The most-awaited part of the Route 91 Harvest Festival was hitting its groove when Montanans Michael Goguen and Jamie Stephenson found themselves in the middle of the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.
“Jason Aldean was the final act on the final night,” Stephenson said in a phone interview from Las Vegas on Monday. “The mood went from joyous ecstasy to hearing that rapid-fire sound. At first, we were super-confused as to what that was.”
Stephenson and husband Goguen, who founded Whitefish’s Two Bear Air helicopter rescue service, could see the Mandalay Bay Resort tower about 400 yards up to their right. At 10:08 p.m, a gunman on the 32nd floor started raining rifle fire into the crowd.
“I had seen some drones, and I thought it might be fireworks going off from a drone,” Goguen said. “But the mood shifted and the lights went out quick and the performers ran from the stage. There was a very long burst of automatic fire. My next thought was, now that we know it’s gunshots, somebody is actually shooting at people, intentionally causing this kind of panic. He had a shooting position all lined up.”
After first running for cover during the gunfire, Goguen and Stephenson ran back to give aid to the wounded and dying. The festival’s medical tent transformed into a trauma crisis center. Event security, arriving first responders and dozens of volunteers started helping the nearly 600 victims of the shooting.
“It all happened so swiftly,” Stephenson said. “People were clearly wounded, mortally, critically. Michael was stopping passenger vehicles, picking up people and putting them in cars, just finding random people on (the) way home. Some refused to stop. Others were so gracious. They put five people in one van. Whatever it took, these people stepped up and did the right thing.”
Goguen had received his own emergency medical technician certificate last year. While Two Bear Air has gone on at least 15 rescue missions in western Montana since he started it in 2012, nothing prepared him for Sunday night. As of Monday afternoon, the official toll was 59 killed, and more than 500 injured.
“The ambulances got there in fast time, but it sure felt like forever,” Goguen said. “There were a lot of victims with terrible injuries — multiple bullet wounds to the head and chest. We were trying to keep airways open, apply direct pressure. Fortunately there was a good set of people with training — EMTs, off-duty officers, a core set of people who were helping. The officers were incredibly brave. One officer by me was helping while holding compression on his own neck wound."
Goguen said at least three people died as he was trying to get them to aid. As he was helping load victims into ambulances on a side street, he saw several people who’d apparently died where they fell. He realized the shooter had picked a position where the field of fire included one of the main exits from the festival grounds.
“You just get so angry at whatever evil drives somebody to do something like this,” Goguen said. “There were so many people there, having such a positive time, in this atmosphere of happiness and love. To have somebody intentionally wreak such evil and carnage — it doesn’t inspire fear. It inspires extreme anger.”
Neither Stephenson nor Goguen was injured in the incident. Stephenson grew up in Las Vegas and still has many family and friends there.
“Vegas will rally,” she said. “We’ll get through this. We will not stop living our lives. We will not stop going out. We’ll figure out ways to unite.”
When Becky Anderson first heard the fire-cracker pops of explosives at the Harvest Festival in Las Vegas Sunday night, she was sure someone was lighting off fireworks in the crowd.
"Who would be that dumb?" she said thought in the moment.
It was then the firing started again and didn't stop. Anderson, from Great Falls, was at the music festival with five of her friends standing on the top row of a stand of bleachers. As soon as they realized they were hearing gunfire, they all took cover.
"We just laid down in between the bleacher seats," she said.
Another break in the shooting and Anderson remembers a man yelling at them that this was their chance to get up and run. It felt like they had been laying there for 30 or 45 minutes, Anderson said. It wasn't until Monday that she realized they'd been down between the bleacher for maybe 30 seconds.
Standing up to run, she looked across the festival grounds and saw "blood everywhere" and people who had been shot. She and one friend ran from the bleachers and followed a festival worker, whom they figured would know how to exit the venue.
"It was just crazy," she said.
Every so often, they'd hear more gunfire and drop to the ground for cover. She called those gunshots the most frightening sounds she's ever heard. Gun shots or shrapnel were hitting the metal bleachers, and people all over the grounds were screaming, she said.
"I was pretty sure we were going to die," she said. Still, "I stayed pretty calm because (my friend) was hysterical."
Anderson and her friend ended up at the MGM Grand, where staff were preparing to lock down the hotel. They didn't want to be stuck there, so Anderson and her friend slipped out the front and caught a cab back to their hotel, where they sat up all night watching the news.
"I have not slept yet," she said Monday afternoon. She was set to fly home Tuesday morning.
Anderson isn't sure what she's going home to. She hopes the tragedy and the terror of the shootings haven't changed her, but she knows it has.
"It hasn't sunk in yet," she said.
She loves big music festivals and attends them every year. She knows that will change.
"It'll be a while until I can go to another one," she said.
One floor down
At Mandalay Bay, Toby Schmidt and his fiance were on the casino floor Sunday night when they heard the first gunshots.
Schmidt, a Billings resident, had spent a year as a patrol officer for the Billings Police before starting his work as a computer technician there. He'd had enough active shooter training to know what was happening.
As dozens of police officers "carrying long guns" ran inside and up the stairs, "I knew things were going south," he said.
Schmidt would later learn that his hotel room was just one floor below the shooter.
Festival-goers began to stream into the hotel, coming from the concert grounds across the street and into the lobby. Schmidt said many of them were scraped and bruised; they all look terrified.
As it became clear the shooter was firing from a room at Mandalay Bay, Schmidt, his fiance, and others ran from the hotel and took shelter across the parking lot at the Luxor Resort and Casino. Officials at the Luxor took people and placed them in lockdown in a basement room usually reserved for employees.
"We had multiple people from the festival with us," he said.
Someone near them appeared to be shot, and those around the person were working to stop the bleeding.
"It makes you feel vulnerable," he said.
Law enforcement didn't clear the Luxor until about 5:30, Schmidt said, at which point they were let out of the basement. When they came out, the whole Las Vegas Strip was uncharacteristically quiet.
"It was pretty eerie," he said.
Checking on loved ones
Across town, Dustin Principe, who moved from Billings to Las Vegas a year ago, had spent the night trying to find his friend's mother and sister, who had been at the country music festival when the shooting began.
Principe is a showroom host for Paris Las Vegas and Bally's Hotel and was working Sunday night when the shooting happened. At first no one had any idea it had happened, Principe said.
But then he and his co-workers started receiving texts and messages from loved ones wondering if they were OK. It was long after that rumors of other shooters and hidden bombs began to spread.
"It started to get real panicky," he said.
Principe bolted the showroom before his hotel was placed on lock down, and that's when he got a message from his friend asking if he could pick up the friend's mom and sister.
Everyone was trying to get away from the venue, he said. He eventually found the two women about a mile away at the Tropicana. The mom had shielded the daughter from gunfire and saw the woman in front of her shot and killed. They were all in shock, he said.
"It was surreal," he said.
Principe spent the night checking whether friends and acquaintances were all right and responding to messages from others wondering if he was all right. Monday night's shows have all been canceled, he said.
It's hard to comprehend the scope of the tragedy or communicate the panic and the fear people felt Sunday night, he said.
"This definitely changes the future," he said.
'It was horrifying'
Lexie Andre, who grew up in Missoula and attended both Sentinel High School and Willard Alternative High School before moving to Las Vegas several years ago, said she and her friend were on the Las Vegas Strip during the shooting. One of her friends was at the concert and called Andre for a ride.
“We had gone to pick her up, and we saw bodies in the ground covered in sheets and people that had been shot,” she said. “It was horrifying. It was traumatizing. People were grabbing their arms and legs, bleeding everywhere. It was complete chaos.”
Andre said she and her friends were uninjured, but many people around them weren’t so lucky.
“It was like something out of a movie,” she said. “It didn’t even seem real. Even in the car we could hear him shooting. It sounded like fireworks. This guy was relentless.”
She said the scariest part was the fact that shooter was above everybody, so there didn’t seem to be anywhere to hide or run.
“I’ve never seen anything like that with bodies on the ground,” she said.