Nick Contopoulos, an astronomy professor at Orange Coast College, recalls the day that he came face to face with gunman Ali Syed. (KEVIN CHANG, Daily Pilot / February 27, 2013)

Nick Contopoulos was running late for work when he rushed out the door Feb. 19 in hopes of making it to the 6 a.m. astronomy course he teaches at Orange Coast College.

Behind the wheel of his car, he thought he heard gunfire.

"For some reason I said, 'Oh, that's a shotgun.' It just sounded that way," Contopoulos said.

Just before he merged from the Santa Ana (5) Freeway onto the Costa Mesa (55) Freeway, the Irvine resident spotted a white pickup stopped ahead of him.

As he braked behind the pickup, he saw a man walking with the stock of a shotgun mounted to his shoulder.

His first thought: That driver must have hit a coyote or another animal and gotten out of his truck to end its suffering.

He assumed the animal was out of his sightline.

But the driver walked toward the driver's side of Contopoulos' car.

"Certainly, at some point, I could see just a nice big barrel," Contopoulos said, making a circle with his thumb and fingers.

As the gunman drew closer, Contopoulos saw his face, and he saw his finger on the trigger.

The professor fixated on the shotgun.

"I've got to get past him somehow," he recalled thinking.

When the man was about seven feet from his car, he seemed to gesture with the shotgun toward Contopoulos.

Contopoulos decided to take his chances. He drove off the shoulder and around the pickup truck, ducking below the dashboard for about a second and then peering over the steering wheel to see the road ahead.

He finally looked in his car's mirrors. The gunman was gone from view. Contopoulos didn't have a cell phone and couldn't call police.

The encounter lasted about 30 seconds.

"It seemed like a long, long time," he said.

Contopoulos continued onto the OCC campus. In talking with a course assistant, he decided to call the California Highway Patrol. After a few cursory questions about damages to the cars — there was none — he hung up.

Contopoulos told his class about his unusual commute to school and asked that his students keep their eyes peeled about any news that could explain what happened earlier that morning.

At about 7:10 a.m., a student told him about the rampage.