MODESTO (CBS13) — A Modesto man was among the many vendors who had to leave everything behind to get to safety following Sunday’s mass shooting at the Gilroy Garlic Festival.
“As soon as the shots rang out everyone ran immediately,” said Craig Hilliker, Project Manager at Sciabica Olive Oil Company in Modesto. “Everything’s still there, everyone’s cash boxes are still there, everyone’s computers, their lighting, and their product. Everything is still there.”
Hilliker told CBS13 he hid inside a refrigeration truck for about a half an hour before he felt safe enough to evacuate the area.
“It was extremely stressful. My hands couldn’t type fast enough. It felt like I couldn’t type accurately and because everyone was trying to be as quiet as possible, no one was talking on their phones,” he said.
Hilliker said he was there as part of the company’s first appearance at the festival.
“We had been trying to get into the Gilroy Garlic Festival for a couple of years,” he said.
When he found out the company was finally accepted, he said, “We were really excited.” On Sunday, his excitement quickly turned to terror when he heard guns shots ring out from just about 50 feet away.
“Everyone started screaming, starting running. People were yelling ‘get down.’ They were crawling. They were doing anything they could to find any kind of shelter,” he said.
Hilliker said the only thing that separated him from the shooter was some nylon tent walls.
“I couldn’t see anything because the tent walls were up and there were a lot of other vendors in the way, but I could definitely hear the shots,” he said. “There was one singular loud boom at first. Sounded like a homemade firework or something like that and after about 10-15 seconds we got a quick succession of rapid-fire and a much louder sound like it was coming from a rifle.”
That’s when he decided to make a run for it; initially hiding underneath a trailer of an 18-wheel truck.
“I saw all these people walk past me and I could hear them getting inside the trailer so I decided to do the same,” he said. “I got up from under the trailer and climbed inside. Luckily it was a refrigerated trailer but there were easily over 100 people in that trailer.”
Cold, scared and afraid of making a sound, he said members of the group were panicking.
“There was a mixture of adrenaline, claustrophobia, there were a lot of people starting to get sick,” he said.
The group remained there for about 35 minutes after the shooting; uncertain of where the gunman was and if there was a second suspect involved in the incident.
“Everyone was trying to get messages out to loved ones. All we could do was one or two-word messages and trying to convey any information possible,” he said.
He said festival staff eventually told them to evacuate because authorities were expanding their investigation into the area where they were located.
The group was told to walk to the amphitheater where many of the other evacuees were being relocated.
“At that point, a lot of people were being carried… There were people fainting,” Hilliker said.
On the way, he said he and a coworker grabbed cases of water from a first aid station and loaded a hand cart to transport water to the hundreds of others still stuck at the fairgrounds.
“We also found an ice chest that hand sandwiches inside,” he said. “That was a very welcome sight for people that weren’t feeling well.
The now much larger group remained in the amphitheater for another half hour and was told to evacuate again.
“What was scary was when there were reports of a possible second shooter in the woods, the only way for us to get to the school was through the woods,” he said.
He said the group formed a single line and walked about a mile to get to the school. At one point, he said, members of the group came across a plainclothes officer armed with a gun which put them in a panic.
“The group started to run back in the direction of the evacuation zone,” he said. “They were basically stampeding each other. People were injured, they were bleeding.”
He said nearby officers were eventually able to calm the crowd and redirect them to the school.
“We were still at the grounds until about 8 p.m. It was a long, relatively slow process, but one that was probably necessary to make sure we were safe,” he said.
Right around that time, he said, he got word from authorities that it would be at least 24 hours before anyone would be allowed back in to retrieve their things. That’s when he said his wife came to pick him up and the two returned to Modesto at about 3 a.m.
He said his company plans to send a second team to pick up their belongings. In the meantime, Hilliker is trying to relax following the horrifying ordeal.
“My body is still so tense. It feels like every single muscle,” he said. “And my coworker is still having problems with his hearing today.”
He said his coworker was a lot closer to the shooter. He was at a coffee booth when the gunman opened fire and Hilliker said a bullet may have gone right by his ear.
“He said he felt what was seemingly like a shockwave by him and it immediately made his left ear ring,” said Hilliker.
Hilliker is now urging him to seek medical attention. He said, he too will be affected by what happened and that it may be some time before he’s able to attend another large event.
“There will be hesitation, but there will just be hesitation in large crowds, he said. “It doesn’t have anything to do with the Gilroy Garlic Festival. I think I’m going to have hesitation anywhere large groups of people are meeting.”