Oscar Stewart was focused on the comforting rhythm of the Torah reading when pops of gunfire cut through the sanctuary.
Stewart watched fellow congregants of Chabad of Poway in California jump to their feet and run toward the exits as if in slow motion, away from the violence unfolding in the lobby on Saturday morning, the last day of Passover.
The 51-year-old Army veteran began to follow them. And then, in a split-second decision, he turned around.
Stewart doesn’t know why. In retrospect, the Orthodox Jew thinks it might have been the “hand of God.”
Whatever it was that moved through him in that moment, it propelled Stewart into the lobby. He saw the young man — who authorities say was 19-year-old John T. Earnest — in a military-style vest wielding a semiautomatic rifle.
“Get down!” Stewart yelled in the loudest tenor he could muster.
The gunman fired two more rounds in response.
“I’m going to kill you,” Stewart boomed. This seemed to rattle Earnest, who began to flee.
From his time as a sergeant in the Army, Stewart knew that the rifle would be useless if he was within five feet of it. So he kept close to the shooter as he chased him into the parking lot.
The shooter got into a Honda sedan. Stewart, seeing the man reach for his weapon, punched the side of the car. The man started the ignition and let go of the rifle.
That’s when Jonathan Morales, an off-duty Border Patrol agent, shot four bullets into the car. As the shooter sped away, Stewart and Morales took down the license plate number.
Stewart sprinted into the synagogue. Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein was standing in the lobby with a prayer shawl wrapped around his bleeding hands. Then Stewart noticed a woman laying face-down on the floor. He flipped her over and recognized her as Lori Gilbert-Kaye.
She had been shot near the heart.
Stewart had begun attending Poway Chabad in August, and he knew Gilbert-Kaye as a kind, passionate person. They inhabited opposite sides of the political spectrum — he a centrist Democrat, and she a conservative. But they were able to set aside their differences and appreciate their shared faith in God, an inherent goodness. He considered her a friend.
Stewart was helping a fellow congregant perform CPR on Gilbert-Kaye when her husband, a doctor named Howard Kaye, walked over to help. He didn’t seem to notice who she was as he pressed her chest; he was looking at Stewart.
As Howard Kaye checked for Lori Gilbert-Kaye’s pulse with a defibrillator, he finally looked down and took in her face.
At that moment, a sheriff’s deputy walked into the lobby. Kaye fainted.
The next few hours were a blur for Stewart. He found his wife, Lynda — who had been worshiping with the other women when the gunfire began — in the sanctuary. They spent the afternoon at the home of Rabbi Goldstein’s son. They were questioned by the FBI. Stewart called his own three sons, all in their 20s, to let them know they were OK.
Stewart, who works as an electrician, could barely sleep Saturday night. He thought of how the day would change his life forever, for better or worse. He was deployed to Iraq for a year in 2003, but never thought he would hear gunfire again — especially in the United States. He said he could no longer be naive about how gun violence might touch his life, now that it had.
He thought of the young man with the rifle and how he felt sorry for him. Stewart suspects he will spend decades in prison, at the very least. A life wasted by ignorance.
He thought about how, if he had gotten to the lobby a minute before, maybe no one would have been killed.
The Stewarts drove to the synagogue early Sunday, hoping that they would be able to pray in the company of those who understood what they’d been through. It was still roped off with police tape.
In an interview with a Los Angeles Times reporter on Sunday afternoon — one of many he gave that day — Stewart said he just wants to get back to his normal life. But he acknowledged that it will likely be a while before that happens.
“I’m not a hero or anything. I just reacted,” he insisted. “I thank God that he gave me the courage to do what I did.”
© 2019 Los Angeles Times
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