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Las Vegas massacre survivors prepare others for active shooters

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.

GARDEN GROVE, Calif. — In an almost childlike way, the 19-year-old woman clung to the married couple that night.

“I’m just going to stay with you no matter what,” the stranger said to Troy and Shannon Zeeman as they searched in desperation for a way out.

By then, the Route 91 Harvest festival site on the south end of the Strip was covered with the items people had left behind in their dash to safety and many victims.

Two years have passed since the massacre Oct. 1, 2017, when a gunman, perched in a corner suite at Mandalay Bay, opened fire into the nearby concert grounds. By sunrise the next morning, the death toll would rise to 58, with hundreds more injured.

Troy Zeeman, a Newport Beach, California, police officer who was off-duty the night of the shooting, still gets teary-eyed anytime he talks about the kind of fear that essentially left that young woman paralyzed — something, he says, he has seen time and again during his 23 years in law enforcement.

“When you think about an active shooter, if you were involved in that event, people really believe they would have no options,” he said in a recent interview with the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “They really believe they would just stand there and die.”

He choked up as he said the word “die” and paused. Crying, he stood up from his couch and paced along the edge of the living room inside his ranch-style home in Garden Grove. Dozens of paintings, created by his two young sons, decorated an entire wall next to him.

That same sadness — the one that has continued to wash over Troy Zeeman since the attack — would inspire him and his wife, both 45, in early 2019 to start their own company, Security Consultant Zeeman, dedicated to active shooter preparedness training.

Surviving the shooting

By the second burst of gunfire on the night of the shooting, Troy Zeeman, hidden in the shadows of some floodlights, was confident the shooter was not in the crowd. The rounds were landing at an angle that almost made it seem like a hailstorm.

“It was just coming down around us, penetrating everything,” he said.

From his police training, he knew the blackness was buying them some time, but just then, a man in his group stepped out into the light. He tried pulling the man back, but he wasn’t quick enough. A bullet lodged itself in the officer’s right thigh.

Troy Zeeman hardly blinked.

The group taking cover in the shadows of the floodlights had grown to at least 20 strangers, including the panic-stricken teenager.

Maybe, the couple guessed nearly two years later, it was the confidence in Troy Zeeman’s voice, or the calculated look he wore as he scanned the concert site, that attracted the group to them. Either way, the off-duty officer became responsible for leading the group out of there.

Troy Zeeman doesn’t know exactly how long they stood in that spot, but he began to notice the trajectory of the bullets shifting. It was time to move.

Shannon Zeeman, calmly but with authority, repeated her husband’s instructions to the group.

“I felt like we became a team. It was very comfortable, and I felt very safe,” she recalled during the recent interview. “Having him there, I felt like I was extremely grounded. More so than I would have ever thought I would be in that kind of situation.”

But not everyone in the group was listening.

“Probably the hardest thing I had to do that night was, when Troy said it was time to run, leave the ones who wouldn’t get up,” Shannon Zeeman said.

Echoing a key lesson in the training they now conduct, she added, “He had to tell me that we can only help the ones that want to help themselves right now.”

Eventually, Troy Zeeman, with his wife’s help and despite being wounded, led the group to safety at the Shrine of the Most Holy Redeemer, a Catholic church on Giles Street just east of the venue.

Full circle

Meanwhile, back in Garden Grove, Kim Dickerson, vice president of Kitty Hawk Inc., was getting ready for her oldest daughter’s wedding the next day.

The wedding was the only reason Dickerson, 44, wasn’t at Route 91 with the couple, whom she met years earlier when their sons were in Boy Scouts together.

“So it was hard to hear about everything the next morning,” she said recently.

But this summer, she heard the Zeemans tell their story again — this time, while the couple conducted an active shooter training course for Kitty Hawk, a 40-employee provider of services for the aerospace industry.

“They bring it full circle. They definitely give a fantastic perspective, from the human aspect to the law enforcement aspect to being survivors,” Dickerson said. “The message that I got is that, even when you are confronted with injury, you can still survive and thrive like Troy did.”

During their training, the couple also highlight Shannon Zeeman’s levelheadedness the night of the shooting. It took her husband by surprise.

“It was pretty amazing, for not having training, that she reacted that way,” he said during the interview in their home.

Shannon Zeeman has never worked in law enforcement, but she believes she was at an advantage, having been married 18 years to an officer.

“That’s what we’ve been telling people,” she said, “that you’re never going to know. It’s impossible to know how you’ll react when faced with your own mortality, so if you could just educate yourself, you might react in a way that helps you and others.”

But being equipped with options can help keep you alive in any life-or-death situation, they say. That’s why Troy Zeeman, using his law enforcement background, customizes the training based on each client’s needs.

And that, they hope, coupled with their own story of survival, will help empower and educate the public at a time when mass shootings have become more increasingly widespread.

“Giving people options gives them power, and with that power, hopefully we can stop all these active shooters,” Troy Zeeman said.

Contact Rio Lacanlale at rlacanlale@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0381. Follow @riolacanlale on Twitter.

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