It all began on a tranquil Sunday morning at Seal Beach Leisure World when 77-year-old Sylvia Guy parked her car and got out to put letters in a mailbox.
"When I turned around the car was backing up away from me and I started running and I couldn't catch it," a frazzled Guy recalled hours later.
The first firefighter on the scene radioed in: "You're not going to believe this."
Guy's 1980 Chrysler sped backward about 200 yards down residential Northwood Road, then over a sidewalk light fixture before it struck the curb and began making tight circles at about 30 miles an hour, according to Orange County Fire Department spokesman Steve King and eyewitnesses.
For half an hour a crowd of 75 elderly residents, police, firefighters and paramedics watched the backward circling automobile as it alternately jumped the curb onto the lawn of the garden apartments, then circled back into the street.
The car created a rut in the grass, and with each pass it "would whack a bottle brush tree" with its open door, said Leisure World security guard Elmer Holstien.
At some point, 85-year-old M. Edwin Beaty "decided despite his years . . . he was going to John Wayne it and jumped in there to enter the vehicle while it was in motion," Seal Beach Police Sgt. John Wachtman said.
Security guard Holstien was stopping traffic down the street and urging onlookers to keep away when "I happened to look back and I saw (Beaty) hit by the car door and the car carried him into the street."
Holstien pulled the dazed Beaty "out of the way before it came around again or he would have been run over," fire spokesman King said.
"It wasn't no big deal," Holstien said later. "At first he was a little unsteady on his feet, but then he got up. It got me worried. I was afraid he'd go back again."
Wide-eyed spectators watched, wondering if the car would straighten out and speed off again, but "as long as the thing was stabilized, we were content to sit and watch it," Sgt. Wachtman said.
Then the Chrysler began striking a power pole with each pass, threatening to bring down live electrical wires.
At about 11:10 a.m., a heavy-duty tow truck, called by police and driven by Mike Kramer, rammed the car's bumper, bringing it to a halt, authorities said. Fire Battalion Chief Mike Colgan jumped in the car and turned off the ignition.
Beaty was treated at the scene by paramedics and transported to Los Alamitos Medical Center. Hospital spokesmen said he was not admitted and fire officials described his injuries as minor.
"If it had happened on a Monday morning when all those people are doing their thing in their little carts it would have been a mess," King said.
"It was very fortunate no one was hurt," said Guy, the car's owner. "It made me very upset and nervous. I've been all day trying to get calmed down.
"I have to call my insurance man in the morning," she said. "I've been looking at my insurance papers, but I don't know if they'll consider this collision or not."