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October 23, 2018

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A set of twins, linked by duty as one finds himself in line of fire

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Ronda Churchill / The New York Times

Detective Casey Clarkson, right, and his twin brother, Sgt. Branden Clarkson, both of Metro Police, Oct. 6, 2017. Wounded in the neck during the mass shooting, Casey continued to brave the gunfire, guiding victims to safety.

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It was the first overtime shift Detective Casey Clarkson had worked in four years. But he wanted the money, and he figured a country music festival would be fun.

Just before 10 p.m. Sunday, he and his partner helped a drunken woman stumbling along the Las Vegas Strip get a cab, the kind of task he expected for the night.

Then he heard the shots.

Sgt. Branden Clarkson was just going to bed at his home a few miles away when he got a call from a friend about an active shooter. Clarkson, who helps run Metro Police’s training program to deal with such incidents, started throwing on his clothes and, knowing his twin brother was on duty, texted him: “Hey bro, you ok?”

“And I don’t hear from him,” Branden Clarkson would later recall, “so I’m just assuming he’s handling business.”

He was. Over the next half-hour, Casey Clarkson ushered people to safety, directed them out of the line of fire, and then, moving past the unsaveable, took wounded people to vehicles that would rush them to hospitals.

Branden Clarkson, meanwhile, was at the police department’s command post, helping direct officers and keeping track of who was where on a whiteboard.

Finally, a lieutenant came up to him and said, “Hey, your brother is OK.”

“And I’m like, OK, cool,” he said.

But his brother was not exactly OK. “Then she said: ‘He’s at Valley Hospital, you know, he got shot in the neck,'” Branden Clarkson recalled.

“And my stomach dropped and I’m like, ‘Oh my god.'”

On the whiteboard, under the names of the injured, he wrote his brother’s name.

How a pair of 33-year-old twins wound up in the midst of one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history is a reflection of the incomprehensible scale of the tragedy. All hands were on deck, and since policing is a family business, it was not surprising that both brothers would be called into action.

But the brothers’ roles could hardly have been more different. One brother carried out careful plans he helped devise. The other had little to guide him but instinct, duty and fear.

“I think about it now and it sounds stupid, but I’m just like, you know what, if I am going to die I want to be helping people,” Casey Clarkson said in an interview Thursday, the day after he met President Donald Trump during his visit to Las Vegas. “You just want to do something. You feel helpless.”

Police officials say they are still at a loss to explain why the gunman, Stephen Paddock, 64, had brought an arsenal of rifles up to his suite on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay, smashed out two windows and opened fire on the concert crowd, killing 58 and wounding nearly 500 before killing himself.

Local and federal officials are sounding increasingly desperate for leads, after announcing plans Friday to erect billboards with the message, “If you know something, say something.”

The Clarkson brothers said they knew such an event could eventually happen. Every officer on the force has completed drills on worst-case scenarios, including gunfire coming from the towering casino resorts.

“The inevitable,” Casey Clarkson called it, but it was still surreal.

The twins’ mother, Brandi Lewis, was the first in the family to join the police department as an administrative manager, a civilian job she had for more than 20 years before recently retiring. As children, they loved hearing the stories their stepfather, Capt. Dave Lewis, brought home. Dave Lewis worked his way up the ranks and now runs the department’s crime lab.

As one of the top-ranked officers, Lewis received a recorded call Sunday night telling him of the active shooter. As he put on his uniform to head to the Mandalay Bay, he heard that two officers had been shot, and one in the neck, but not their names. (The other officer was shot in the arm and survived; additionally, an off-duty officer attending the concert was killed.)

The brothers are “mirror” twins — Casey, the older one by five minutes, is the more outgoing of the two, and left-handed; Branden, the more cerebral, is right-handed. As kids, their mother encouraged them to take up paintball, figuring it would offer them training they would need if they went into the military or law enforcement. They signed up for the police academy the moment they turned 21.

The brothers are often mistaken for one another, although because Casey spends much of his time lifting weights and Branden is recovering from back surgery, Casey is the beefier of the two now. He also is the only one with a bandage on his neck.

When he first heard the shots, he said, he asked his partner, Detective Tara Brosnahan: “What the hell was that?”

They walked down the street and heard the shots again. “434,” Brosnahan yelled into her police radio, using the official term for illegal gunfire. She was the first officer to alert the shooting.

Casey Clarkson started running along the perimeter of the concert area, larger than the size of two football fields. “It was all under attack,” he said.

He pushed fans down toward a waist-high brick wall. The bullets started falling toward his feet. He felt a couple whiz by.

With his pistol in his left hand — he does not recall unholstering it, saying it got there “like a magic trick” — he scurried behind a van, convinced a gunman could approach at any second. He did not know where the bullets were coming from, only that they kept coming.

As he stood over his partner, she told him: “Casey, you’re bleeding from the neck.”

Perhaps it was the adrenaline, but he felt nothing. “I kept thinking, how come I am not dead yet?” he said. There was work to do: “I figured I’d get lightheaded and would know I needed to stop then.”

The gunshots continued. Someone suggested escorting fans out two at a time. “No way,” Clarkson said he replied. There were too many. People had to be ushered through fences five at a time.

There were bodies everywhere, and now people were looking at him, wondering if he was going to become one, too. His partner used her fingers to put pressure on the wound. They made their way to the concert’s medical tent, where a nurse told him the blood was not squirting out, but rather dribbling.

Somewhat relieved, the partners made their way to their police SUV, taking several other wounded people with them to the hospital. Casey Clarkson’s wife, Tara, met him there. The injury, a wound about the size of a nickel, was sewn up with a few stitches. He said he still does not know if it came from a bullet or shrapnel.

At the command center, his brother tried to keep his mind off his twin by focusing on the momentous task at hand. “The command staff kept coming up to me and saying, ‘Hey Branden, are you OK, do you need to get out of here and go to the hospital?'” he said. “And I said, ‘Well, you know, my brother is OK, there’s a lot of work to get done.”

Casey was soon released from the hospital, rejecting an offer of morphine so that he could be clear-minded and get back to the scene.

He went first to the command post. When he appeared, the place fell silent. The brothers hugged.

And then, Branden said, he told his twin: “I’m glad you’re OK, but we’re really busy. I’m going to need you to check in with the staging area because you’ve got to get redeployed.”

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