Sunday night. Las Vegas. Jason Aldean had just started playing.
My wife and I were at the 2017 Route 91 Harvest Festival with three other couples; two of them were our close friends. We were sitting in the VIP section, a tented area right next to the stage. We started hearing what I was convinced were fireworks.
I’ve been in the Army for 20 some years. I’ve been deployed and shot at multiple times. But these shots were far away. And you don’t expect people to be shooting at you at a concert.
I was on the edge of the VIP area, so I could see around the corner of the tent. I looked up at the Mandalay Bay and saw the muzzle flash in the hotel window. That’s when I knew.
I screamed: “Somebody’s shooting at us! Everybody get down!”
It took a while for people to realize what was going on. When the first couple volleys sprayed into the crowd, nobody understood. But once enough people had been hit and dropped, everyone knew, and it was just mass exodus.
People screamed and ran everywhere. Some of them tried to jump over the front barrier so they could get underneath the stage. Others were trying to pick up loved ones who’d been shot.
The next 15 minutes are a little foggy. I was helping my wife and the people around us to get down. Funny things come back to you afterward. One of my friends was carrying a 16-ounce beer in his hand. Somebody’s shooting at him and he’s walking around with his beer like he’s afraid to put it down. It was so surreal.
We got everybody underneath the tent, and then we just sat there. There would be shooting and then a pause. You’d think it was over. And then there would be more shooting and another pause. It felt like it never was going to stop.
After a short period of time, somebody came in with an official badge, maybe FBI, who knows. They said: “Okay, everybody up. We’ve got to get you out of here.” So, we all got up and headed across the stage. The gate they were taking us to was in full view of the shooter, so it wasn’t very safe.
As I got up, I looked out at the field. Bodies were scattered everywhere. I’m a trauma surgeon by trade. I couldn’t just leave.
I told my two best friends to take my wife with them. My wife lost her mind at that point. She didn’t want me to run out on the field. But I had to. I saw the injured and they needed help. Another buddy and I jumped over the fence and started taking care of people.
The feeling of being out on the field was one of complete frustration. I was in sandals, shorts, and a t-shirt. We had no stretchers, no medical supplies, no nothing. I didn’t have a belt to use as a tourniquet. I didn’t even have a bandage.
Worse: We were seeing high-velocity gunshot wounds that I’ve seen for 20 years in the Army. I know how to take care of them. I know how to fix them. But there wasn’t a single thing I could do.
We had to get people off the field, so we started gathering up as many as we could. We didn’t know if we were going to get shot at again, so we were trying to hide behind things as we ran. Our main objective was just to get people to a place of safety.
A lot of it is a blur. But a few patients stick out in my mind.
A father and son. The father had been shot through the abdomen, exited out through his back. He was in severe pain and couldn’t walk.
A young girl shot in the arm. Her parents carrying her.
A group of people doing CPR on a young lady. She had a gunshot wound to the head or neck. She was obviously dead. But they were still doing chest compressions in the middle of the field. I had to say to them: “She’s dead. You can’t save her. You need to get off the field.” But they wouldn’t stop. We picked her up and took her out while they continued to do CPR.
Later, I realized I knew that woman. She was part of a group of friends that we would see at the festival. I hadn’t recognized her. I also didn’t know that my friend Marco was there. A month or 2 later, we figured out that he was one of the people doing CPR. And I was the guy who came up and said his friend was dead.
Some people were so badly injured we couldn’t lift them. We started tearing apart the fencing used to separate the crowd and slid sections of the barricades under the wounded to carry them. We also carried off a bunch of people who were dead.
We were moving patients to a covered bar area where we thought they would be safer. What we didn’t know was there was an ambulance rally point at the very far end of the field. Unfortunately, we had no idea it was there.
I saw a lot of other first responders out there, people from the fire department, corpsmen from the Navy, medics. I ran into an anesthesia provider and a series of nurses.
When we got everybody off the field, we started moving them into vehicles. People were bringing their trucks up. One guy even stole a truck so he could drive people to the ED. There wasn’t a lot of triage. We were just stacking whoever we could into the backs of these pickups.
I tried to help a nurse taking care of a lady who had been shot in the neck. She was sitting sort of half upright with the patient lying in her arms. When I reached to help her, she said: “You can’t move her.”
“We need to get her to the hospital,” I replied.
“This is the only position that this lady has an airway,” she said. “You’re going to have to move both of us together. If I move at all, she loses her airway.”
So, a group of us managed to slide something underneath and lift them into the back of a truck.
Loading the wounded went on for a while. And then, just like that, everybody was gone.
I walked back out onto this field which not too long ago held 30,000 people. It was as if aliens had just suddenly beamed everyone out.
There was stuff on the ground everywhere – blankets, clothing, single boots, wallets, purses. I walked past a food stand with food still cooking on the grill. There was a beer tap still running. It was the weirdest feeling I’d ever had in my life.
After that, things got a little crazy again. There had been a report of a second shooter, and no one knew if it was real or not. The police started herding a group of us across the street to the Tropicana. We were still trying to take cover as we walked there. We went past a big lion statue in front of one of the casinos. I have a picture from two years earlier of me sitting on the back of that lion. I remember thinking: Now I’m hunkered down behind the same lion hiding from a shooter. Times change.
They brought about 50 of us into a food court, which was closed. They wouldn’t tell us what was going on. And they wouldn’t let us leave. This went on for hours. Meanwhile, I had dropped my cell phone on the field, so my wife couldn’t get hold of me, and later she told me she assumed I’d been shot. I was just hoping that she was safe.