It was the morning of October 1st, 2017. Like the rest of that weekend, which I had spent at the Route 91 Harvest Festival In Las Vegas, NV, I had awoken a bit hungover from the events of the day prior. But this day was different, or at least it was going to be. It was fairly easy to get up knowing that it was the final day/night of the Festival; it was also easy because my Nephew Brantley had just been born the night before. I rolled out of bed and went straight to the hospital to see my brother and his girlfriend and to meet my nephew. I had waited for so long for this moment; I held him, talked to him and just enjoyed the precious family time. Since I live in Austin now, rather than Las Vegas, it's uncertain how often I'll get to be part of moments like these. I then left the hospital and went straight to my friend Katie's house, where we could continue to do what we'd been doing for the past two days: sing and laugh the whole drive down to the strip, park over at the Luxor and then endure the long walk to the festival grounds. I remember every aspect of the day so vividly -- starting with a Snapchat video of two very hungover people in front of the Luxor shouting, "Let the final day begin!"
Once we got into the festival, we met up with some of our other friends and swapped stories of the previous night before going our separate ways (everyone had different spots they liked to be in for the concerts). My friends Katie, Anthony and I were lucky enough to get VIP Suite passes for the weekend, which gave us our own little space away from the usual shoulder to shoulder crowds. Despite the VIP suite sounding luxurious, it wasn't; we had Suite 6 in what was basically a makeshift 3 story building. The first "floor" was an outside grass/lounge area, the second floor being a small room with a balcony and the third floor was just a flat space on top of the "box." After each artist performed, I'd go down to meet my friends and just kind of hang out and talk until the next performance would start. My friend Megan and I snapped a photo just as Jason Aldean was about to start and she said, "We're going to get closer to the stage." I made my way up to the 2nd floor of our suite where we watched Jason Aldean from the Balcony. At 10:05 pm, when we heard 2-3 gun shots, our lives changed forever.
Confused and not quite knowing what was going on, we really didn't do anything, at least not right away. After all, we were outside on the Las Vegas Strip, where there's noise just about everywhere and in every direction. So really, there was nothing too alarming about hearing a few pops. Soon afterward, though, is when the first long round of gunfire began. It was really confusing; we still didn't really move or know what was happening. I could see in the corner of my eye a huge part of the crowd begin to run, which is when I knew something was going on, even if I didn't know exactly what. That's when Jason Aldean ran off the stage and the lights turned onto the crowd. At this time, we were on the ground and making our way inside the small room of our suite. There were about 13 or so of us in this small room, each and every one of them more confused than the last. Some people were saying that it was gunfire, others insisted that what we heard was merely someone playing a joke with fireworks. Finally, I decided to take a look outside and see what was happening.
I stood in front of our window, which was facing the Mandalay Bay. I could see people running, people jumping over barriers, people on the ground everywhere. It was an open field with really nowhere to go. I noticed a girl running towards our suite, basically running through this open field of bodies and cans. That's when another round of gunfire began. I watched as she was running towards our area, one of the only spots with any sort of coverage from gunfire. Suddenly, she was hit in the head and fell to the ground, motionless. This all seemed like it took place over several minutes, but really, it was only a matter of seconds. That's when I knew it was an active shooter and we could possibly die trying to get out of there.
At this point, we were all laying on the ground of our suite. For some reason at that moment, the Pulse nightclub tragedy popped into my head. I remember that the people inside Pulse were all calling their parents or loved ones, all trying to let them know what was happening. For some, those were the last calls or texts they ever sent. I decided right then that if my Mom was going to hear about what was happening, she needed to hear it from me. It was after midnight back in Austin at this point, so I knew that the odds of her answering were about 50/50. I decided to prepare my goodbye message for my Mom; you know, the usual "Hey, it's me. Something's happening and I might not make it, tell the family I love them." Again, this is all going through my head over the course of a few seconds. Luckily, my Mom answered. I remember saying "Hey, there's a shooter here, please stay on the phone with me." I tried to explain what was happening, but I still didn't know what was going on myself. "Someone's here with a gun killing people," I said. That's when Megan's words from earlier went through my head: "We're going to get closer to the stage." I told my Mom that I had to call her back.
I immediately called Megan -- the tone of her voice was absolutely heartbreaking. I could hear the pure terror and sadness when she spoke; she said that they were in a cab trying to get somewhere safe. Despite how she sounded, I was at least relieved to know that she had made it out of the venue. I decided to call my Mom back, at which point the bullets began to hit the suite we were in. This was around the 8th or 9th round of gunfire and I can only assume that this was one of the only places to which a lot of people were still congregating. After what seemed like a full round being shot into the suite, it finally stopped, at which point someone opened our door and told us that we needed to run. Assuming that the shooter was right out front of the suite, we looked at each other and decided to go. As soon as we got to the door, the next round started, with bullets pelting the metal stairs as we were running down them. It felt like we were entering a war zone, not knowing where the shooter was but just running as fast as we could and hoping none of us were shot next.
We finally made it out the back gate and through a parking lot; we all tried to go as fast as we possibly could while also staying as low as possible. While running, I stepped on a large rock, rolling my ankle and falling to the ground in a heap. Both my Mom (still on the phone) and everyone else around me thought that I had just been shot; strangers were pulling me behind a car and my Mom was screaming my name at the other end of the phone. After each round, we'd run until we heard the next one starting, at which point we'd dive behind another car. Finally, when we reached the back of a dirt parking lot, the gunfire seemed to have stopped.
I had a feeling that, for the moment, we were relatively safe. I knew that the shooter was either trying to get away at this point or had possibly been killed by police. At the very back of the dirt lot, I suddenly heard someone screaming for help. I looked over to find a woman in a wheelchair who had been shot in the chest. She had blood completely covering her face as well, but when I looked over, we instantly locked eyes. It's always so hard to describe this moment and I'll never fully be able to do it justice, but at that instant, everything just...stopped. It wasn't loud anymore, nor was it hectic or frantic; it seemed completely calm. I could feel her helplessness and fear and I think she felt mine, too. We had this brief moment of unity until I was brought back to reality. Katie, who was on the phone with her Mom trying to coordinate a pickup spot, had started to break down after seeing the lady who had been shot. We needed to keep running, so we did. We kept going towards the McDonald's just outside of Mandalay Bay; we soon learned that this was the location of the shooter, so we took off instead towards the 'Welcome to Las Vegas' sign, where we were finally rescued by Katie's Mom.
So, now what? We just survived what would later be confirmed as the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. History. What do you do? How can you possibly move forward from that? Well, my first move was to fly back to Austin the very next day. Everyone in the airport could see my wristbands from the weekend, my bloodshot eyes and my thousand yard stare. I looked like a zombie walking through this somber airport. You could just feel the looks of utter sadness on the faces of others as you passed or sat down next to them. I was able to find time to call one of my best friends in Vegas who I hadn't had a chance to talk with yet. Just as I started breaking down, a total stranger grabbed my shoulder and said, "I can't imagine what you just went through and everyone is thinking about you." It was just what I needed; I knew that I wasn't alone, but that's not how it felt at the time and arriving back in Austin proved that.
I left a broken city that had just been devoured by tragedy and arrived home, where nothing had changed at all. They didn't experience what Vegas just had; life in Austin was normal. It was difficult to move forward, because it felt like no matter who I talked to, they just didn't get it! Of course, they'd be there for me if I needed anything, but it just wasn't the same. They just didn't understand -- you hear the "it could've been worse" line, or "at least you weren't shot," along with everything else that's meant to make you feel better. But in the end, it actually just makes you feel even more alone. I felt very lost and was still in shock, still in such a daze. How can you possibly move forward from this? I was never taught how to survive the Trauma of the country's worst mass shooting. I didn't know that I'd go from singing, dancing and having the time of my life one minute to literally running for my life the next. I didn't know I'd have guilt because 58 people that walked in with me that day never walked out. But I did. I had all these built up emotions that felt like a mountain there was no possible way for me to climb.
My family suggested that I seek professional help and, like most people, I was a bit standoffish to the idea. All I pictured was "the couch" and talking about my "feelings" as someone nodded sympathetically as a box of tissues sat on the table. But luckily, I work at an amazing Police Department and an employee close to me also suggested that I see our Trauma Therapist. I finally decided to make an appointment, which was absolutely the best decision I've ever made. I was no longer climbing the mountain alone; it took several months of weekly and even bi-weekly appointments until I could feel, I guess you could say, "normal" again. The nightmares had finally stopped and I could openly talk about the incident without having bouts with uncontrollable anxiety. I started looking for ways that I could turn what I went through into a positive, to use it in order to begin helping myself heal.
I started speaking at conferences, telling my story and how I've coped in the time since in order to push through the tough times and long days. I return to Las Vegas every year now for my nephew's birthday and to spend the Anniversary of the shooting with my best friends and fellow survivors Katie, Anthony, Megan and Caitlyn. We all get together and go out to eat at the same restaurant every Anniversary; I also visit the healing garden each time I'm In Las Vegas, too. I find that this brings me some peace and allows me to pay my respects to my fellow concertgoers who lost their lives that night. I even returned to Las Vegas in December of 2019 to see Jason Aldean, finishing the show that had been stopped abruptly 2 years prior.
To bring you all back up to speed, I now feel stronger mentally than I ever have before or thought I possibly could. Even when going through events that trigger those bad memories, I now have a good foundation to help push me through the tough times. I now know what works best for me when it comes to my own mental health. Personally, I think everyone should see a therapist about any trauma or upsetting memory in their life. It might not seem like a big deal, but talking to someone really sets the foundation for strengthening your mental health. It took about two and a half years to not think about that night every ten minutes or so each day. Today, though? I can probably go at least a day or two without it popping into my head in some sort of capacity. It requires a lot of patience with yourself, especially because there's no timeline for trauma or grief. Believe me, it takes a long time.
As we're approaching the three year Anniversary, I wanted to end this piece with what I wrote in advance of the two year Anniversary:
"We all walked in. But no one walked out. And 58 never left. We walked in with excitement, fun and innocence. We left running, bleeding and scared. We walked in whole and left broken. Two years doesn't numb the pain, but we get stronger. We get stronger because the pieces we had to pick up and put back together were heavy. We've accepted our new selves, our new normal. We ache every time we see the news and someone else enduring a shooting, because we know that we're two years in, but they're on day one. We're strong because we were forced to be. Most of us will never know exactly how many inches we were from dying. But we all remember the sound of bullets hitting all around us. Overcoming that takes courage, strength and a hell of a lot of resiliency. So, when we say Vegas Strong, it's not just a slogan. It's not just the headline from our shooting. It's the life we've lived for two years and will continue to live."