Just to be crystal clear, this blog is in no way representative of my employer, NetApp. This is solely my own opinion.
I played football in high school. Our team was awful. We regularly went winless each season, and lost games handily. I recall one particular game where we ended up losing by a ton, but it wasn’t losing that makes me remember that game; it was seeing a teammate get laid out by a crackback block where we feared he may never walk again.
He eventually was able to recover with no issues, but I remember how one of the toughest guys I knew laid on the field, screaming in pain, and how after he was carted off and put in an ambulance, I didn’t have the motivation to play again that night. What was the point? It was just a game!
Years later, I found myself in the midst of one of the largest historical events in American history, as a gunman fired upon a crowd of innocent concert-goers from his perch on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. I was there for a work conference and found myself with a familiar old feeling, where I lost inspiration to play because of the enormity of the situation. This is the story of my experiences that night, and how I was able to overcome the feeling of “what was the point?”
How it happened, from my perspective
I’ll start off by stating that, while seeing an active shooter event play out in real time is unnerving, I can’t even begin to claim it impacted me in any meaningful way. Why?
We were at a team dinner when the shooting began. I actually had been emailing a colleague who told me he heard gunshots. My initial reaction was, “well, this is Vegas. That happens sometimes.” But then he told me it was the sound of a fully automatic weapon. That doesn’t normally happen.
But I didn’t think much of it – it had to be far away from us, right?
Then, I started seeing cracks in the illusion I had set up for myself. A waitress at the restaurant hastily grabbed her purse with an alarmed look on her face and bolted for the door. We were instructed to leave the restaurant in a “calm and orderly manner.” I instantly knew what was happening – my colleague’s email, this reaction. Someone was shooting people very close to where we were.
At the time, not many other people had the information I had from my colleague. But I also had no idea where exactly this person was. He could have been in the lobby. There could have been multiple people. But since we were being escorted calmly and orderly, I figured there was no imminent threat.
We headed toward the basement entrance. Then, someone urgently called for us to move quickly toward the exit. The reality of the situation became more apparent. Then, as we were moving toward the exit to the back parking lot, we saw 7 or 8 police officers running in the opposite direction with rifles brandished. They were yelling at us.
I’ve never been in an active shooter drill, much less a real one playing out. I’ve never been in the military. I’ve never fired a gun. The closest I’ve ever been to real, unadulterated danger would be first-person shooters. Games. “It’s just a game…”
This was not a game. But oddly, despite my lack of training, I was mostly calm. I was alert. The adrenaline had kicked in.
My head was on a swivel – stay low. Keep in the shadows. Watch your surroundings. Clear the corners. Don’t run out of doors without looking. Know where the exits are.
I was sprinting at this point, because I was in survival mode. I have lots to lose in this life – my wife, my son. I was not ready to lose any of it.
We made our way to the parking lot, where we saw a police helicopter circling the Mandalay Bay tower, about midway up.
I stopped and took video (from the shadows) of the helicopter. Within a few minutes, the helicopter shone its spotlight on us and, from the loudspeaker, issued a single command.
The police on the ground instructed us to move south. They had set up a perimeter and were moving us outside of it. They were our buffer. We kept moving toward the “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign, feeling anything but.
We came across Maverick Helicopters. There was a couple there, waiting by the doors. The doors opened and we were allowed into the lobby for shelter. We sat inside, wondering what was happening. We still had little to no information, but at least we weren’t running anymore.
We sat for a bit. The good people at Maverick handed out food and water. Then, they instructed us to move into the back room, where there were no windows. We filed down a narrow hallway, into a room no larger than a hotel room. There were about 30-40 of us, so the room got warm and uncomfortable. But we were safe.
More food was handed out. More water. One of the staff joked about wanting cookies. Then they broke out champagne. Generally, that’s reserved for celebration. As police sirens whizzed by, people drank. Perhaps we were celebrating being alive, being safe.
One woman drank too fast and got dizzy. The staff got one of the first responders in to look at her. He decided she was fine, but her husband persisted. He kept reassuring them. I watched as he patiently told the man his wife would be fine, his knees and arms covered in someone else’s blood, with many more people still needing his help. I started to get angry – who were these people to imply they were more important? Why weren’t they trying to place themselves outside of their little world and think of others in more need? Then I thought of the staff at Maverick Helicopters, going above and beyond their job descriptions, sheltering us and feeding us. In this moment of crisis, there was infinitely more good than bad.
We were in the room for about an hour. People were streaming news reports and I was looking at social media to find out more. We were starting to get information, for better or worse. We saw the video of the shooting, with the surreal sounds of automatic rifle fire raining down on the concert. I realized that when we were running out the back way, we were just around the corner from this madman’s rifle sights. I was thankful we had police escorts to steer us away from danger.
I also started hearing unconfirmed reports of other shooters. Other incidents at other hotels. Oh my god. Was this a coordinated attack? How big was this? I started to think about the poor people who weren’t in the right place at the wrong time like we had been. I was still calm, because I was safe. I wasn’t thinking about the conference – I was thinking about survival. And my next steps.
We were allowed back into the lobby later. The police sirens were replaced by ambulance sirens. Things were calming down and we were now entering damage control. We were given the option of staying at Maverick Helicopters all night or moving on to a safe zone. After some waffling, I decided that the safest move was to get farther away from the strip, regardless of the inconvenience.
We got onto a bus with some other people. The radio had news reports. We found out that there was only one shooter. I was glad to be wrong. I was angry at the way fake news spread. But I was happy that the scale was small.
The driver (the cookie man) turned the radio down. A woman in cowboy boots and a hat asked him to turn it back up. He snapped at her.
The volume stayed low.
We all process these things differently. Some of us want to be saturated in grief. Some want to pretend it’s not happening, like the cookie man. I just wanted to be safe.
Later, he turned the volume back up. The number of dead and injured rolled in. The woman in cowboy boots and a hat started to cry. I realized she had been in the middle of it all. I realized that I had not.
We ended up at Thomas and Mack arena. When we got there, a detective announced over a bullhorn that we were all there as witnesses and would be asked to sign a statement. I wondered if we were in the right place. The air was chilly, as desert nights are.
We found out that we didn’t need to be witnesses to be let in. We went inside and saw a vast array of people inconvenienced by the shooting. Travelers who couldn’t check in. Evacuees like me. Concert goers with minor injuries from falling in the mass stampede out of the danger zone.
I watched as travelers who couldn’t check in to hotels looked surly and complained about their plight. Then I watched the girl with skinned knees got patched up and moved on. We all process these things differently. Being cold, or uncomfortable, or stranded? No where near the scale of inconvenience of people who had been shot at, trampled, hit or watched friends die.
I tried to get a little rest. It was 4AM. My phone battery was dead. I had no room to go back to. There was uncertainty about my responsibilities the next day. All I wanted to do was sleep. We were told that Mandalay Bay was closed indefinitely to us, due to the sheer number of casualties. A young man, possibly a former medic in the military, came in with a backpack of medicine and first aid to help people. College students were handing out blankets. Food and water donations started to pour in.
I decided to go to the airport, rent a car and find accommodations off the strip. I was tired, but I was taking up resources from people who needed them more. I decided to stay well off the strip, not out of fear, but out of consideration for people who were trying to sort things out. I wanted to help, but it wasn’t my time.
I picked up some supplies and made it to the new hotel. The reality of how much luck I had been granted started to sink in. I had easily gotten a car and hotel, and had the means to do so. The worst injury I witnessed was a champagne dizzy spell and some skinned knees. I was uninjured. And alive.
I had witnessed numerous acts of kindness and selflessness. I was inspired by how people almost always come together in situations like this. I had nothing to complain about.
I got about 2 hours of sleep. When I woke up, I decided it was time for me to do something, anything. The first day of our conference was canceled, naturally. The Mandalay Bay hotel was starting to let people back in.
I had a rental car and offered rides. I did some research to find out where I could go to donate blood. I passed out information about the blood drive locations. I didn’t get the chance to donate, as I was turned away after 3 hours in line, but I tried to make an impact by buying and handing out fruit and popsicles to the other people in line with me, while numerous other people did the same.
People showed up with pizza, sandwiches, tacos, donuts. Truckloads of water came in. Buses arrived with air conditioned seating. The Vegas hotels sent lunch boxes. The inspiring goodness of humanity was shining through and it was inspiring. I thought back to the time I saw my friend get hurt in a meaningless football game and how crushed my spirit had been. But I also realized why something as relatively meaningless as a tech conference had to go on. We had to reclaim our normalcy. We had to continue living our lives, because doing otherwise would be an insult to the sacrifice of the people who responded to the shooting and the people that had much, much worse days than any of us had.
So, the next day, I woke up and started the day, newly refreshed and inspired to reclaim normalcy and understand that my struggles are but ripples in the greater human experience.
So while a tech conference isn’t life, it’s part of life. And it’s important to admit that.