85°F
weather icon Clear

In Las Vegas shooting chaos, Metro officers saved a life


This is part of an ongoing series observing the two-year anniversary of the Oct. 1, 2017, shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Festival. See all of our coverage here.


Las Vegas police officer Richard Cole’s hands firmly grip the wheel, his uniform blanketed in blood: “We’re almost there, man. Hang on!”

In the back of the Metropolitan Police Department SUV, Frank Calzadillas pleads with his wife, Jovanna, whose brain has been pierced by a bullet, to “breathe, baby!” He implores Cole, who is going over 100 mph on northbound Interstate 15, to drive even faster.

Rookie officer Brandon Engstrom, Cole’s field trainee, is in the passenger seat, about 20 minutes into a graveyard shift on his second day on the job. His mind races. What just happened? Is the threat over?

Traffic concedes to the flashing lights and wailing sirens, clearing the fast lane until the SUV peels off the freeway toward Charleston Boulevard in pursuit of University Medical Center.

In a flurry of radio dispatches — with automatic gunfire often ringing in the background — Metro officials provide evolving intelligence about a scene just east of the Las Vegas Strip: Multiple people have died, and at least one shooter appears to loom high in Mandalay Bay.

“It just really started to sink in,” Cole recalled during a recent interview, “that this is something that’s going to really hurt.”

It’s been two years since a gunman killed 58 people and injured hundreds more, raining bullets on Route 91 Harvest festivalgoers from his Mandalay Bay hotel suite. Over that time, stories of heroism and perseverance have risen from the depths of tragedy.

Through interviews and examination of police body camera footage, a clearer picture has emerged of one account: the intersection of two quick-thinking officers and a woman in dire straits.

“Of course I signed up to help people,” Engstrom said recently. “And then, you know, my second day going in, I got the chance.”

Listen to the Critical Condition podcast

Critical condition

When Cole, now 37, and Engstrom, now 30, meet Frank and Jovanna Calzadillas behind their police SUV, the two officers are confronting mass chaos.

At the cross section of East Reno Avenue and Giles Street on the night of Oct. 1, 2017, just northeast of the festival grounds, the officers take strategic cover behind a white utility box.

Thousands of panicked festivalgoers spill into the streets, including a man wearily bracing his arms around the shoulders of two friends, and another in a cowboy hat, crouching and perhaps shot, assuming refuge behind the officers’ vehicle. Many climb over the fence bordering the concert venue to escape imminent danger. Commingled yelling and intermittent bursts of gunfire can be heard as personal items, abandoned in the dash for safety, start to litter the gray asphalt.

“So I’m in a little bit of shock,” Engstrom said during a recent interview. “I’m trying to load our shotgun, and I’m just fumbling everywhere because I have no idea what’s going on.”

Officers direct people to keep moving, repeating instructions to those who seem dazed or bewildered. Cole and Engstrom have come from Metro’s Convention Center Area Command only a few miles away, where their shift started at 10 p.m. — five minutes before the first shots were reported.

Officers and other emergency responders from across the Las Vegas Valley have converged on the scene.

“It was probably the longest caravan of lights and sirens I’ve ever really been in other than police funerals,” Cole told the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Then came Jovanna Calzadillas and her husband, an off-duty Arizona police officer who had announced himself as a cop and frantically begged Cole and Engstrom to save his wife.

“We knew it was beyond critical,” Engstrom said.

For Cole, the decision to leave with her was instant.

‘All hands on deck’

Jovanna Calzadillas was one of the first patients brought to UMC that night. Cole and Engstrom carried her into the emergency room, where Cole came across an employee who seemed unaware of what was happening.

“I told him, ‘It’s a terrorist attack. You need to get everybody in the hospital as quickly as you can,’ ” Cole said.

The hospital is located in the city’s Medical District, just west of downtown, and boasts one of the few standalone trauma centers in the U.S.

“When the call first came out, I don’t think anybody knew exactly how severe this was going to be,” said Dr. Paul Chestovich, UMC’s chief of trauma research.

Chestovich had just tucked his children into bed, ending a barbecue with family and friends, when he received several text messages about a potential mass shooting. He beelined to work. Meanwhile, Dr. Syed Saquib, medical director for the hospital’s Lions Burn Care Center, was on call in the hospital.

About 40 victims entered UMC within a half-hour of the shooting, most by private vehicle, according to the two trauma surgeons. More than 100 would arrive by the time their shift was over. The two personally treated many of them.

“That night, we went to the backup surgeon and then beyond,” Saquib said. “For something like this, it’s all hands on deck.”

Trouble on the mind

Normally when law enforcement officials escort shooting victims into a hospital, they stay with them, continue investigating and monitor their progress.

“But this was an unprecedented event where we knew there were hundreds of victims,” said Cole, who was nearly certain Jovanna Calzadillas was dead. “And we just needed to get back where we are needed most.”

Something new also was troubling Cole: His roommate, Anna Childs, was among the 22,000 people at the festival. In a rush to arrive at the shooting, he had left his cellphone in a bag at his substation. And he didn’t know her phone number by heart.

“Now I’m kind of going into panic mode. I had just seen somebody who had been shot in the head,” he said. “I’d seen a lot of people shot, and my train of thought is, you know, one of my best friends could be dead right now.”

The two officers were wanted in the parking lot at Metro’s South Central Area Command, near the iconic “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign, where the smell of fresh gunpowder permeated the air. It is less than a mile south of Mandalay Bay. Most officers who did not respond directly to the festival went there to be assigned to strike teams, mapped out by marker on the hood and windshield of a patrol car.

Cole relayed what he knew about the scene, assisted with creating teams and responded to concerns from colleagues. The blood staining his uniform, he assured them, “it’s not mine.”

Comfort in chaos

Until his phone rang, George Gafford was relaxing at home, snacking on popcorn and watching the historical drama “Vikings,” a favorite television show. He joined Metro as a corrections officer in 1990 and had contemplated retirement. But when an opportunity arose to support officers and their families in 2015, he joined one of two teams on Metro’s Police Employee Assistance Program.

On that night, his team was on call. He wasn’t sure whether it was a false alarm until he heard a dispatcher say, “Bodies are down.”

Gafford scrambled room to room to find clothes. With his service vehicle in the shop, he jumped into a Clark County vehicle without emergency lights or sirens and charged behind an ambulance onto southbound I-15, which he said had been closed to civilians. He was told to go to the South Central Area Command, where he observed tactical planning and considered how to be effective while staying out of the way.

“About that time, I saw officer Richard Cole walking in from the Strip with blood all over his uniform, and he just had this look on his face, like he was kind of stunned — you know, traumatic type,” Gafford said. “I could tell that there was something else that was bothering him.”

The two ditched the parking lot and walked into the station, where the echoing sirens and flickering lights from outside were replaced by the chatter of officers and radios in a conference room. Then that noise softened, too, as the men snaked through hallways and found a small side office. Cole’s voice quivered when he shared why he was upset. Then Gafford lent the weary officer his cellphone.

Cole’s called his mother first. She passed the phone to his brother, who knew how to reach Childs. Gafford dialed the number on a landline.

Childs, 28, had won three-day VIP passes to the festival through a bar raffle. Tired and hungry, she broke off to the Red Square restaurant in Mandalay Bay not long before country star Jason Aldean took the stage and festivalgoers took cover.

“And we were barricaded in Red Square for the rest of the night,” she recalled during a recent Skype interview.

Red Square is a restaurant and lounge in Mandalay Bay.

Cole, exasperated, instructed Childs to keep quiet and stay hidden.

“Oh, my God, Anna. Thank God,” he can be heard saying in footage from his body camera. “I’ve been so (expletive) worried about you.”

Road to recovery

Frank and Jovanna Calzadillas appeared before reporters in January 2018, shortly before her discharge from the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, amid a recovery one doctor there called “nothing short of miraculous.” She offered a smile and a peace sign to the crowd.

She would require more physical therapy, but she had already regained the ability to talk, eat and drink independently, and she could walk with the help of a walker.

The night after rushing Jovanna Calzadillas to UMC, Cole and Engstrom, anticipating that she had died, returned to seek only her name. Yet they were pleasantly surprised to learn she was still fighting. Both officers have seen her since.

“For what she looked like the first time I saw her, she’s doing pretty good,” Cole said. “She’s doing really good.”

Cole retired from Metro as of Aug. 1 and moved to Florida, where he hopes to wear a police badge again soon. Along the way, he visited Jovanna Calzadillas in Arizona, where she lives.

“She’s in really high spirits,” he said during a Skype interview, noting that her sense of humor remained strong.

In a statement through their attorney, Frank and Jovanna Calzadillas said they were “forever thankful” for Cole and Engstrom.

“Their bravery and training are the reason we were able to get to the hospital quickly and safely,” they said. “It truly played a role in why Jovanna is still alive today.”

“Words cannot express the love we have for them,” the statement continued. “That night they helped save a wife, mother and daughter.”

Bittersweet reflection

Two years later, Cole and Engstrom reject the “hero” label and instead express gratitude to the community for rallying together in a time of unspeakable tragedy.

“There were a lot of people that night that stepped up when Las Vegas needed them,” said Cole, who was a volunteer firefighter in New York when he was dispatched to ground zero a few days after 9/11.

Childs has also moved to Florida, not far from Cole and even closer to his family. She said she did so seeking a change of scenery, but not in response to the shooting. Still, her October birthday is a far more somber anniversary than it used to be.

“Obviously, the whole situation was terrifying. It’s just so crazy to think what could have happened to me,” she said. “I was very, very fortunate, and it kind of just like — it gave me a new sense of appreciation for life.”

After leaving the substation that night, Gafford was told to set up a victims center at Metro headquarters. He was tasked with briefing frantic families with as much information as he knew. Cole and Engstrom escorted fire protection and emergency medical teams through the fairgrounds, sweeping for survivors.

When their shifts ended, Cole, Engstrom and the others slept little and immediately returned, ushering in a cycle of long, emotional days. Gafford said he observed no selfishness.

“In the worst of times, as corny as this might sound, I saw the best of America,” he said. “I truly saw the very best of us that night. And I will never forget that.”

Contact Shea Johnson at sjohnson@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272. Follow @Shea_LVRJ on Twitter.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.
Local Videos
Jeopardy! James competes with G2E attendees
Jeopardy! champ James Holzhauer, appears at the G2E IGT booth to help celebrate launch of Jeopardy! slot machines and compete against attendees in mock games of Jeopardy!
Security guard killed in Las Vegas shooting honored
ERICK SILVA WAS KILLED PROTECTING OTHER DURING THE MASS SHOOTING AT THE ROUTE 91 FESTIVAL. HE IS BEING REMEMBERED TODAY AND A PLAGUE WAS PRESENTED IN HIS HONOR AT THE EAST COMMUNITY CENTER
Lucky's unexpected surprise
The Ball family, who already deals with challenges most families don’t, got an unexpected surprise from a security systems worker, who brought more than just peace of mind, he brought love to one lucky little boy.
Gilcrease pumpkin patch is open - VIDEO
Gilcrease Orchard's pumpkin patch is now open for the season. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas firefighters battle a fire in a commercial area - VIDEO
Clark County and Las Vegas firefighters battle a fire in a commercial area at 824 E. Sahara Ave. in Las Vegas on Monday, Oct. 7, 2019. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Time lapse of RiSE Las Vegas festival - VIDEO
This is a time-lapse video during the sixth annual RiSE Las Vegas festival at the Jean dry lake bed on Sunday, Oct. 6, 2019. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Lanterns released into Nevada desert as part of RiSE Festival - VIDEO
Thousands of spectators released giant lanterns into the sky at a dry lake bed near Jean, Nev., Sunday night as part of the RiSE festival. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Halloween Parade at Downtown Summerlin - VIDEO
Halloween festivities are in full swing at Downtown Summerlin with the first week of the month-long parade. (James Schaeffer/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Funeral procession for Robbie James Pettingill - VIDEO
A motorcade of Henderson fire and police personnel escort the body of firefighter Robbie James Pettingill past Fire Station 82 and Fire Station 97, where he was last assigned, to Central Christian Church on Friday, Oct. 4, 2019. (Renee Summerour/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Failure not an option for Mayor Carolyn Goodman facing breast cancer - VIDEO
Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman and her oncologist talk about Goodman's second bout with breast cancer. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Hacienda bridge closures for events at Allegiant Stadium - VIDEO
The bridge at Hacienda Avenue over Interstate 15 will be closed during major events at Allegiant Stadium. (James Schaeffer/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Backyard Adventures at the Springs Preserve - VIDEO
"Backyard Adventures" is the latest temporary exhibit at the Springs Preserve. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Parents of teens who were killed in California crash visited the crash site - VIDEO
Parents of Las Vegas teens who were killed in a fiery crash last year in Huntington Beach, Calif., visited the crash site on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutefsya
Bani Duarte convicted in California crash that killed 3 Las Vegas teens - VIDEO
Bani Duarte, the drunken driver who caused a fiery crash in Huntington Beach, California, last year that killed three Las Vegas teens, was convicted of second-degree murder on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019. (Renee Summerour/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Wrap-up of Oct. 1 observances - VIDEO
A wrap-up of memorials and observances on the second anniversary of the mass shooting on the Las Vegas Strip, Oct. 1, 2019. (Renee Summerour/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Victims of Oct. 1 shooting in Las Vegas remembered - VIDEO
Remembrance video honors the 58 people who were killed at the Route 91 Harvest festival on Oct. 1, 2017, on the Las Vegas Strip. (Clark County)
UNLV music program rings bell 58 times to remember victims of Oct. 1 shooting - Video
UNLV music students will ring a set of chimes 58 times in honor of the victims of the Route 91 Harvest festival shooting. (Nathan Asselin/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Memorial bench unveiled at North Las Vegas park to honor Route 91 victims and survivors - VIDEO
The family of Route 91 victim Neysa Tonks worked with the city of North Las Vegas to erect a memorial bench overlooking a pond at Craig Ranch Regional Park. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Gov. Steve Sisolak and Joe Robbins Speak at Oct. 1 Remembrance Ceremony - Video
Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak and Joe Robbins speak to the crowd at the Clark County Government Center Amphitheater to remember the victims of the 1 Oct. shooting that occurred in 2017 at the Route 91 festival. (Michael Quine and Nathan Asselin/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Day 6 of Bani Duarte trial in California
Police say Bani Duarte, 29, was drunk when she drove into a car carrying four Las Vegas teens, killing three, in Huntington Beach, California on March 29, 2018. She is being tried on murder charges in Santa Ana. (Renee Summeropur/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Troy and Shannon Zeeman talk about life after Oct 1 shooting - VIDEO
Troy and Shannon Zeeman of Garden Grove, California, discuss life after Oct 1 shooting in Las Vegas. The couple started Security Consultant Zeeman, dedicated to active shooter preparedness training. (Elizabeth Brumley/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Reflecting on Oct. 1: How Metro officers saved a life
Oct. 1 was the second day on the job for Officer Brandon Engstrom who saved a critically injured woman amid the chaos of the Route 91 shooting. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Healing Garden remains a gathering place
It's been two years since the mass shooting of Oct. 1, and the Healing Garden has grown and evolved. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas police investigate fatal crash - VIDEO
Las Vegas police investigate fatal crash at the intersection of West Sahara Avenue and Steve Rigazio Court in Las Vegas on Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2019. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Reflecting on Oct. 1: How one officer saved a life
Oct. 1 was the second day on the job for Officer Brandon Engstrom who saved a critically injured woman amid the chaos of the Route 91 shooting. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
76 animals confiscated from North Las Vegas home - VIDEO
Service dogs, birds, a pig and other animals were confiscated from the North Las Vegas home of an animal activist and former actress. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Mother, child and 41 dogs rescued after North Las Vegas house fire - VIDEO
North Las Vegas PIO Patrick Walker talks about a house fire in North Las Vegas where a mother, her child and 41 dogs were rescued on Sept. 24, 2019. (Max Michor/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Miracle Flights greets patient ambassador Michael Perrino in Las Vegas - VIDEO
The Miracle Flights team welcomes 16-year-old Michael Perrino and his family to Las Vegas for their annual Swings for Wings fundraiser at TopGolf. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Storm Area 51 Day 3 Update 1
Area 51 Basecamp in Hiko is canceled after a lackluster Day 1, according to event executive producer Keith Wright. Alienstock in Rachel will go on for its third day. (Renee Summerour/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Live music and EDM dominate the night on day 2 of A’Le’Innstock
After sunset bands rocked the crowds at A’Le’Innstock in Rachel, Nevada on the second night of the event.
Cat survives 15-mile commute in car bumper
A Las Vegas Review-Journal employee was surprised to learn she had a passenger during her 15.5-mile commute to the office on a September Sunday. (Tony Morales & James Schaeffer/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Shortages of OB-GYN doctors in the Las Vegas Valley - Video
Dr. Michael Gardner discusses the shortages of OB-GYN doctors that will happen and what steps are being taken to entice them to come or stay in the Las Vegas area.
Southern Nevada is in a West Nile virus hot zone - VIDEO
Southern Nevada, along with Central Arizona and Southern California, make up a “hot zone” that is reporting the highest number of mosquito-borne West Nile virus cases in the country. The Southern Nevada Health District recently reported 28 cases of West Nile virus in Clark County. (Le'Andre Fox/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Paul Browning Released from Ely State Prison - VIDEO
Paul Browning greets his mother, Betty Browning, after being released from Ely State Prison. Browning served 33 years on Nevada’s death row. (Rachel Crosby/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Mother upset over her child's cornea donation being sent overseas - Video
Lindsey LiCari, the mother of Ayden and founder of Ayden's Army of Angels, is upset that her child's corneas were sent overseas and was told that she would be able to see her son's eyes again. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Aviators splash pad lets fans stay cool
Las Vegas Ballpark’s splash pad area is the perfect place to keep cool while enjoying the game. (Cassie Soto/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
THE LATEST