A shooting at the famed Gilroy Garlic Festival on Sunday evening left at least three dead and 15 injured, sending hundreds of terrified visitors running for their lives.
The popular food festival at the “Garlic Capital of the World” in Santa Clara County was about to close around 5:30 p.m. when at least one gunman opened fire. Authorities said police officers fatally shot the assailant, but they were continuing to investigate whether he had an accomplice.
Gilroy Police Chief Scot Smithee said witnesses reported that a second man was somehow involved, but police were still searching for him. He said the gunman was able to circumvent the festival’s security by entering from a creek area and cutting through a fence.
The gunman was not immediately identified, and Smithee said the motive was unclear.
Authorities said the scene was still active late Sunday night, with dozens of law enforcement officers from agencies around the region swarming the scene.
Witnesses reported hearing multiple rounds fired by a gunman armed with a rifle and dressed in what looked like a tactical vest and camouflage fatigues.
KNTV reported that 6-year-old Steven Romero of San Jose was killed in the shooting. His mother and grandmother were also injured, according to the NBC station.
Taylor Pellegrini, 25, said she was sitting on a bench near the food court with her boyfriend and two friends when she heard the sound of firecrackers. When the pops continued and people started running, she realized they were in danger.
“People were yelling ‘active shooter, active shooter,’ and some people tripped and stayed on the ground so bullets didn’t hit them,” she said. “People were under tables and dropping their phones and whatever they had in their hands.”
Pellegrini, who lives in Hollister, Calif., was able to get out quickly because she and her friends were close to an exit. As they walked to the nearby home of a friend, where they’d parked, they saw police officers racing through the streets.
Pellegrini said security seemed weak at the popular three-day festival, which was set to end Sunday. Her bag was checked at the entrance, she said, but one of her friend’s was not.
“I feel really scared,” said Pellegrini, who favors the festival for its rich food and music. “It makes me not want to go anywhere anymore.”
Vivian Zhang, 24, said she was walking toward the exit with two friends when she heard pops and crackles, and then saw abrupt flashes of light. A truck they were standing next to was struck four times; bullets ricocheted off the ground.
That’s when they began running as fast as they could.
“They started putting all of us on the parking shuttles,” said Zhang, an Oakland resident. “To their credit, the volunteers running it were very responsive. They weren’t panicking.”
Everyone seemed disoriented, Zhang said. Parents grabbed their children as police ran into the crowd. “It’s a whole entire group feeling of sheer terror,” said Emily Gifford, Zhang’s 23-year-old friend.
As Zhang was running, she said, she remembered thinking, “I am surviving a mass shooting right now, but I’m not even sure if that will be true in a moment.”
One of Zhang’s friends was at the 2017 Las Vegas music festival where a gunman killed 58 people. Zhang recalls seeing Snapchat posts from the scene. Still, she never thought this could be her reality, especially at a community event in rural California.
“It was getting closer and closer to home,” she said. “And now it happened to us.”
Videos from the scene showed people screaming and running across the festival grounds.
“Please pray everyone. Random shooters started shooting everywhere,” one person tweeted. “One boy is dead so far and others injured. We’re still waiting while they find them.”
“Scariest moments of my life at the Gilroy garlic festival,” another person tweeted. “I hope everyone made it out okay.”
One witness, Julissa Contreras, told KNTV that she saw a white man in his early to mid-30s firing a rifle that was “able to shoot three to four shots a second.”
“It was just rapid firing,” she said. “I could see him shooting in just every direction. He wasn’t aiming at anyone specifically. It was just left to right, right to left…. He definitely was prepared for what he was doing.”
Vielka Garrido, 48, was sitting with her friend and 19-year-old daughter, enjoying a San Jose classic rock band called TinMan as it played its last song at the festival.
She was streaming a live video on Facebook to show everyone how much fun they were having. They were eating seafood and spaghetti, and dancing.
“And then we hear boom, boom, boom,” Garrido said. “We thought it was fireworks, and then when we see the people running — oh, my God, it was terrible.”
The shots felt close to where they were sitting at the front of the stage. Her group started running too, finding refuge in a shipping container where many other festival-goers were hiding.
As she was running, she saw someone performing CPR on a small child.
Jack Van Breen, lead vocalist and guitarist for TinMan, told KGO-TV that the band was playing an encore when he heard a pop. He turned in the direction of the noise and saw a man “in a green top with a gray handkerchief kind of around his neck and what appeared to be an assault rifle.”
“He started shooting again in the direction of where all the food people were dining,” Van Breen said. He directed his band members to clear the stage, which they ducked beneath so they couldn’t be seen.
Van Breen told the Associated Press he heard someone shout: “Why are you doing this?” and the reply: “Because I’m really angry.”
Founded in 1979, the Gilroy Garlic Festival bills itself as “the world’s greatest summer food festival.” The three-day event, held at Christmas Hill Park in the town southeast of San Jose, is hosted by community volunteers and raises money for local schools, charities and nonprofit organizations.
The festival attracts tens of thousands of people every year to the town of 58,000.
“It’s just a horrible thing to experience and we couldn’t feel worse,” said Brian Bowe, the festival’s executive director.
At a news conference Sunday night, Chief Smithee noted that thousands of residents volunteer their time each year for the festival, which raises money for several local charities.
Police set up a witness and family reunification line at (408) 846-0583.
Times staff writers Gale Holland, Rong-Gong Lin II and Colleen Shalby contributed to this report.