Gilroy Mayor Roland Velasco: Visions of Garlic Festival terror linger

Gilroy Mayor, Roland Velasco, arrived at the Gilroy Garlic Festival in the early evening of July 28 to help Chamber of Commerce volunteers tear down their remaining booths. He was standing by the beer garden at the middle of Christmas Hill Park when he heard the words “active shooter” come over a Chamber walkie-talkie. 

In an interview Aug. 1 with the Gilroy Dispatch, Velasco described the harrowing events that followed that call. Four days after the mass shooting, Velasco remained distraught.

The mayor said he hid alongside vendors and volunteers in one of the trucks until he got a call from a friend who begged Velasco to search for the man’s daughters. Velasco ran toward the Miller Avenue park entrance where he saw first responders running into the festival site. He grabbed an emergency pack and headed toward the police tent.

For Velasco, the next several hours were a blur of adrenaline, blood and phone calls. A hastily assembled triage site in the park, Velasco helped first responders take victims’ pulse and blood pressure. When one young teenager, later identified as Keyla Salazar, was determined to have died from gunshot wounds, Velasco’s group formed a circle around her and prayed.

After the first wave of gunshot victims had been transported by ambulance to hospitals, Velasco sat down and looked at his phone: CNN, NBC and the New York Times had already called. He had just survived a mass shooting and tended to bloody victims at his city’s crown jewel event, the annual Gilroy Garlic Festival.  The shooting left three dead and 12 injured, now he had to be the mayor. 

“Did this really just happen?” Velasco asked himself. He looked down at his shaking hands, his gloves covered in blood.

Before Velasco knew it, more than four hours had passed since the shooting, and he stood at a podium set up at the reunification site at Gavilan College, about two miles south of the park. He had alerted the city administrator, set up an Emergency Operations Center across from City Hall and coordinated personnel with Mayor Sam Liccardo of San Jose.

Velasco said he was still in shock. He looked up to see a swarm of reporters, a blur of people and hundreds of flashes of light. 

“I think I even forgot to announce who I was,” Velasco confessed. “I just kind of got up there—my hands were shaking.” Had he not just witnessed the blood, pain and death, Velasco imagined he might have had more words to share that night. He didn’t mention to reporters at the first press conference that he had been at Christmas Hill park that day.

“It might of been different for any other mayor who was not in the middle of that situation,” said Velasco. “Had I not gone through that, I might’ve been much more calm.”

A proclamation was signed that night by City Administrator, Gabe Gonzalez, which issued a state of emergency in the city. The next day the 60,000 people of the city of Gilroy woke up to a new reality.

Velasco said he hasn’t given much thought to the fact that the gunman was a lifelong Gilroy resident. What mattered is what he did, Velasco said, it doesn’t make a difference where the gunman was from.

“Here’s a person who had a very cold heart and a callous disregard for human life,” said Velasco. “He took the greatness of the Garlic Festival away from us.”

Velasco understands that people in Gilroy are probably angry—he’s angry too.

“What I’ve told people before is there are the stages of grief and one of the stages is anger, and that’s what a lot of people are feeling, like, ‘Shit, this really happened—and this bastard did it to us,’ “   said Velasco. “But we will overcome, we will survive and we’ll get through it.”

He doesn’t see what happened changing any of the other public events that are planned in Gilroy. Velasco said the city had done everything right, positioning security and first responders at the scene, but said the shooting was ultimately unpredictable.

While Velasco wished the city didn’t have to embrace a new slogan, “#GilroyStrong.” He said he continued to be impressed by all of the ways the community had supported one another in the wake of the tragedy. 

“Unfortunately, especilly after the Boston bombings, every city is hashtag-strong and that’s a sad commentary about where were at right now,” said Velasco. “But I’m amazed that there’s so many people jumping forward saying, ‘I want to help.’ ”

He was quick to acknowledge the people that helped during the shooting as well. Velasco wished he knew all of the people who had helped that day, so he could formally recognize them.

The mayor said he hoped the festival would return to Gilroy next year, which he believed would define how the city responds to adversity.

“If we don’t have a garlic festival, then this bastard succeeded in terrorizing us,” said Velasco. “And I don’t want to see that happen.”

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