A close brush with a killer

Nick Contopoulos was running late for work when he rushed out the door Feb. 19 in hopes of making it to the 6 a.m. astronomy course he teaches at Orange Coast College.

Behind the wheel of his car, he thought he heard gunfire.

"For some reason I said, 'Oh, that's a shotgun.' It just sounded that way," Contopoulos said.

Just before he merged from the Santa Ana (5) Freeway onto the Costa Mesa (55) Freeway, the Irvine resident spotted a white pickup stopped ahead of him.

As he braked behind the pickup, he saw a man walking with the stock of a shotgun mounted to his shoulder.

His first thought: That driver must have hit a coyote or another animal and gotten out of his truck to end its suffering.

He assumed the animal was out of his sightline.

But the driver walked toward the driver's side of Contopoulos' car.

"Certainly, at some point, I could see just a nice big barrel," Contopoulos said, making a circle with his thumb and fingers.

As the gunman drew closer, Contopoulos saw his face, and he saw his finger on the trigger.

The professor fixated on the shotgun.

"I've got to get past him somehow," he recalled thinking.

When the man was about seven feet from his car, he seemed to gesture with the shotgun toward Contopoulos.

Contopoulos decided to take his chances. He drove off the shoulder and around the pickup truck, ducking below the dashboard for about a second and then peering over the steering wheel to see the road ahead.

He finally looked in his car's mirrors. The gunman was gone from view. Contopoulos didn't have a cell phone and couldn't call police.

The encounter lasted about 30 seconds.

"It seemed like a long, long time," he said.

Contopoulos continued onto the OCC campus. In talking with a course assistant, he decided to call the California Highway Patrol. After a few cursory questions about damages to the cars — there was none — he hung up.

Contopoulos told his class about his unusual commute to school and asked that his students keep their eyes peeled about any news that could explain what happened earlier that morning.

At about 7:10 a.m., a student told him about the rampage.

"I realized at that point it wasn't what I thought," he said.

He would learn the truck was driven by 20-year-old Ali Syed, a man authorities say killed three people and injured three others before taking his own life during a countywide rampage that began that morning in Ladera Ranch.

Other drivers didn't fare as well as Contopoulos. Syed went on to hit three cars on that same ramp, authorities have said. One driver was injured by flying glass.

At 11 a.m. Contopoulos went to the Tustin police station to report what happened to him.

Many on campus had heard of his brush with death. He told his story to the OCC student newspaper, Coast Report, which relayed it under the headline, "Staring down the gun barrel."

Since then, the astronomy professor has continued to reflect on the experience. He's also had nightmares.

"You know, there's 86,400 seconds in a day, and this thing played 86,400 seconds a day," Contopoulos said. "It was a continuous loop."

In the days following the shooting, Contopoulos was easily startled, and he looked around his car while driving, instead of focusing on the road.

A world traveler, he experienced flight anxiety for the first time flying home from his late father's memorial service in Northern California to John Wayne Airport.

"I thought we were crashing," Contopoulos said.

He began looking for emergency exits.

His thoughts remain with the three victims.

"I'm more in shock for them," he said. "I feel so terrible. That's what I keep thinking about … for whatever reason he decided not to shoot."

Students and other faculty members are supportive.

When some ask how he escaped with his life, Contopoulos replied, "Well, he decided. I didn't decide."


Twitter: @lawilliams30

Copyright © 2019, Daily Pilot
EDITION: California | U.S. & World