Las Vegas Sun

October 16, 2019

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Stories of heroism and resilience in the face of Las Vegas mass shooting tragedy

Greg Zanis

Mikayla Whitmore

A memorial at the Welcome To Las Vegas Sign on October 5, 2017 for the victims taken during the mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest festival this past Sunday.

The glow of the Las Vegas Strip is different. Candles flicker beneath the marquees, their boisterous messages replaced with one thought:

We’ve been there for you during the good times.

Thank you for being there for us now.


On Oct. 1, Stephen Craig Paddock smashed through the window of his hotel room on the 32nd floor of Mandalay Bay, overlooking the grounds of the Route 91 Harvest music festival. He could probably hear Jason Aldean’s voice before he opened fire on the crowd of 22,000 watching the singer close the show just after 10 p.m.

Fireworks, many thought, until bodies started dropping.

Paddock unleashed more than a dozen volleys over roughly 10 minutes before taking his own life under pressure from hotel security and Metro Police. His cache of guns had been modified for virtually automatic action so he could do as much damage as possible.

Survivors describe chaos, terror and carnage, captured in shaky cellphone videos and haunting pictures from photographers caught in the fray. One shared by freelancer David Becker shows three bodies heaped among plastic cups and beer cans, a woman’s bare legs streaked with blood.

When the shooting stopped, medical facilities were overrun. Almost 500 people were injured, and Sunrise Hospital took more than 200. Someone posted a photo of the hospital’s hallway, floor tiles covered in blood smears, gloves and other supplies abandoned in the crush of critical patients.

Other images from the horrific night tell stories of courage and decency. People fleeing the gunfire helped each other hop fences or tear them down so dozens more could follow. Some held pressure on wounds, shielding total strangers from the hail of bullets. First responders, both in the crowd and on duty, ran toward the danger, and police teams quickly contained it. Within a few hours, thousands of locals had lined up to give blood or showed up to volunteer wherever they were needed.

Still, at a time when the Strip should have been buzzing with life, the streets were empty.

The lights stayed on in the festival grounds for days as officials investigated and recovered bodies. And Mandalay Bay’s façade of molten gold stood marred by a busted window on a room equipped for war. One man killed 58 people and shattered the lives of countless others.

No motive has been revealed.

“How dare this rotten soul go ahead and do this to innocent people,” Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman said in a TV interview days after the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history.

Late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel, who grew up in Las Vegas, used his monologue to share his heartbreak, and anger over gun laws.

“It’s the kind of thing that makes you want to throw up, or give up,” he said. “It’s too much to even process. All these devastated families who now have to live with this pain forever because one person with a violent and insane voice in his head managed to stockpile a collection of high-powered rifles and used them to shoot people.”

So a city built for joy is wrapped in grief, even as positive action unfolds from the great halls of churches to the patios of bars. Shaken to its core, the community has responded with humanity and grit, committed to the Las Vegas idea.

As veteran Elvis impersonator Russ Powell said Wednesday afternoon on Fremont Street, Las Vegas makes people happy, and it won’t stop. –Erin Ryan



      After helping a woman over some barricades, Ajay Ford acted as her human shield in what had become a war zone.

      “She said, ‘I’m a nurse; I need to help these people. I’m going to use you as cover,’ ” he remembered. “And I said, ‘Let’s go.’ ”

      They saw haunting injuries, and as the nurse sprang into action, Ford, 25, came across a man groaning. Someone said his name was Chris, and Ford checked his pulse. It was strong, but he was lying in a pool of blood after being shot in the back of the head.

      Ford, a Las Vegas native who works at Desert Springs Pools & Spas and played baseball at College of Southern Nevada, called a friend who works as an EMT and applied pressure to Chris’ head.

      “I just kept telling him to hang on,” Ford said. “Keep fighting. Don’t quit. I must have told him to keep breathing 100 times. Chris was the first person I got to who was alive. There was no one with him, and I wasn’t going to leave him.”

      Ford stayed with Chris until someone brought over a guard rail to use as a gurney. He cushioned the wound with a denim jacket and dragged Chris out of danger and into the care of others. He then went back to help more people.

      The next day, Ford posted a message to Facebook, asking for updates about the man with the reddish hair and the black Georgia Bulldogs shirt.

      “I would love to find out if he’s alive so I could know that I helped,” Ford said. “And if he’s not alive, I just want his family to know he fought hard. He fought for a long time. We were there together for 30 to 45 minutes.”

      Ford spent Monday and much of Tuesday watching the news and checking social media, pouring through video tributes hoping not to see Chris’ face.

      Chris Hazencomb, of Camarillo, Calif., died at the hospital at 10:50 a.m. Monday morning. He was the 58th confirmed death in the shooting. –Dave Mondt


      An off-duty Henderson firefighter and paramedic, Brian Feliz directed those around him to shelter during the first bursts of shooting. “We found space between the fence and the suites, and I just started feeding people into the area for protection,” said Feliz, 39, a Southern Nevada resident since 1996. “I started picking people up, grabbing people and telling them, ‘You’ve got to get up, you have to keep going to a dark place for protection, behind buses and cars.”

      Then they heard the pinging of bullets piercing the walls Feliz had hoped would shield them. “I knew we were in a bad spot,” he said, adding that the group would move four times in search of safety.

      Some people started climbing the perimeter fence, but for everyone to escape, that would take more time than Feliz was willing to spend. So he and some other men tore it down. “It was like the floodgates opened then,” he said.

      Once relatively safe, Feliz switched into work mode to help the wounded, including one woman who had been shot in both hands while trying to protect her head.

      “I got lucky. My friend got lucky. His wife got lucky. Maybe there’s a reason me and all these other off-duty people were at the concert,” he said. “I’m not an especially religious person, but I do believe there’s a reason for people to be where they’re at.” –DM


      In 10 years together, Pat and Colli Amico have attended many Route 91 Harvest festivals, often with Pat’s children or grandchildren in tow. This year, a friend gave them VIP tickets to the festival’s Neon Lounge, so the couple went alone.

      While Jason Aldean was playing, they started walking to their truck to avoid the traffic. “We took about 25 steps, and we heard what most said were fireworks, but I saw the sparks fly from the pole holding up the Neon Lounge sign,” said Pat, who covered Colli with his body at the feet of a man in a camp chair who still thought it was fireworks. “People went down; they were hit. The bullets were pinging around us. … I took her hand and I said, ‘We’re going to walk, not run. We don’t want to get trampled.’ ”

      As the couple made their way across the grounds, another round of bullets rang out. Colli jumped on top of another woman, and Pat shielded both of them.

      “He had a perfect line of sight; he was just following the crowd,” Pat said of the shooter.

      The three of them made it to the truck, and Pat called out to others to jump in the back, telling them to lie flat. He says eight or nine people piled on top of each other, including a girl who was shot as they drove onto East Reno Avenue. Pat tried to get the attention of an ambulance racing toward the festival, blaring his horn and flashing his lights. When another followed, he maneuvered his vehicle to block it. Once the paramedics understood, Pat said, they reacted with incredible speed.

      Those who weren’t injured remained in the care of Pat and Colli. When they were a safe distance away, he pulled over, made sure everyone called their loved ones, and took them where they needed to go. “I’m not a hero, I did what anyone else would,” Pat said. “I saw heroes running into the line of fire, young men and women in uniform, police officers and paramedics. I saw heroes.” –Camalot Todd


      Not long after Kari Philbeck realized the loud pops piercing the night weren’t fireworks, the 40-year-old Las Vegan heard another strange sound — her husband’s voice. “It was a voice I never heard him use before. And I’ve been with him since we were teenagers.”

      Married for 16 years, he is a general contractor and she is a sales executive with Coca-Cola. Before the shooting, Kari was entertaining clients on the third floor of a building her company rented to the right of the stage. The “fireworks” started just as she rejoined Mike on the field.

      “I froze, and my husband pushed me in the trailer,” she said. “He never went down, but the rest of us were on the ground, and then he went into Marine mode. He kept going out while the shots were firing and grabbing people and throwing them into our suite.”

      When Mike decided the suite wasn’t safe and they needed to move, not everyone thought it was a good idea. That’s when Kari saw another side of her husband. “It was just a different voice,” she said. “He yelled, ‘Sitting in this room and not moving puts us more at risk. We have to move.’ ”

      Mike never saw combat in the Marines. His job was in logistics. While he thinks his training may have helped Sunday night, he says he was simply doing his best to keep himself and everyone around him alive. “Survival kicked in. I thought, I’m not going to sit here and be a victim,” Mike said. “You couldn’t tell where the firing was coming from. It felt so close. It felt like someone was coming through the crowd toward us.”

      The group made headway, but Mike had to save Kari from her own instincts when she ran into a crawl space and froze.

      “Time slowed down,” she said. “You could hear the bullets. ... I saw everything I’ve done wrong. I was telling God I was sorry. Mike and my co-workers were screaming my name, telling me to get out. He held my face and said, ‘We’re going to run. You will run.’ ”

      Kari watched her husband scoop up others frozen with terror on the way to safety over a brick wall parallel to Tropicana Avenue.

      He thinks there’s only one motive that explains Paddock’s actions. “I think it was an evil person who deliberately plotted and planned it. Of course the media will find all kinds of excuses, like divorce or money problems or this, that or whatever. But he intended on doing harm for whatever reason,” Mike said. “I don’t believe people snap. You don’t drive from Mesquite and plan for three days when you snap. He knew exactly what he was doing.” –Thomas Moore


      “You hear about attacks all around the world, but the feeling is so different when it happens in your city,” said Luzana Flores. The 23-year-old musician moved to Las Vegas a year ago from Columbus, Ga., and the shooting unfolded a few freeway exits from her apartment.

      Both anemic and unable to give blood, she and her friend Reina Hohener organized a donation drive hosted by downtown’s Bunkhouse, and their friend Heather Toledo managed distribution. On Facebook, Flores expressed her surprise at the turnout for something put together by “a group of 20-year-olds playing it by ear.”

      As a result of the drive, supplies were delivered to the Las Vegas Convention Center, Sunrise and UMC hospitals, homeless shelters and police stations, and snack packages were given to those waiting in line to give blood. “The magnitude of Sunday inspired a lot of people to go out and do whatever it took to get back on our feet,” Flores said. –CT


      Denisse Simbulan married Emmanuel Mojica Sept. 30 at Boulder Creek Golf Club. He sported a purple tux and bow tie; she dazzled in a stunning white mermaid gown and cathedral veil. Just over 24 hours later, Denisse left her new husband alone in their honeymoon suite, grabbed her scrubs and headed to the hospital where she worked.

      “I would be lying if I said I wanted her to go,” says Emmanuel, a middle school choir teacher. “I was afraid for her, and I wanted to continue celebrating our wedding and first day being married.” But Denisse wanted to be where she was needed, despite having taken the entire week off for her wedding.

      Sunrise Hospital was the closest to the incident and took on hundreds of patients, and the nurse spent hours assisting victims with noncritical injuries.

      Afterward, she told her new husband she “didn’t do as much as you’d think, she just went into work.” But Emmanuel knows every person on staff that night helped save lives by keeping the hospital operating in an overflow capacity. He says his love and respect for his wife has only grown deeper because of it.

      Online, a photo showing one of the hospital’s hallway floors smeared with blood is circulating. “I used to joke with her that I could never work as a nurse because of all the blood and other things they have to clean up,” Emannuel says. “I will never joke about that again.” –April Corbin


      A student at Basic Academy and a longtime fan of Jason Aldean, 17-year-old Bailey Thompson arrived at the Route 91 Harvest festival late.

      Less than an hour later, he was tying T-shirts around strangers’ wounds, creating tourniquets to prevent them from bleeding to death. “There was a young woman who had been separated from her friend. She was shot in the leg, or foot,” Thompson said, unsure of the memory because he helped so many wounded. “I got a belt from a buddy and tied it around her. My No. 1 thing was to stop the bleed, to cut off circulation so she stayed coherent.”

      Thompson will join the U.S. Army next year and has been part of the Boulder City Police Department Explorers program, which gives 16- to 20-year-olds the opportunity to shadow police officers. At the concert shooting, he said he aided more than a dozen people who had been shot, in between rounds of gunfire.

      “When I got home at about 4:30 a.m., I was covered in blood,” he said.

      The experience, Thompson said, makes him consider medical training in the Army. And when his time serving his country is through? “I’m dead-set on being a police officer (in Southern Nevada). “This is the place for me. I’m battle born, and that’s how I’m gonna stay.” –DM


      Click to enlarge photo

      Nick Robone and Billy Tufano

      Billy Tufano and five friends were watching Jason Aldean’s closing set when the first shots rang out.

      “We thought someone was throwing firecrackers at the ground,” Tufano said.

      When someone pinpointed the shooting coming from Mandalay Bay, they knew they had to get out.

      “I turned around, and my friend Nick was coughing up blood; there was blood coming from his nose. His brother Anthony split the group up.”

      Tufano and Anthony Robone, a trained paramedic, stayed with Nick as their friends rushed Anthony’s girlfriend Danielle to safety. Tufano described the scene as mayhem. “Dozens of people were shot, many were critically injured,” he said. “In that situation, five minutes feels like an hour.”

      Tufano applied pressure to the bullet wound in Nick’s chest while Anthony raced to the nearest medic tent for a first-aid kit. Once the wound was wrapped and Nick was on his way to Sunrise Hospital, the pair helped more people on the field.

      “It was like Anthony kicked into his paramedic mode,” Tufano said. “Everyone was helping everyone. People were taking their belts and making tourniquets.”

      Tuesday morning, Tufano was happy to report that Nick was stable. He has known the Robone brothers for 20 years, as they grew up here playing hockey together.

      “Las Vegas is small, but that community that was there, human nature took over,” Tufano said. “Hundreds, if not thousands, of people helped because it was the right thing to do. ... It’s nice to know there’s more good people outweighing the bad.” –CT


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      Raymond Certeza and his dog Coco comfort a woman taking shelter at the Thomas & Mack Center after the shooting.

      When Raymond Certeza heard on the news that UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center had been opened to stranded festivalgoers and tourists after the Oct. 1 shooting, he sprang into action. Despite having left the Strip only hours earlier when his shift at a Mirage restaurant ended, the cook grabbed all the snacks, cellphone chargers and bottles of water inside his home and headed toward the center. And his dachshund-pitbull mix Coco came with him.

      When they got to the Thomas & Mack, busloads of people had already been dropped off — women holding the cowboy boots that had blistered their feet as they ran for their lives, men limping on ankles sprained after jumping over barricades, and jetlagged tourists with suitcases who’d gotten stuck on shuttles when the south Strip shut down. Certeza walked up to many of them and offered Pop-Tarts, cuddles with Coco and a bright smile on the darkest of nights. When he came across two tourists who needed to get to the Venetian, he drove them himself. Then, he drove back to the Thomas & Mack for more.

      As the hours passed and the death toll grew, so did the number of volunteers like Certeza. Lyft and Uber drivers walked the hall announcing free rides for anyone who had someplace to go. Locals dropped off food, water and coats. By the time the sun began peeking over the horizon, there was a crate of tangerines, freshly baked donuts and coffee waiting for the dozens of people who’d slept in plastic arena chairs or blankets laid on the concourse floor.

      Click to enlarge photo

      People wait to donate blood at the United Blood Services location on Whitney Ranch Drive, Monday, Oct. 2, 2017, after a mass shooting on the Las Vegas Strip.

      It was the beginning of an overwhelming community response.

      Lines to donate blood formed at 4 a.m., just six hours after the shooting started. By the afternoon, United Blood Services was booking donations days out.

      Clark County Commission Chairman Steve Sisolak started a GoFundMe page Monday hoping to raise $500,000 for the victims. As this story posted, more than $10.2 million had been raised, with the goal upped to $15 million.

      Nonprofits received such an overflow of donations that they began directing people to others around town. And dozens of businesses of all sizes and stripes offered free services to victims and their families, from trauma counseling to airline flights.

      Before the full magnitude of the crisis was known on Sunday night, Las Vegans were out in force on Facebook, offering rides, places to stay and whatever else was needed, their locations and cell numbers shared without pause. Some of them ended up with Certeza at the Thomas & Mack, wanting desperately to help.

      “Whatever we can do,” he said, “we gotta do.” –AC & CT