It began as a girls’ weekend in Las Vegas, three Napa women enjoying country music by the Strip. It ended in a gauntlet of gunfire, panic and death all around them — the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history.
More than 22,000 spectators packed an outdoor arena Sunday night for the finale of the Route 91 Harvest festival, where the country star Jason Aldean took the stage as the final act.
Fifty yards away, stage left, Sonya Sparks Niebling settled in her lawn chair, as did her adult daughter Jenica Fox and Niebling’s friend Patti Myers. The Vegas weekend at Route 91 had become a tradition for the three in recent years, along with other festivals on the West Coast.
Fifteen minutes in, during Aldean’s third song, Niebling heard it.
“Everyone was standing and dancing, and then you heard a pop-pop-pop-pop and it sounded like firecrackers. And then tons of gunfire came and the speakers blew,” she said Monday morning by telephone from her hotel in Las Vegas, less than 12 hours after the attack at the festival ground below the Mandalay Bay hotel.
“All of a sudden the music stopped. Everyone was screaming and it was like, ‘OK, something happened,’” said Myers. “We thought it was some crackling on the speakers.
“Then all of a sudden, everyone started running. You saw people falling, dead or maybe injured.”
“There were three big shots, off in the distance,” recalled Fox. “At first I thought, ‘Are they lighting fireworks off the Strip?’ but I didn’t see anything and I told Patti, ‘Well, that’s weird.’ Then I started hearing weird shots, almost like an electrical sound. I looked at my mom and then the stage went dark.
“Then I saw people getting hit and falling, and I told my mom, ‘Get down. Get down on the ground!’ She was panicking and I said, ‘You need to get down!’
“We saw falling, blood, screaming and more gunfire and it didn’t stop for the longest time,” Niebling continued, frequently pausing for tears and gasps. “We threw ourselves on the ground, and we put our lawn chairs on top of us and laid over each other. Then other people said to us, ‘Get up! Go! Run!’
“We just saw people falling, bam, bam, bam, bam. People are getting shot; we just saw people falling and trampled and blood, blood everywhere, and people with babies and strollers and people in wheelchairs all trying to get out.”
The chaotic flight of terrified fans-turned-targets left the three Napa women scrambling for a way out.
“We started crawling on the ground and more and more people were trampling each other and running,” Fox said. “I said, ‘We have to get up and go!’ There was nowhere to exit; people were shoving their way under the bleachers. There was a lady next to me who had her son who looked about 12, and her baby in a front pack. It was pretty much chaos.
“The shots would fire again and we’d had to get down on the ground. They kept coming and coming and I thought, ‘When will it stop?’ I thought the shooter was on the ground, the way everyone was reacting.”
In the blind chaos of thousands fleeing gunfire seemingly coming from all directions, Niebling, her daughter and her friend scrambled toward a beer booth, only to find a gate barring the way out.
“Some guys that were really strong – or had lots of adrenalin – they moved the gate away for us,” recalled Myers. “We were afraid of being trampled; you think of it happening in the movies, but you don’t think it can happen here in real life.”
When the shooting finally stopped, the three women ran from the arena and across a parking lot toward the Tropicana hotel. Once there, they first took cover in a hallway, then hid for about an hour behind the Tropicana’s registration desk with about 20 others, according to Niebling.
Later, security guards announced that no gunman was in the Tropicana – contradicting wildfire online rumors of assaults on multiple Vegas hotels – but also ordered people to stay where they were while a SWAT team swept the premises.
“People were screaming, bloodied, saying they couldn’t find their sons or daughters,” said Niebling. “They were helping this one girl who was having a panic attack. It’s all a blur.”
Around 2:30 a.m. – four hours after the shooting began – a public-address announcement called on those fleeing the attack to go to a downstairs conference room where police officers frisked people and checked their bags.
Finally, at 5 a.m., Niebling, Fox, Myers and the others were allowed to leave the Tropicana and return to their own hotels. Shortly thereafter, Las Vegas police identified the killer as 64-year-old Stephen Paddock of Mesquite, Nevada, who was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot near the smashed-out window of a 32nd-floor room at Mandalay Bay – the place authorities said was the launching point for the massacre.
Videos and photos of the shooting proliferated on social media within minutes, but Niebling instead reached out to her husband, Jon, while she could.
“I called him right as it was happening – told him we were being shot at, and we didn’t know what was going on,” she said. “We really thought we were going to die. Everyone was falling around us.
As the hundreds of rounds rained down on concertgoers, Myers also put in a hurried call to her 24-year-old son, Matt. “I told him I loved him, didn’t even know if I would live to tell him, and he could hear the shots in the background,” she said.
As of Monday afternoon, at least 59 people had died and more than 500 were wounded, according to authorities. But Niebling and her traveling companions escaped physical injury, save for some scrapes from crawling down to lay low during the gunfire.
Their emotions were another matter.
“I keep hearing the screams and the shots,” she said, her voice seizing. “It didn’t sound like it was ever going to stop. It just went on and on and on and on.”
Patti Myers’ sister was arranging to drive her back to California – and already, she could not imagine herself returning to the Las Vegas music festival, or any event remotely as large.
“I’m leaving for Ireland on Wednesday, and I don’t know if I can be around all the crowds,” she said. “You can’t even know what it’s like; the sounds that sound like a gunshot are embedded in my head. They just keep going over and over and over.”
Fox, who with her mother was to fly home to the Bay Area later Monday, wanted to believe she could keep up her concert trips, but admitted “I’m not quite sure yet.
“I feel you shouldn’t live in fear, but … I don’t know. Is a Giants game going to be next?”