Oscar Stewart was following his Saturday routine. He observed the Sabbath at the Chabad of Poway synagogue, where the sound of Torah reading usually gives him solitude and peace.
“And I hear gunshots,” Stewart said. “And having been in Iraq, I know what shots sound like.”
Stewart said his first instinct was to run for safety. He got to the exit door but then something happened.
“I remember turning around and going the other way, and I ran towards the gunfire,” he said. “So as I leave the sanctuary, I go into the lobby and I see the shooter and he pops off two shots. And I yell at the top of my lungs. I yell at him, and he lets go of his weapon, but he had it on a sling -- tactical slings, which falls to the side -- and I rush him. I'm running at him and yelling.”
Stewart was armed only with a mean face. He yelled, “I’m going to kill you,” at the white supremacist, who was armed with an AR-style assault rifle and planned to commit mass murder that day.
“So I'm running towards him. He turns around, he starts running out, and I'm chasing him out,” Stewart said. “He gets to his vehicle and was fumbling around with a rifle. I punched the vehicle as hard as I can. He drops the rifle."
At this point, Jonathan Morales, an off-duty border patrol agent, shouted to Stewart to stand back. Morales had a gun and opened fire on the shooter’s car, trying to disable it. The shooter drove away but didn’t get far. The vehicle conked out, and the suspect surrendered to police.
“He’s an American hero. He’s a national hero.” said Don Walker, who knew Stewart when he was growing up in San Antonio. “You talk to all these superstar athletes that do wonderful things, and that’s fine. And people try to emulate them and look up to them. But this guy is a true hero where he potentially sacrificed his life to save a group of people. His intervention, his action, no doubt saved some lives.”
Walker, who is now the swim team coach for Alamo Heights, coached Stewart as a young teen at the city’s natatorium. At that time, Stewart lived with his mother and sister in the Victoria Courts.
“Oscar came from a pretty rough side of town,” Walker said. “He joined the swim team when he was in 8th grade. He used to take the bus over to practice because they didn’t have a car. He ended up going to Jefferson High School because they moved over to Bandera Road.”
Walker said he remembers a young man with a quiet intensity who was a fierce competitor, and someone who already showed strong character.
“Because he’s a stand-up guy. If he sees something wrong or improper, he’s going to try to correct it," Walker said. "He just has a very even disposition, a very even-keeled guy.”
Stewart said that swimming was a big part of his life growing up in San Antonio.
“When I was a kid, there wasn't much to do. I was where I was living in that area, except I used to go to Roosevelt swimming pool in the summer, and I would spend my days swimming, playing around in a pool, and getting to meet people,” he said. “I just really liked it, and it kept me out of trouble."
But Stewart admits it was his mother who really kept him out of trouble.
“She was always there for us no matter what,” he said. “I mean, she'd worked two jobs, but she was always there. My mom was a great role model.”
Stewart also credited much of who he is to growing up in San Antonio. Although it’s been a long time since he’s been back in the Alamo City, he said this is his emotional home.
“When people say, 'where'd you grow up or where are you from?' My hometown is San Antonio," he said. “That's where I met my values.”
Stewart graduated from Jefferson High School in 1986 and went to UTSA but he said he was unfocused, except for learning about his Jewish roots. He was an ethnic Jew but not really aware of deeper aspects of his heritage.
“I started reading about religion. And I wanted to know about my religion. So I reached out to the Orthodox synagogue because I felt that was the truest form. So that pretty much cemented it. That's when it became a bigger part of my life."
He said his rabbi advised him to join the military. Stewart put his swimming back to work and joined the Navy, working on explosive ordnance disposal. He left the service and became an electrician, but duty called again,
“After 9/11, I decided that I owed my country a little bit more,” Stewart said. He served in Iraq. “I went to Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah services in one of Saddam Hussein's palaces.”
He left the military again and moved around America until his family settled in the San Diego area. Stewart thought he was done serving his country.
Until Saturday. His military training snapped back into place when shots were fired.
“I hear people say, 'well, I had this plan. I knew exactly what to do. I was doing this because of this.' I don't, I wish I was that person. I just acted on instinct, and it was like I was on autopilot,” he said. “My religious convictions lead me to believe that God had a hand in this.”
But what led to the synagogue shooting and others like it? Stewart expressed concern about the virus of hate infecting the world. He said if there’s something that he wants people to take from his actions...
“The good people of the world need to stand up and say, 'I'm not going to tolerate this. We're not going to be part of this. This is not going to be what defines this great nation,'” he said. “You know, America is unbelievably the greatest nation in the world.”
Stewart said one of the reasons this is the greatest nation in the world is because it is so accepting of other people. This is from the unarmed man who made a heavily-armed white supremacist turn tail and run.
Stewart will be honored Thursday at the White House for his actions.