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‘Why?’: Route 91 Harvest slayings investigated in new doc, ‘11 Minutes’

Updated September 26, 2022 - 3:15 pm

After falling down three times, she realized the cowboy boots had to go.

Her life depended on it.

It’s hard to run for safety in heels, especially when the ground has grown perilously slick from all the spilled Bud Lights and Cokes.

“It was like an ice skating rink out there,” Ashley Hoff recalls, “once everyone dropped their beverages and food and all of those things.”

Hoff was standing stage right, four rows back, when a gunman opened fire at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival at the Las Vegas Village grounds on October 1, 2017.

She fled to the Strip shoeless, where she hitchhiked home to Southern California with a pair of complete strangers later that night.

In the aftermath of the worst mass shooting event in U.S. history, those boots weighed on Hoff, a veteran producer.

At first, she didn’t know why — why some abandoned footwear felt so heavy on her heart.

Eight months later, when an FBI agent delivered them to her house after Hoff identified them in a catalog of items found on the concert grounds, she finally understood why.

“They were the last piece of me that were in the field,” she explains.

Even after the agent left, though, she still found herself poring through that catalog.

“As I looked at all of those items, it hit me — I call it ‘the storyteller itch,’ ” she recalls, “when your stomach turns, and you feel this pressing on your heart, and you know something will bother you until you resolve it.

“I looked at those items, and they weren’t just items,” she continues. “For the first time, I felt like there were other people out there who felt like I did, who knew what it was like to kick off their shoes to literally run for their life. All of those items were simply a representation of an incredible human story from that night. I felt so pulled to explore that.”

Four years later comes the fruit of that exploration: “11 Minutes,” an unflinchingly immersive four-part docuseries that Hoff executive produced, which premieres on Paramount+ on Tuesday.

At times, it’s as hard to watch as the senselessness of the night in question is hard to comprehend, hours and hours of cellphone and body cam footage distilled into a harrowing narrative that takes you to the scene of the carnage in disturbing detail.

But the series, and its title referring to how long the shooting lasted, is intended to be more than a horrific revisitation of a horrific tragedy: Its focus is on presenting an intensely personal chronicle of strangers helping strangers.

And that’s why Hoff says that she felt compelled to dig into the worst night of her life: With each passing anniversary of 1 October, it seemed to her that the tragedy was fading from public consciousness more and more.

“I found myself really disappointed,” she acknowledges. “I felt like less and less people were taking the time to remember the night 22,000 of us will never forget — plus the people who love those 22,000 people.”

This storyteller had a different story to tell.

Nightmare begins

“Someone’s in here just mowing people down. They’re everywhere.”

Parker Marx presses himself down atop his girlfriend Gianna Baca, wrapping his arms around her as wide as he can in a protective bear hug as she lays flat on the ground.

He’s trying to shield her from the bullets.

Gunfire engulfs them, coming from every direction, it seems — so much so, that Marx initially thinks that there must be multiple shooters in the venue.

“They’re everywhere.”

Suddenly, Marx feels Baca’s body jolt hard beneath him.

She doesn’t know what’s hit her at first, later likening the sensation to that of a metal medicine ball being slammed upon her hip.

Then she notices the moon reflected in the pool of blood puddling beneath her.

“I love you, I love you, I love you,” Marx repeats to her over and over.

It’s just past 10:06 p.m., October 1, 2017.

Storme Warren is onstage when the shooting begins.

Headliner Jason Aldean has just launched into the boozy ballad “Any Ol’ Barstool.”

Warren, who hosts “The Storme Warren Show” on SiriusXM channel “The Highway” and who’s emceeing the festival, is flanked by country stars Luke Combs and Jake Owen and the latter’s then-tour manager, Greg Fowler.

He hears a strange sound, like pipes banging together.

“I looked at Greg, who’s been around the business forever, and I said, ‘Was that a blown speaker or pyro?” Warren recalls. “And he goes, ‘Well, he doesn’t have any pyro on there, and that sure as hell didn’t sound like a speaker.’ You instantly saw the concern on his face.”

Then came the second volley of gunfire.

They saw bullets tear into the stage.

The realization hit: They were being shot at.

Warren and Fowler jumped offstage and hid behind a short concrete barrier.

“It was the only thing separating Greg and I from the bullets,” Warren says. “It was only like 2½ feet tall, and we were crouched down behind it with the bullets hitting the other side of this concrete wall.”

From there, they witnessed the devastation unfold.

“We watched the people fall in the crowd,” Warren recalls in “11 Minutes.” “It was like, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. It was too many. People were dropping at a large rate.”

Somewhere out there, Marx grips Baca, a high schooler at the time.

Her twin sister, Natalia, is also in the audience.

Baca has no idea that she’s also been shot.

“At that point, I was like, ‘OK, this is it,’ ” Marx remembers in the series’ first episode. “ ‘This is where I’m dying, right here.’ ”

‘Why?’

Storme Warren didn’t want any part of this at first.

“My initial reaction was ‘no,’ ” he says of being approached to appear in “11 Minutes,” “because even five years later, the emotions are raw, the visuals are still very clear, the sounds are still very clear.

“Having lived with it for five years,” he continues, “along with 22,000 other people, and the spider web connections to all of those people — there’s so many people affected — my first reaction was, ‘Why? Why are we doing this?’ ”

And then a friend convinced him to take a call from producer Sara Blakely., who rang him up while he was at one of his favorite restaurants in his native Nashville.

Warren went to the coatroom to talk in privacy.

What he thought was going to be a 10-minute conversation lasted 2½ hours.

Warren was clear to Blakely about the direction he thought the series should take.

“It needs to be the truth about those who were there and how they helped each other and how people came together,” he remembers telling her. “It’s got to be stories of sorrow, stories of joy. It’s got to show all the emotional facets of that event. It’s not about the guy in the window.

“I talked to my wife, and then I talked to some dear friends who I have made since that shooting,” he continues, “and we realized that now is the time for people to be reminded about this event — and to be reminded that there was more to it than a guy in a window.”

To this end, the gunman is deliberately never named in the series.

It was this emphasis on people over perpetrator, survivors over killer, that ultimately convinced Susan Zirinsky, president of See It Now Productions and former head of CBS News, to greenlight the project.

“When you decide — as I had to — to do this or not, what ended up breaking through, and what was really my motivation for doing this, was the humanity on so many different levels, of regular people, the first responders, the survivors,” she explains.

“You’re immersed in this 11 minutes of fear,” she continues, “but it is so counterbalanced by the heroism of regular people helping regular people, and the resiliency of people who were injured that said, ‘I’m going to keep going. I am going to keep going.’ ”

‘It’s never stopping’

The pauses only add to the pandemonium.

When the bullets are flying, everything seems to happen in slow motion, time prolonged by terror.

But when the gunman stops to reload, the opposite occurs, things accelerate to a frenzy, a mad dash for safety.

“Get up and run!”

10:12 p.m., burst 10.

The pauses are merciful and cruel at once, a chance for escape that gives birth to the false hope that the shooting has finally ended.

“Stay low! Stay low!”

10:14 p.m., burst 11.

“I did have a point where I’m like, ‘It’s never stopping,’ ” says Jenni Lynn Zaretki, an emergency medical tech who was at the concert and who’s featured in “11 Minutes.” “That shooting, it really did sound like, no matter where you went, it was right there behind you. People genuinely thought it was following them.”

A fellow off-duty first responder, Seattle firefighter Dean McCauley, is also seen in “11 Minutes” helping victims.

“Everyone here is dead, OK?” a shirtless man tells him as he makes his way through the frantic crowd.

The chaos is captured in cellphone and body cam videos that make you an eyewitness to the mayhem, the injured packed into ambulances eigh, nine deep, people pounding their fists into said vehicles with desperate cries for help — “She’s shot so bad. She’s lost so much blood.”

And then there’s the horrific sound of the deceased’s ringing cell phones.

You, the viewer, know that those on the other end of the line are calling to see if their friends and loved ones are OK.

And you also know that those calls will never be answered.

It’s gut-wrenching.

Director Jeff Zimbalist combed through hundreds of hours of this footage to assemble the “11 Minutes” narrative.

“On the one hand, it’s devastating and heartbreaking, and there’s moments where you have to turn it off, because you’re too in it, you feel too much, it’s too dark and it’s too heavy,” he says of watching so much carnage.

“And then you have to find the balance,” he continues, “and how to communicate these things viscerally and intensely to an audience without taking them that low, because that’s not the desire, to traumatize people.”

Still, there’s an emotional catharsis at the core of “11 Minutes,” for both viewers and those who took part in it. There are numerous interviews with law enforcement officers throughout the series, for instance, where we see them on the verge of tears, these steely men allowing themselves a rare moment of vulnerability.

They weren’t alone in doing so.

“I’ve done this now for 20-plus years, and I teared up conducting interviews on this show,” Zimbalist says. “That’s never happened to me before. It’s just unavoidable.”

‘Suspect down’

“I gotta go find this guy, and I gotta go kill him.”

Billy Marx is on the phone with his son, Parker Marx.

The latter made it to safety at the Excalibur, his girlfriend helped to the hospital by a police officer.

A SWAT sniper, the elder Marx speaks to his boy as he approaches the gunman’s room on the 32nd floor of Mandalay Bay with a crew of fellow officers.

“I need you to stay calm,” he tells him, while trying to do the same.

It’s not easy.

“This situation was probably the highest level of intensity that I’ve ever been in,” Billy Marx says in “11 Minutes.” “If you look at active shooters traditionally, most of them don’t give up.”

He’s prepared for a gunfight.

“Breach, breach, breach!”

The gunman’s hotel door is blown open, the explosion setting off smoke alarms that blare in the background as the scent of gunpowder fills the hall.

The room’s dark; the killer — or killers — could be anywhere.

And then a body is found.

“Suspect down, 4-19,” Marx says over his police radio. “Self-inflicted gunshot wound.”

There are so many assault rifles strewn everywhere, though, that the initial thought is that multiple shooters could have been involved.

And so another, adjacent room is entered.

It’s empty.

The gunman acted alone.

Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department Captain Joshua Bitsko, who was one of the officers on the scene, remembers in “11 Minutes” looking out the window that the killer used to target thousands below.

He was shocked by what he saw.

“There was nowhere for people to hide.”

Blood, everywhere

Their reunion comes in an ICU room.

Parker Marx sees his girlfriend Gianna Baca for the first time since she escaped the scene of the massacre in the hospital where she’s recovering alongside her sister, Natalia.

“Relief is what came,” he says in “11 Minutes.” “I was like, ‘Thank God we are still here.’”

The shooting’s over, but not the toll it’s taken on the 800-plus people injured.

Local emergency rooms quickly become overrun with patients; it’s a flood of misery.

As Dr. Christopher Fisher, general surgeon at Sunrise Hospital, notes in “11 Minutes,” most busy trauma centers see an average of two to 10 visitors a night.

His got 240 in two hours.

We see the anguish unfold: doctors sprinting to new arrivals in a way that eschews the normal calm of medical professionals, blood-streaked floors, a run on gurneys and morphine, the same plea shouted by different people over and over and over.

We need help! We need help! Please!

“This is the real thing,” EMT Glen Simpson observes in episode three. “This is the nightmare coming to life. Now, we’re going to live it.”

Still, there’s a light that shines through the devastation.

One of the most powerful components of “11 Minutes” is how it traces the bonds formed during a crisis, from Seattle firefighter Dean McCauley coming to the rescue of Natalia Baca, to an off-duty San Diego police officer helping an African-American concertgoer from Los Angeles who took a bullet re-entering the fest to help others, to Gianna Baca being consoled by a cancer survivor with her jaw shot off.

Five years later, these bonds endure in what has become a tight-knit community of survivors. — we see McCauley, for instance, making a surprise appearance at Natalia Baca’s graduation ceremony at Faith Lutheran High School.

“We’re there for each other,” Warren says. “There’s a comfort in community.” And it also echoes throughout country music festivals around the country. There’s always a Route 91 posse, a Route 91 reunion, either it starts organically or it’s planned.

“People find each other who were there that night,” he continues. “I’ve run into Route 91 survivors at almost every festival I go to. It’s an instant hug.

“It was a part of my healing journey to tell this story,” she continues. “But I do understand that other survivors or survivors of other acts of mass violence or gun violence may not be in a place to watch this.”

For those survivors that can watch the documentary, she wants the emphasis to be on them.

“I really wanted to work to try to flip the narrative to that of the survivors, to the resiliency, to the heroism, to the connections made, to the family that was formed between all of us that night,” she says, “because when someone reads about this 20 years from now, I want them to read about those people — not about what that man did or why he did it or the ways in which he did it.”

Above all else, “11 Minutes” is intended to be their story.

“One of the goals that got stated time and time again across the interviewees — whether they were survivors, or law enforcement, or musicians, or first responders in the medical field — was that they felt that the people who had experienced it, understood it,” Zimbalist says.“Until you’ve been touched, you don’t understand it.

“There’s a lot of consistency, across the people that we interviewed, that they want others to experience what it’s like, what it does to you and to your family — without anybody being put in danger, of course,” Zimbalist explains. “Once people feel like they’ve been there and can put themselves in the skin of a survivor in that moment, then you can’t just brush it off as yesterday’s news and move on. Then it does activate us.”

What form that activation does or doesn’t take is up to the viewer — though the larger issue of gun violence in America is alluded to in “11 Minutes,” the series doesn’t express a specific political message or advocate one viewpoint over another.

Instead, the series culminates by listing the names and ages of those killed on October 1, 2017.

Then, it does the same with all the victims of the mass shootings in the United States since.

The scroll lasts six minutes.

Contact Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476. Follow @JasonBracelin on Twitter and @jbracelin76 on Instagram

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