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A law enforcement official carries a weapon as he walks past firefighters and parents with their children after a shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. on Friday, Dec. 14, 2012. (AP Photo/The Journal News, Frank Becerra Jr.) NYC OUT, NO SALES, TV OUT, NEWSDAY OUT; MAGS OUT; MANDATORY CREDIT: THE JOURNAL NEWS, FRANK BECERRA JR.

Nineteen-year-old Joshua Stepakoff woke up Friday morning in his home in Northridge to headlines on his television that flashed him back to when he was 6 years old and caught up in an infamous mass shooting here in the San Fernando Valley.

"I was just appalled to find out that it was the exact same thing that happened to me," Stepakoff said Friday afternoon. "The pictures of the children being reunited with their families, all the parents waiting to hear about their children, all the kids being taken out of the school - all those images were identical to what I saw in 1999."

Stepakoff was one of five people - three children, a teen and a senior citizen - wounded on Aug. 10, 1999 at the North Valley Jewish Community Center when white supremacist Buford O'Neal Furrow Jr.

blasted about 70 gunshots into the complex.

All of the people shot inside the center survived their injuries, but Furrow later shot and killed a Filipino-American postal carrier as he was delivering the mail.

He later fled by cab to Las Vegas, then turned himself in at an FBI office there. His crimes were described as motivated by racial hatred and mental illness. In 2001, he pleaded guilty to 16 felony counts, including murder and is currently serving a life sentence in prison.

A decade after the shooting Furrow wrote a letter to the Daily News from his prison cell in Terra Haute, Ind. expressing regret for the crime and renouncing his white supremacist views.

Thirteen years after his brush with death, Stepakoff is now a gun control activist who often speaks at events hosted by L.A.-based Women Against Gun Violence. He was scheduled to appear on Piers Morgan's CNN show Friday night. But earlier Friday, Stepakoff said he found it difficult to speak after learning more about the Newton, Conn. elementary school shooting.

"Usually I have no problem talking about gun violence and my experience, but today I felt so many things I couldn't express myself," he said.

(Associated Press)
"I'm scared, I'm angry, I'm sad and I just wish I could go out there and help everybody. I'm filled with disgust knowing that we've let this happen."

Like many activists, Stepakoff hopes Friday's massacre will spark more action on gun control.

"I don't want people to think I'm trying to take away their Second Amendment rights," he said. "I'm just trying to make our communities a safer place. There's no need for people to be walking around with AK-47s."

"There has been talk - always talk - of strengthening the control that we have on guns, but it's never acted upon," he added, specifically pointing to the Assault Weapons Ban that he believes should be renewed. "People need to understand the severity of this. There are people killed every single day because the wrong person has access to guns."

In the meantime, Stepakoff wants to tell the children who survived, and who will have to carry the heavy memory of Friday's shooting with them for the rest of their lives, that there is hope.

"I had nightmares for a while. I used to be too scared to sleep over friends' houses. I didn't like the dark and it was difficult to live daily. But those things kind of die down a little bit," he said. "It never fully goes away, but I'm not that bad anymore and I'm thankful for that."

Stepakoff said what has helped is talking about his experience and trying to help with gun reform.

"Telling people what you saw and what you heard, as emotional as it might be, can help," he said. "During the process it will hurt, but there can be a positive change from all that hurt. Yes, the short-term things are horrific, but the long-term outcome is what you hopefully can use to push you along."

mariecar.mendoza@dailynews.com

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