On Saturday, the man who fired a semi-automatic weapon inside the Chabad of Poway synagogue in San Diego just froze, dropped his weapon and sprinted to his car when he saw Oscar Stewart come barreling toward him, yelling so loud the priest at a neighboring church could hear.
“Get down!” Stewart screamed at the attacker, according to his wife and others who were at the tragic scene. “You motherf****r! I’m going to kill you!”
Many others who were there later told him it sounded like four-five people were shouting. He thinks maybe an angel was standing behind him and spoke through his voice. When the shooter ran, he immediately chased after him.
Stewart, 51, told reporters on Sunday that he doesn’t remember any conscious thought from the moment he heard the gun shots until it was over — he just acted on instinct to prevent the shooter from leaving so he couldn’t hurt more people somewhere else. The Iraq combat veteran said his military training kicked in response.
“I knew I had to be within five feet of this guy so his rifle couldn’t get to me,” Stewart said. “So I ran immediately toward him, and I yelled as loud as I could. And he was scared. I scared the hell out of him.”
He served in the Navy in explosive ordnance disposal from 1990 to 1994, then enlisted in the Army in 2001 because of the September 11 terror attacks.
“Looking back, it was kind of a crazy idea to do, but I did it.” He was deployed to Iraq in 2003 and left the U.S. military in 2004, a Staff Sergeant. He now works as a construction worker.
When the attacker opened fire, he was in the back of the synagogue. By the time he got to the lobby, the shooter had killed one woman and injured others.
“I heard gunshots,” Stewart said. “And everybody got up and started trying to get out the back door, so I — for whatever reason — I didn’t do that. I ran the other way. I ran towards the gun shots.”
“When I came around the corner into the lobby area, I saw the individual with a gun, and he fired two rounds. And I yelled at him and I must have yelled very loud, and he looked at me, and I must have had a really mean look on my face or something, because he immediately dropped his weapon and turned and ran. And then I gave chase.”
Stewart said he chased him all the way out to his car, and began pounding on it — the shooter had managed to lock himself in. When Stewart saw him reach for a rifle, he punched the side of the car as hard as he could, intending to figure out a way to drag him out of the car — that’s when a Border Patrol agent who attends the synagogue came running out to the parking lot, yelling for Stewart to get down because he had a gun, as the Daily caller reported.
He says this man may have saved his life, and pointed to his use of a civilian gun — he was off-duty and was apparently handed the weapon by someone else on the scene — as evidence that gun control isn’t the answer to these kinds of tragedies. “It takes a good guy with a gun to stop a bad guy with a gun,” he told the Caller.
The agent fired few shots into the lower part of the vehicle, intending to disable it, but the shooter managed to drive away. The two of them then grabbed a phone and called the police to report his license plate. The shooter later turned himself in.
After the shoter sped off, Stewart ran back into the synagogue and found a woman he knew, 60-year-old Lori Gilbert Kaye, unresponsive on the floor in the lobby. He began CPR, and continued trying to bring her back to life as a couple of doctors arrived and began to assist him. She didn’t make it. The two had talked occasionally, and he remembers her as a passionate and kind woman.
“She had different political views, so we had interesting discussions when we talked,” he said. “We didn’t just talk about the weather. It was kind of cool. She was a very loving woman.”
Stewart considers the woman to be the real hero. Eyewitnesses claimed that she jumped in front of the rabbi to save his life.
“People in the aftermath here have been saying it’s important to be strong and defend ourselves. I also think it’s important to know that being strong and defending ourselves requires a lot of sacrifice too.”
“I don’t know if I consciously made the choice to potentially sacrifice myself,” he added. “But I did. And this lady, she stood and she jumped in front of the shooter and she saved the rabbi’s life. When somebody said I was a hero, I’m like, she was a hero. I just did it instinctively, like an animal. There was no conscious decision. I just did it.”
Stewart may not call himself a hero, but he believes his actions effectively stopped the shooter. He doesn’t think reports of the shooter’s gun jamming as the reason he fled are likely to be true, because he was using a semi-automatic rifle. “Full automatic weapons will jam,” he said. “Semi-automatic weapons do not jam.” He thinks maybe the shooter had emptied his magazine. Whatever the case, the shooter let the slung weapon drop and fled.
“He was in the act of shooting when I saw him,” Stewart said. “When I yelled at him he turned and looked at me, and he like froze. And then the look on his face was one of amazement at first, and then one of fear. He saw me coming, and I was ready to do whatever I had to do to stop him.”
For his part, Stewart doesn’t attribute the shooter’s actions to a larger agenda and didn’t connect him to a larger political context. He doesn’t blame President Donald Trump, and expressed hope that people don’t try to blame anyone else for the man’s actions. “He was an individual, acting alone,” he said.
“If you’re ignorant and you don’t know what people are like, you don’t know that I’m a person just like you. I go to work every day in a manual labor job. I’m not some, you know, supposedly he said in his manifesto that the Jews control this and that — I don’t control anything. I go to work just like you every day. He didn’t know that.”
“If he had gotten to know me, he would know that I’m a great person, that I’m a nice guy, that I’m a very caring person,” he continued. “My apprentices — they all love me. They say that I’m the best teacher in the world, you know, that I care, that I try to teach them, and if he had known any of these people … like the lady Lori who died. She would go give Easter baskets to kids and that’s not even a Jewish thing, you know … she was just a warm person.”
The funeral service for Kaye is on Monday. Stewart expects the synagogue will be completely full.