with him," Fisher said.
Paul Delacruz Megia, 42
Paul Megia joined VTA in 2004 after a nudge from his father who worked for the agency for more than three decades.
A 32-year veteran of the transportation service, his father Leonardo suggested Paul work part-time while he studied in college.
"He was doing the 64 lines and I was doing the 25 lines, and we would meet at Willow and Lincoln," Leonardo said. "I forgot what time it was. But we would meet right there every night and we would just wave--we'd be really happy.
Megia's first stint at the VTA as a bus operator trainee was short lived--he was laid off after six months.
But Megia returned to the transit agency in 2012 and rose up the ranks to become assistant superintendent of service management.
Leonardo said his son returned to VTA because of the good pay and retirement benefits. Megia ended up making an almost 10-year career at the "VTA club," as his father described it.
"We really enjoyed seeing each other again because he would be on the light rail, I would be on the bus. We would also wave again," he said.
Leonardo said his son wasn't even supposed to be in the office the day of the mass shooting. Megia died trying to make sure his coworkers were away from danger, according to a statement from his union, AFSCME Local 1902.
Paul's sister Luci said her brother had the kind of sense of humor that only family and close friends truly understood.
"My brother was an inspiration to all of us. Not only was Paul a loving everything, he was just such a comic," Luci said. "But his life was quite short, and he had so many adventures planned for his family. My dad lost a best friend."
Megia is survived by his parents, wife and three children.
"He was the epitome of a great dad, son, husband and friend. He did not deserve this," said friend Suneera Sharma, who knew Megia because her husband was childhood friends with him.
"One day he would be snowboarding, another day wakeboarding and another day fishing with his dad," she added. "He would smile through ups and downs and we can all learn a lot from him."
Timothy Michael Romo, 49
Tim Romo's daughter Audrey says her father was the smartest and funniest man she knew. And he was always the life of the party.
"Almost every time I talked to my dad, he'd always say, 'Who's my favorite little girl?' And I'd always respond, 'I'm your only little girl,'" she said.
Romo was a 22-year veteran overhead line worker for VTA. He leaves behind his wife, three children and two grandchildren.
"There will not be a second or a day that goes by that I don't want to call him and ask how to do something, or fix something around my house or just get my truck going again or whatever," said Romo's son Scott. "He could do it all, he'll do anything."
Romo grew up in Greenfield, California where his father was once the mayor and police chief. He lived in Tracy and commuted to work in the South Bay.
Greenfield Mayor Lance Walker this week called for all residents to come together and recognize the life of Romo, calling him a "native son."
Romo was known to locals in Greenfield through his father Mike, and his mother Reggie who was a cafeteria manager for the Greenfield Union School District.
His family described him as a handyman and a brave soul.
Tristan, another one of Romo's sons, said his father was an Air Force veteran and not the type to run away from danger.
"A great man, a great husband, a great dad--and a better grandfather," Tristan said. "We have a great support system, and I know that they're gonna be there for us, taking a seat on the lawn, cracking open a beer and remembering my dad."
Romo's wife Annette has one singular message.
"Never leave home without giving your loved one a kiss goodbye," she said through tears. "Because that was the last I got."
Michael Joseph Rudometkin, 40
Michael Joseph Rudometkin and his wife Gloria just celebrated their 10-year anniversary last year.
They shared 19 years together full of adventures, Gloria said. She described her husband as likeable, generous, warm and outgoing.
"I am heartbroken that I will never hear another one of his bad jokes, receive one of his great bear hugs, celebrate another joint birthday together or be able to give him a hard time about his terrible driving," Gloria said.
Gloria said her husband always made people feel like they had known him for years.
"It was not supposed to end this way," she said. "I will forever miss Michael with my entire being."
Rudometkin, who worked at VTA for eight years, is also survived by his parents, Rose and Gary, his sister, Janelle Aguirre, his brother-in-law and their children.
His parents said Rudometkin was passionate about his work with VTA and his involvement with his union, ATU Local 265.
"Michael was the kind of guy that would give his last penny and shirt off his back," they said.
San Jose Councilmember Raul Peralez, who was close friends with Rudometkin since the seventh grade, said he was a genuine human being, always ready to go out of his way to help others.
"In high school he was friends with everybody, crossing over the different cliques and has been that kind of person his whole life," Peralez told San Jose Spotlight.
Peralez said Rudometkin was more than just a friend. He was like family.
"He was someone who treated my mom like he was her son," Peralez said. "He was an amazing person to be around and to laugh with. He was very outgoing and not self-centered, self-conscious or afraid of looking funny. He was always ready to have a good time."
Rudometkin loved to golf, ski and go to the family's lake house in Guerneville in Sonoma County. He also enjoyed motorcycle riding and tinkering on motorcycles and cars as a hobby.
Rudometkin and his wife were social and liked to go out with friends and host parties at their home in Santa Cruz.
"They threw some of the funnest themed parties, scavenger hunts and lip-sync battles," Peralez said. "They loved hosting and entertaining."
A mechanic by trade, he worked at Ford for many years and joined VTA after one of his former co-workers got a job there and suggested he come, too.
His sister Janelle and her husband Alfredo said Rudometkin didn't know the meaning of the word "no."
"It didn't matter if he had worked 16 hours straight, if someone needed his help, he'd be there," they said. "He loved his job, and was committed to making VTA a strong and happy workplace through involvement with his union."
Taptejdeep Singh, 36
Taptejdeep Singh was a hero.
In his final moments of life, he warned his coworkers to stay away from the building where a shooter had opened fire. Singh, who worked as a VTA light rail operator since 2014, was also a beloved father, husband, brother, son and nephew.
Born in Punjab, India, Singh came to California with his parents about 17 years ago. He leaves behind his wife, 3-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter.
Singh was upstairs on the third floor of a building at the light rail yard when shots rang out below. He got on the phone to alert co-workers and hid a woman in a control room. Rather than hide himself, he ran downstairs, knocking on doors to alert people there was a gunman in the building. He even called others to warn them not to come to work.
Singh was shot in a stairwell.
VTA employee Sukhvir Singh (no relation) received a phone call from Singh warning him about the active shooter in Building B and telling him to hide or get out immediately.
"Because of him, so many people were able to go home to their families," he said.
Whenever friends or family found themselves in trouble, Singh's brother Karman said, they called Singh.
"Whatever trouble I'm in, he was my first call, and not just mine--any of my friends needed help, any colleagues needed help. I told them, 'Hey, you know what? I can call my brother and he can get an answer for you.'"
When Karman teased Singh, saying he needed muscles, Singh replied, "You don't need muscles--what you need is a lion's heart."
"That's what he had," Karman added. "That's how he lived his whole life--helping others. That's who he was."
Karman vowed to carry on his brother's legacy to help others.
"It's what my brother would want me to do," he said. "We need to support each other going forward."
Karman added that his brother would generously invite his entire family on vacations.
"No one can fill who he was," Karman said.
To learn how you can help the victims' families, including by donating to their verified GoFundMe pages, click here.
This story, from Bay City News Service, was originally published on San Jose Spotlight here.