It was going to be a great get-a-way, planned for months, for four Coarsegold residents and Vons employees - A trip to Las Vegas for the three-day, 4th Annual Route 91 Harvest Festival, featuring 27 county western artists.
Hotel reservations were made a year in advance, and festival tickets, about $200 for the three-day event, were purchased months prior to the event.
On Sept. 28, good friends Tiffany Ralph, Nancy Feyma, Jean Ann Ward, and Lainie Walker, hopped into Ralph’s 17-year-old Ford van for the six hour drive to Vegas. Upon arrival, the group was met by Nancy’s sister and her friend.
For Feyma and Ward, this was the third time they have gone to the festival, and the second year for Ralph and Walker.
And what started out as a fun and exciting road trip turned into a horrendous nightmare as the women, on the third and final night of the festival, suddenly found themselves amongst other concert goers, in the largest single killing spree in the country’s history.
County-western singer Jason Aldean was the headliner and last festival performer on Oct. 1. At about 10:10 p.m., with Aldean into his third song before 22,000 screaming fans, a single gunman, 64-year-old Stephen Paddock, killed 58 people, wounding another 500+, shooting from the 32nd-floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino.
“When we first heard ‘pop, pop, pop,’ we all thought it was fireworks,” Ralph remembers. “I turned, looking up to the sky expecting to see fireworks, but there were none. I thought they were duds.”
Ralph said everyone continued listing to the music, but the next sounds heard were much different.
“It was definitely a different kind of gun, because we heard the sounds of a machine gun firing long, multiple bursts of bullets into the crowd,” Ralph continued. “The lady behind us, who might have had military training, started yelling ‘shooter shooter.’ We realized something was wrong for sure when the music stopped and all the stage lights went out.”
Ward explained that for crowd control, there was only one way in (to check that everyone had tickets), and one way out.
“But when everyone began running out of the area when the shooting started, the one way out was not enough room for all the people until they started taking down the gates as quickly as they could,” Ward said.
“I got knocked to the ground and then people were running over me,” Feyma said. “I finally got my hand on a railing to pull myself up.”
“I just ran, I wasn’t thinking about anything but getting out,” Walker said. “For some reason when it was happening, I felt super calm. I would run and duck behind anything I could find when he shot again, and by the time I got out of the venue, the shooting had stopped.”
Even though they became separated during the panic and race to escape, all four ended up at the same location - a bar in Hooters Casino, where the four were staying. Staff brought water, pillows and blankets and set up a breakfast buffet. The casino floor became a triage center with hotel staff doing what they could for people who were wounded. When returning to their rooms, everyone was told to lay on the ground, turn the lights off and stay away from the windows.
Feyma saw a man laying in front of Hooters, who didn’t make it, and another man walking who had been shot in the stomach. Walker watched a man helping a girl who had been shot, with blood coming out of her mouth.
The first thing they did when they got to their room was call loved ones, who didn’t quite grasp the gravity of the situation until they later saw it on the nightly news.
“I called my boyfriend and tried to explain to him what was going on, but I don’t think it registered with a lot of people,” Ralph explained. “When I said there was a shooting, I think my boyfriend thought ‘okay, there was a fight and one guy got shot.’”
“What was hard was that every time we listened to the news,” Walker said, “the deaths kept climbing 10, 20, 30 - it was hard to hear.”
“I heard on the news that at one time there was a two-month battle in Iraq, and in that two month period, 82 people died and 400 were hospitalized,” Ward added, “And we had 58 people dead and more than 500 injured in 11 minutes.”
For some unexplained reason, the friends, who typically wound up towards the front of the stage, remained near the back this year, which lessened the odds of being shot since the shooter began his unthinkable assault on those standing near the front of the stage.
The four stayed up all night to get regular news updates and once they heard the roads were open, they loaded up the van and headed home. And on that long ride home, they talked about what had happened in Vegas - the good and the bad, mixed with some crying.
“We talked about the great things about the trip,” Ward said. “That first night we went to this amazing bar and had a great time - the best time ever. We woke up Friday morning and hung out at the hotel pool, and Friday night we were up front and center for a great concert that included Eric Church and Sam Hunt - But the shootings have been tough. I’m going to have a hard time getting over it. I was afraid to be alone before this, now I’m really afraid to be alone. Today, I don’t think I will go back to Vegas, but over time maybe I will.”
“We go to about 15 concerts a year, that’s what we do,” Feyma said. “This will always be in my mind but I’m trying to get through it. I’m not sure I’ll ever go back. I never say never, but today, I’m thinking not. Maybe when I can purge that moment from my memory, have some closure, maybe then I’ll be ready go to back to the Route 91 Festival.”
“Something like this always sticks with you,” Walker said. “You’re never going to forget - you’ll always have moments, but you just have to muscle through those moments - and get to the next one - that’s how I look at it. And when I do have one of those little break-down moments, I’ll think of that shooter and become so angry for killing all those people. The take-a-way from this is that you can’t live your life afraid. That shooter was trying to scare us all and breed hate and fear. I would love to know his reasons for what he did, but it really doesn’t matter. It was just pure evil. One of the reasons we agreed to do this interview was not so much to tell our story, but to tell everyone to go live their life without fear.”