SAN DIEGO - In the summer of 1984, a celebratory California was in the headlines. In San Francisco, the Democratic National Convention was under way. In Los Angeles, organizers were making last minute preparations for the Olympics.
Then on the afternoon of July 18, the small San Diego community of San Ysidro grabbed the spotlight for a very different reason.
On that day 20 years ago, an unemployed security guard, James Oliver Huberty, walked into a McDonald's in San Ysidro, just north of the U.S.-Mexico border, and began shooting. Armed with three guns, he killed 21 people, including five children and six teenagers, and wounded 19 before he was shot and killed by a police sniper.
At the time, his 77-minute rampage was the largest single-day, single-gunman massacre in U.S. history.
The shooting left gaps in families and shocked a nation that hadn't seen such violence on a large scale. The day changed how police respond to tragedy and awakened officers to the possibility of mass murder.
"It was new then, as flying an airplane into the World Trade Center was new in 2001," said Chuck Foster, the police sniper who ultimately ended the rampage. "All of the responders - the police officers, the firefighters, the paramedics - weren't foreseeing the scope of this killing spree."
It had been almost two decades since the nation had seen anything comparable - the 1966 shooting spree from atop a tower at the University of Texas in Austin, when architecture student Charles Joseph Whitman killed 14 and wounded 31.
Huberty's rampage at San Ysidro convulsed the country. Politicians used the incident to lobby for stricter gun laws. Mental health experts and citizens wanted to know why Huberty's call to a nearby clinic wasn't returned. Others asked why his wife Etna did nothing when her husband left the house saying he was going "hunting humans."
Etna Huberty, who died last year, said such outbursts were not unusual and blamed her husband's violent streak on a troubled childhood.
The massacre also led to changes in police tactics, with officers reconsidering training practices that had them use force only as a last resort. New practices of providing mental health response teams evolved.
San Diego Police Officer Miguel Rosario, the first on the scene, remembers having to cope with the aftermath.
"I had to work the next day. I drove around in a very numb state," he said. While counseling was available, no one advised Rosario to take time off.
"It wasn't that the department was insensitive. It was that we just didn't know," he said.
After the incident, San Diego formed a full-time SWAT Team. Psychologists who counseled the survivors, victims' families and police became recognized as experts in the field. And when another gunman fatally shot 23 at a restaurant in Killeen, Texas in 1991, San Diego's counseling team was called.
In the years since Huberty's rampage, his gruesome death total has been surpassed, but people who study homicide say there is something lasting and shocking about the McDonald's massacre.
"I think a lot of it had to do not with the victim count but with the location, that it was a McDonald's. Everyone has a McDonald's in their town; they connected with it," said James Alan Fox, a professor at criminal justice at Northeastern University in Boston who studies mass murders.
In the weeks after the tragedy, thousands of sightseers drove by the restaurant to gawk before McDonald's razed the building. Survivors and relatives of the victims received letters from around the country. After a lengthy debate about what to do with the site, a community college was built, along with a memorial of white marble blocks to honor the victims. Two blocks away is a new McDonald's, which opened in 1985.
On the massacre's 20th anniversary, people affected by the tragedy say the memories are still difficult.
"Slowly we have understood and accepted, but we have not forgotten anything that happened," said Adelina Hernandez, whose 11-year-old son, Omar, was killed along with his friend David.
Hernandez and Maria Flores, David's mother, became close. Each tried to understand the incident in her own way. Adelina, 73, has worked at an elementary school cafeteria for years, calling it her "daily medicine." Maria Flores now has two young children, one 15 and another 11. She said she was able to live through the incident through them and her oldest son, Guillermo.
Others also have worked to move past the tragedy. Ken Dickey, a college student who worked at McDonald's for the summer and survived by hiding in the restaurant's basement, worked at another McDonald's before returning to school. Now a high school chemistry teacher he lives in Idaho.
"I go to McDonald's all the time now, I take my kids there," he said. But he still hasn't told his two children, ages 12 and 9, about the tragedy.
In San Ysidro at a memorial service Thursday, a choir sang and readings were offered by students who attend the college that now fills the site of the massacre alongside Interstate 5. Some things have not changed. The post office where Foster stood to take his shot is still there, as is the Yum Yum doughnut shop where Omar and David had gone to get a snack.
At the police department, the incident comes up most often when police train new officers. And a group of officers who responded are still with the force. Rosario helps hire recruits. The police chief at the time, Bill Kolender, is now the county sheriff. Foster, the former sniper, handles medical benefits.
All agree the day is not forgotten.
"I know the date," Kolender said. "I remember."
Posted in Local on Sunday, July 18, 2004 12:00 am Updated: 10:38 pm.