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Relying on the kindness of strangers after a mass shooting

Briana Willson
KCBX news intern Briana Willson (second from left) and her Cal Poly teammates with the couple who housed and fed them for two days.

Among those who survived the recent mass shootings in the U.S., some relied on the kindness of strangers in the aftermath. KCBX news intern Briana Willson was one of those people. She was at the Gilroy Garlic Festival at the end of July when a gunman opened fire.

“We were getting ready to pack up talking to the last few customers when we heard loud shots go out,” Willson said. “We all stopped and said to each other, ‘wow, I hate loud noises because it reminds me of a shooting.'"

Willson is a Cal Poly student and a member the university’s triathlon team. She and some of her teammates were working at a booth selling olive oil on the last day of the festival. She said the shooter opened fire about 80 feet away from her and she watched people fall to the ground.

“I crawled under a table and then crawled out the side of the booth and met up with my friends about a 100 yards away, and we ran together for about a mile and a half,” Willson said.

The triathletes left their belongings, vehicles and car keys behind. Not knowing where to go, they ran into a gated community where they saw a man watering his lawn. They asked to hide in his backyard.

“He said yes immediately and they gave us water and Gatorade and said we could stay there as long as we needed to, which ended being about two days,” Willson said.

There was confusion in the community in the aftermath of the shooting, and Willson said local police and FBI agents sealed off the festival grounds and nobody knew when they would be let back in. The students had already checked out of their hotel, and weren't sure when they would be able to get their things back. They felt stranded, Willson said, so they stayed. The couple, who asked to remain anonymous, had plenty of spare bedrooms as empty-nesters.

“They just took care of us,” Willson said. "[The wife] gave us candy, pizza and tea. She cooked for us in the mornings, she drove us around when we needed it, they were super supportive, nice and calming and they said it was their duty to help us, if they could do something to help people, that’s what they were going to do and they did it.”

When they weren’t watching the news to find out what happened, the group and the couple talked—about the student’s sports lives, plans after graduation, and their faith.

“It was interesting to have a spiritual discussion when everything seemed to be falling apart around me,” Willson said.

Eventually Willson’s mother came to pick her up, but it would be almost a week before people were allowed back into the grounds to retrieve personal items and vehicles. She said she has kept in contact with the couple, who went from strangers to family in a matter of seconds.

“I’m sending them a gift in the mail, Christmas cards forever [and] newsletter updates,” Willson said. “They are part of my life now. They are part of that horrible, horrible time.”

And what do you give someone who houses you in a time of crisis?

“There’s nothing adequate you can give them, but we are going to give them something from the Cal Poly triathlon team,” Willson said. “We have shirts that says 'Tri-Team Parent,' because she kept on saying she was our Gilroy mom."

Willson is just now returning to work and regular life after the shooting. Her family drove from Sacramento to spend the weekend together in Pismo Beach. She said processing her feelings after this ordeal, and the two other mass shootings that followed, will take time.