Mechanic Craig Witzel looked up from a Volkswagen engine when he heard a scream Thursday morning. Then he froze as he watched a gunman stroll calmly, almost robot-like, away from the scene of a murder.
"The guy was just casually walking away down the alley," Witzel said.
"It was surreal," added one of his co-workers at a nearby gas station. "People were screaming and pointing at him, saying he just shot someone. But he was just calm."
But pandemonium soon prevailed after a midmorning shooting spree at the Del Prado Avenue post office. Dozens of workers dashed out of the building's back door and scattered in all directions. Some ran out shortly after the gunman entered; others as soon as he left.
"There was just like a flood of blue suits pouring out of there," said Bruce Cohen, owner of a nearby bicycle store, who waved many of the workers inside. "They were scared and upset. One girl, she was red, she was sweating, she was hysterical. She said, 'Call 911. Somebody's been shot.' Then she started getting mad--'Call 911!' "
About 15 workers hid in Cohen's bicycle store. Others sought refuge in a gas station, some in a beauty shop, some behind parked cars; and some just kept running, trying to get as far from the scene as possible.
"They were hiding all over," said Chris Andrews, a worker at the nearby Killer Dana Surf Shop. "They were poking their heads around the corners of the buildings. Some ladies were crying."
Robert Hagstrom, a temporary postal employee who was inside the building during the shooting, described mixed reactions from workers. He said some ran and some walked out when they heard the first shot, followed by an order: "Get down on the floor."
Another postal worker in the building said: "After the first gunshot, I was on the floor, and as soon as I could, I got to an exit."
The gunman--identified as Mark Richard Hilbun, 38, a fired postal worker--tried, at one point, to break into a nearby escrow office where some of the postal workers were hiding. After failing to pry the door open, witnesses said, he then walked slowly around a parking lot and out to the street corner before finally getting in his pickup truck and driving off.
"He looked so normal, so casual," Cohen said. "Somebody would have looked more suspicious shopping for a greeting card."
The scene probably lasted just a few minutes. But the witnesses recalled it as if it were in slow motion.
Cohen watched in frustration, trying to think of a way to stop the man. He said he usually keeps a gun in his store but didn't bring it to work Thursday. Finally, he decided to get in his own car and speed after the suspect.
"That was the right thing to do at the time," he said. "I drove through a flower bed and over a curb . . . treated stoplights like stop signs." Cohen said he lost sight of the pickup truck before he got on the freeway headed south.
At the post office, some frightened workers remained in hiding for more than half an hour after the assailant fled. Others huddled in corners, crying and shaking.
The violent chaos Thursday morning was especially chilling to many Dana Point residents because the picturesque seaside village is known for its peaceful charm. Within minutes of the shooting, however, that tranquillity was shattered.
At Dana Hills High School, the principal told students over a public-address system that a killer was loose in the neighborhood and that they were not to leave the campus. "We were kind of mad about it because we usually get to go off campus for lunch," said student Brad Doolittle.
School officials said that four elementary schools--with about 1,000 students--in Dana Point and nearby San Juan Capistrano were also ordered "locked down."
"To be on the safe side, when you have someone who has already murdered one person and injured another, you want to make sure you do everything possible to guarantee the safety of the students," said Jacqueline Price, spokeswoman for the Capistrano Unified School District.
Merchants and passers-by near the crime scene Thursday said the safe streets of Dana Point are among the area's best selling points. Its nautical history, grand ocean vistas, cascading flower bushes and trendy mansions also make it one of Orange County's most spectacular, picture-postcard cities.
"This town has a laid-back feeling," said Crista Burns, who sells flowers on Pacific Coast Highway and has lived in the area for 11 years. "It is a quiet, inviting, safe, beachy town where people are friendly."
Ginny Davis, head cashier at a Chevron gas station and a Dana Point resident for 31 years, insisted: "You tell them this town is a great town."