Two South Valley couples – three law officers and a nurse – were among the thousands attending the Route 91 Harvest country music festival in Las Vegas when bullets starting flying in the worst mass shooting in modern American history.
Before the long night had ended, each would volunteer their time and special expertise to help shooting victims as first responders. Despite having no uniforms or protective gear, they sprang into action and saved lives while risking their own. They also saw death up close – including one that hit especially hard because they had tried valiantly to save the victim’s life.
All said they’re still dealing with the emotional trauma.
The mass shooting occurred Oct. 1 when Stephen Paddock, 64, fired onto the crowd from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Hotel, killing 58 and wounding almost 500. He took his own life, and the motive for his shooting at concertgoers remains unknown.
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Four Kern County residents were killed – Jack Beaton, 54, Bailey Schweitzer, 20, Victor Link, 55, and Kelsey Meadows, 28, a 2011 Fresno State grad who was working as a substitute teacher at Taft High.
A Sanger woman, Jessica Milam, 23, was injured and had surgery to remove a bullet fragment from her lung. She remained in intensive care this week but has been taken off a ventilator, her family reported.
Moved to the bleachers
Ronnie and Maria Reyes of Hanford were near the stage waiting for Jason Aldean to perform when Maria said, “I’m kind of tired, let’s go to the bleachers.”
That decision probably saved their lives, said Ronnie, a correctional officer who grew up in Hanford.
Ronnie and Maria, a dialysis nurse, had been to the Route 91 festival before and were attending the three-day event with Ronnie’s cousin and his wife from Porterville, and three other friends. The cousin and his wife were in the bleachers, while the others already had returned to their hotel when the shooting began.
About three or four songs into Aldean’s set, everyone heard a popping sound.
“We heard the first shots, they sounded like fireworks,” Ronnie said. Then a strange noise came out of the speakers.
“Then the lights went out on the stage,” he said. “We looked to the left and I saw people running and someone said, ‘Someone’s shooting!’ We started hearing shots fired.”
Ronnie, Maria and others crawled under the portable bleachers and took cover.
“I jumped on my wife and covered her,” he said. “She was panicking. We started saying prayers. Bullets were ricocheting and you were hearing bullets everywhere. It was really scary. Everyone was panicking.”
There were 100 to 200 people hiding under the bleachers. No one knew where the shots were coming from.
“It was five or six minutes” of shooting, he said. “It felt like an eternity.”
At one point, Ronnie ventured out to assess what was happening. “You could see people on the ground, people were screaming, it was horrible,” he said. “It looked like a war zone.”
He saw two girls frozen in fear. “I went over there and said ‘Hey, get behind the bleachers,’ ” he said. He also saw a man standing out in the open while holding a beer. Reyes said he used profane language while urging the man to seek cover.
The shooting started again, and this time “I could see a red light from the hotel,” Ronnie said, which he figured was coming from a gun muzzle. “I think it’s a sniper,” he shouted to those hiding under the bleachers.
“We started telling people to get their loved ones,” he said. “It was awesome, everyone listened. We ran outside to a gate and ran across the street to the Tropicana.”
Inside the Tropicana, “there was a girl sitting with blood coming out of her leg,” Ronnie said.
Maria stopped to help. A man removed his shirt to use as a bandage and Ronnie asked a girl for her belt, which Maria used on the victim’s thigh as a tourniquet. The girl had been shot in the abdomen and the bullet also hit her leg.
We looked to the left and I saw people running and someone said, ‘Someone’s shooting!’
Ronnie Reyes, Hanford
Meanwhile, people were bringing in victims: a man grazed in the arm by a bullet, a woman shot in the calf, a man, perhaps dead, being moved in a laundry cart.
The Reyeses left the Tropicana and, through a fence, spied a victim on the ground being given chest compressions. “We said a prayer for him,” Ronnie said. They saw a pickup carrying seven or eight people in the bed.
They phoned family and friends, including a relative in Las Vegas. He arrived and drove them to his apartment. The Reyeses then watched TV and could hardly sleep. “My adrenaline was so high,” Ronnie said.
The next day, they drove home to Hanford, stopping to get coffee and seeing people wearing the purple wristbands used to get into the concert. People asked each other how they were doing, he said: “ ‘You OK? You doing OK?’ A lot of hugs, and lot of handshakes.”
Jumping into action
Steve and Celeste Sanchez were attending the Route 91 festival for the first time. Their sons, ages 5 and 15, had stayed behind in Visalia.
Steve, a SWAT sergeant with the Tulare County Sheriff’s Department, and Celeste, a detective in the Visalia Police Department violent crimes unit, were standing near the stage on the Mandalay Bay Hotel side when the first shots rang out.
“My husband asked, ‘Are those gunshots?’ ” Celeste recalled. She saw what looked like smoke but decided later was dust from bullets hitting the dirt.
“When it started again, I knew it was gunshots,” she said. “Everyone started dropping to the ground.”
They did not know where the gunfire was coming from and initially believed someone in the crowd had opened fire.
Behind them, they heard someone shout, “She’s been shot.”
They crawled to the victim and identified themselves as off-duty cops. A bullet had gone through a woman’s arm and into her chest. “Someone wrapped a T-shirt around her arm,” Celeste said. She told the woman she was going to be OK. Her name was Dana.
“There was a break in the gunfire,” Celeste said. “We made the determination she needed to be moved.”
With help from an off-duty Orange County sheriff’s deputy and the woman’s grown daughter, they carried her, but “we could hear the gunshots again,” she said. All took cover behind a 3-foot-high wall set up as part of a backstage liquor bar.
The gunshots just kept going
Detective Celeste Sanchez, Visalia Police Department
A woman screamed that the gunman was in the area. Steve shielded Celeste with his body to protect her. “I thought the guy was going to get us,” he said. “I had 20 different emotions going through me.”
It never seemed to end.
“The gunshots just kept going,” Celeste said. ”The minutes felt like hours. We couldn’t move. I kept thinking ‘We can’t die over here, I need to get home to our boys’ … It would not stop. It was so scary.”
Steve said he knew from his time at the firing range it was automatic weapons fire.
“He’d shoot, it stopped for 15 to 20 seconds and it would start again … It was extremely chaotic.”
When it seemed safe, “we all lifted her up again” and yelled for help to carry Dana. “Everyone was running,” she said.
They spotted a police officer. He told them there was medical help in a nearby parking lot. But when they arrived at the lot, “there was no triage, no ambulance.” They saw bodies.
Steve flagged down a pickup. Volunteers put the woman into the truck and the driver drove off with her and another victim.
The Sanchezes returned to the concert grounds. Steve identified himself as a SWAT sergeant and joined a group of Las Vegas police officers clearing the grounds of people. Celeste went searching for victims. “I knew there were other wounded people,” she said. “I didn’t realize the magnitude.”
Celeste found a man leaning over a woman. The man waved his arm across the scene of crumpled bodies and told Celeste that all were dead. “Up until that moment, I didn’t realize how many were hurt,” she said.
She found a man who appeared to be wounded. “I asked him if he was OK,” she said. “He said, ‘My wife ... ’ I checked her pulse. She was already deceased.”
Some were obviously dead, but others were still alive. Rescuers used sections of fencing as makeshift gurneys to carry victims. Celeste helped carry a woman to the House of Blues.
She returned to the scene. “It felt like there was no end,” she said.
Meanwhile, after helping Las Vegas police clear the area, Steve found a yellow plastic wheelbarrow used to bring ice backstage. With help from a Los Angeles County firefighter and a trauma surgeon, they used it to move the wounded.
One victim was shot in the torso but was conscious and could talk. Another was shot in the ankle, yet another in the right leg.
One man near the stage was dead from a bullet to the head. Because of his law enforcement background, Steve insisted the body had to stay in place for the crime scene investigation, he said.
We found people who were shot and loaded them up in the wheelbarrow.
Sgt. Steve Sanchez, Tulare County Sheriff’s Department
When Steve and Celeste reunited later, a Las Vegas officer thanked them and told them the gunfire came from the Mandalay Bay Hotel and that a SWAT team had gone in and the sniper was dead.
They had been there 1 1/2 to two hours. “We were still in shock,” she said. “We looked at each other. Oh my God, what just happened?”
They went to their hotel, but it was on lockdown and the security guard said they could not enter. They explained they were off-duty police.
“We had blood on us,” she said. “He let us go to our room.”
They turned on the TV and heard the announcer say two had been killed and 20 wounded. They knew that couldn’t be right. They called home to tell loved ones they were OK. They could not sleep.
The next day, he and his wife drove back to Visalia.
“That was the longest six-hour drive home,” he said. “We cried. We tried to debrief each other.”
After getting home, Steve went online to find a list of victims who died. Near the top was this name: Dana Gardner, 52, of San Bernardino. It was the woman they tried to save.
“I had survivor guilt,” Steve said. “I thought to myself, ‘What if we had gotten her out a minute earlier?’ ”
He found Dana’s daughter on Instagram, and she replied.
“The doctor said the shot was fatal,” Steve said. “There was nothing we could have done.” They hope to attend the funeral, and find out the name of the Orange County deputy.
Everyone from Sheriff Mike Boudreaux on down has been “tremendously supportive,” he said.
“I don’t feel like a hero,” Steve said. “A majority of all cops would have done the same thing. I just did what the human thing is. I’m so glad we made it out alive.”