My thoughts…remembering and reporting on the San Ysidro McDonald Massacre, where 21 people died and 19 were injured on July 18, 1984…
It’s July 18, 2004. It’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years since reporting from the sky on the McDonald’s tragedy. A tragic part of San Diego history…and I had a birds eye view. It was my first year of reporting news and traffic from the air. Previously a ground reporter for about 10 years. But I was now breaking new ground as San Diego’s first female air traffic reporter and first Television Traffic Reporter. I soon found myself as the first reporter on scene, in the air over McDonalds. I broke the story on the San Ysidro shooting…giving my first-on-the-scene reports for several local radio and TV stations. Back then, depending mostly on weather conditions, we flew either a Bell Jet Ranger helicopter or a small fixed-wing plane. Upon arriving on scene no one really knew what was happening – I was there to find out and report what I found.
It was first reported as a single sniper incident, that someone had been shot and stumbled into a post office. I was flying just a few minutes away over by the Coronado bridge when I got the report from my producer, and we, my pilot and I, continued South to San Ysidro. I was in the area quickly after that. As I looked down with my binoculars I was shocked and surprised to see utter CHAOS. Thank GOD we had chosen to fly the plane that day flying nice and high out of sniper range – since James Huberty (an unemployed security guard) was still shooting.
As we circled, I saw a San Diego Fire crew ducking for cover behind their fire rig. I immediately radioed back to my producer that this was more than what was first reported. I could see arriving Police quickly shutting down streets. My non-stop reports began. I was alerting motorists to steer clear of this area, what streets were closed and what alternate routes to take…as I reported I could see the windows of the Mc Donalds restaurant were shattered by all the gunfire.
As I continued to circle I also saw that traffic traveling to and from the U.S./Mexico border crossing at San Ysidro was traveling directly behind McDonalds and in the line of fire – so I radioed this back to my producer who called and had officials shut down the border crossing, and CHP stopped freeway traffic into this area. As I continued to circle the area – I then noticed the people who were hiding against the wall in the playland area…and then I saw two young boys lying on the ground motionless, with their bicycles, just outside the doors to McDonalds.
My reports to the Television and radio stations were non-stop until other ground reporters could get close enough to the area. In my mind I felt I needed to keep reporting, keep talking and help keep people out of the area…keep them informed on the tragedy below me. Other airborne traffic and news reporters units arrived some 20 minutes later.
In my reports, I did not mention I could see the people who were hiding in the playland area – why? Because we had heard the gunman may have a radio and was possibly listening to the radio broadcasts. I didn’t want to put those hiding in even more danger of being his next victims. It was about an hour and 45 minutes of circling and reporting when I then watched as a San Diego Police Sharp Shooter fired the fatal shot that took Huberty down. I then saw the officers rush the building…once the scene was secure, then it was the firefighters and paramedics who were all jumping over the walls rushing to save those who could be saved. I was relieved to see help was coming…but now I was devastated to hear it was too late for some 21 people…including five children and six teenagers.
As I flew out of area…I started hearing the reports of the carnage inside where most were killed. That’s when it finally hit me, up until then I was doing my best to keep people safe and out of the area – that was my job. I remember thinking to myself I hope I was able to help in some way during this tragedy. Another thought…I certainly couldn’t accept any news awards for this because people had died, especially the children.
When we landed back at the airport I found myself drained of energy. I couldn’t wait to get home to hug my 3-year-old daughter. Once home I didn’t want to let her go – and I cried…thinking of those who had just lost their babies, their children earlier that day.
It wasn’t very long after that awful day I started hearing from residents in that South Bay area. They were calling me, or coming up to me and actually “thanking me for saving their lives.” Some said they were headed down there, to that Mcdonald’s, or, they were going to that Post Office next door when they heard my reports just in time. I also received words praise from those who were coming across the border crossing at that time, how they were now stuck in traffic due to the closure. Months later I was invited to take a tour of the U.S. Border crossing, that’s when Border officials started telling me about how traffic was backed up for miles that fateful day coming into the U.S., but, it was strange that “no one honked or even complained.” How everyone had been listening closely to their radios – listening to my reports. Border Officers said they could hear my voice coming from the car radios reporting the dangers just a short distance away.
It was then, because of all those comments, that a year later, I was more comfortable and proud to receive a Golden Mike and two San Diego Press Clubs awards for those reports.
Now, working for the El Cajon Fire Department, I’ve continued that passion to educate and help keep people safe! I’m probably a fanatic about safety…but I’ve been teaching people to be more aware of their surroundings, at home, at work at play and behind the wheel – no matter where they are. But, the most important lesson…never miss a moment to tell the people you love – how much you love them “every day.”
I still remember that day very well, especially when other mass shootings occur. As tragic as it was, I was proud to have helped in some way…in possibly preventing the numbers of those killed or injured from being any higher than they already were.
I can also say it took me several years before I was comfortable enough to walk into a fast food restaurant. But I still look over my shoulder and I still prefer the drive thru.
Some personal thoughts from now the City of El Cajon Public Information Officer & Safety Educator Monica Zech.
Note: A memorial now sits at the site of the former McDonald’s restaurant, son the campus of Southwestern College Campus-San Ysidro. The address is 460 W. San Ysidro Blvd. It’s located between the post Office and a Donut shop
To contact Monica Zech call (619) 441-1737 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Note: One of our El Cajon Fire Captains Steve Swaney was a young Hartson’s paramedic and there on the ground trying to save lives when the shooting finally stopped. I’m proud to be working with these true heroes…)
News Headlines – Man Opens Fire; Kills 21, Injures 19 – (7-18-84)
SAN DIEGO — Nearly 40 years after a man opened fire at a San Ysidro McDonald’s, people gathered Thursday to remember the victims who were gunned down during the massacre.
On July 18, 1984, James Huberty, armed with three guns, pushed past McDonald’s customers and went on a shooting spree. Huberty killed 21 people and injured 19. The shooting rampage, which lasted more than an hour, ended after police sharpshooter Chuck Foster fired a shot that killed Huberty.
A granite memorial was built on the site to honor the 21 victims. Among the victims was an 11-year-old boy riding his bike by the McDonald’s when Huberty shot him through the window.