CARLSBAD, Calif. – Children returning Monday to an elementary school where a gunman wounded two girls on a playground cheered and hugged construction workers who police said knocked down the shooter as he struggled to reload his gun.
Hundreds of parents, students and teachers — including the two bandaged girls — gave a standing ovation to the three workers during a family picnic at Kelly Elementary School.
A shout of "Viva Kelly" rang out three times, and the men were given gift baskets and handmade cards from the children, including one that read: "Dear Heroes: Thank You."
"We're not here today about a tragedy. What we're doing here today is celebrating a miracle," Principal Tressie Armstrong said at a news conference held at a park near the school Monday, three days after the attack.
Youngsters wearing the school color of kelly green and parents with bouquets attended the picnic in a grassy field next to the playground.
Matthew Keller came with his wife and 8-year-old son, who witnessed the attack.
"He was ready to go back," Keller said of his son. "It was a scary experience for him. He's been open about talking and he wanted to get back to talk to his friends."
Janitors cleaned blood from the sidewalk over the weekend, and counselors met Monday with teachers and were available to talk with students shaken by the attack. Police remained on heightened patrol, but school officials were trying to make the day one of gratitude, not fear.
The school for kindergarten-through-sixth-graders serves one of the wealthiest communities in the United States, a generally crime-free area about a 30-minute drive north of San Diego noted for its scenic beaches and luxury resorts such as La Costa, which has hosted major tennis and golf tournaments.
Brendan O'Rourke, 41, of Oceanside was arrested Friday for investigation of attempted murder and remained jailed without bail. Detectives were preparing to present the case to the San Diego County District Attorney's Office for possible charges.
Police believe O'Rourke armed himself with a .357-magnum revolver, jumped a fence and opened fire toward the crowded playground. The two girls, ages 6 and 7, were each shot in an arm.
Construction workers building a school cafeteria chased the gunman. Police said Carlos Partida jumped in his pickup truck and rammed the man, knocking him down. He and two other workers, Mario Contreras and Steven Kane, held the man for police, authorities said.
The gunman was fumbling to reload when he was struck, and his poor gun handling may have saved lives, police Chief Gary Morrison said.
Police believe four to six shots were fired. The gun was registered to O'Rourke but investigators were unsure where he obtained it, the chief said.
Morrison said O'Rourke told detectives he had considered other schools for the attack but decided on Kelly, although investigators did not immediately know why.
"He kind of rambles," Morrison said.
O'Rourke was licensed to be a security guard in California, though he was not working as one. He was working for a telemarketing company and had no previous criminal record, the police chief said.
At the picnic, the wounded girls hugged Partida.
"I think this is the biggest thank-you I've ever seen," he said after the ceremony.
Partida said the gunman pointed his revolver straight at him when he was about 10 feet away. He and the other workers yelled at him to put the gun down but didn't hesitated to act because they feared he would kill a child.
Partida is single but said he has nieces and nephews of school age.
"I would expect someone to do the same," he said after the ceremony.
As he left the picnic, parents gave Partida a case of beer and three bottles of tequila. One mother ran to hug him.
Partida said he and the others will return to work Wednesday to complete the cafeteria then go on to search for new work.
Terry Lynn, who lives across the street from the school, and another neighbor, Scott Chandler, also were given gift baskets and cards because they had run to help during the shooting.
"I came down here this morning because I needed it for me, for therapy," Lynn said. "It was wonderful to see the kids playing. You know, it was like a weight being lifted off my shoulders"
"I still get choked up seeing the little girls with bandages," he said.