One family’s path through horror of shooting on Las Vegas Strip

Updated October 8, 2017 - 12:15 pm

Jake Watkins knew instantly — he could tell from the first volley crackling out across the Strip — that it was gunfire, and he heard his father scream, “Get down!”

The 21-year-old former high school football player tackled a woman and her teenage daughter in front of him, bringing them down. He barely knew the pair, but he used his body as a shield to keep them from being hit by the barrage of bullets.

Jake peered up for a moment and saw his family ducking for cover. He looked down and saw the terrified face of the 15-year-old girl under him. A woman fell to the ground, maybe a foot in front of him. Her lifeless gaze met his.

She had brown eyes.

It was the beginning of the largest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. In those next few hours, the grounds of the Route 91 Harvest festival became a field of dead and wounded, many of the 22,000 concert attendees would use their own bodies to shield strangers and loved ones from the bullets. They used T-shirts to stop the bleeding, turned signs into stretchers and held friends in their arms as they died.

Humanity tried to trump evil.

A big fan

Dan Watkins was an avid country music fan, but the 50-year-old attorney from California had never been to the three-day show. His daughter, Alexa, went the year before and raved about the show. Dan took a look at the lineup: Eric Church, Jason Aldean. He loved those guys. He was in. And so was the whole family.

Since the first night, the Watkinses had danced and laughed and made friends. Dan worried that the rest of the family would not enjoy the festival. Of the bunch, Dan was the big country music fan. He was delighted to see everyone having such a good time and loving the music the way he did.

The children were getting older. Alexa, 23, lived in Carlsbad, California. Jake, 21, was in Tucson at the University of Arizona. Dan and his wife, Susan, 54, were on their way to becoming empty nesters with their youngest child, 17-year-old Eric, expected to go off to college next fall.

Dan and Susan increasingly viewed their time together as a family as precious.

Those few days at the festival, the family was not just enjoying each other as family, but also as friends.

But it was the last night that they looked forward to the most. Jason Aldean was headlining. Everyone in the family loved Jason Aldean.

The few moments with his children at the beginning of the show — seeing them beaming, throwing their heads back in laughter as they stood with new friends, the sheer happiness — it was one Dan couldn’t imagine being any better or ever being re-created.

Dan looked at his wife.

“This is amazing,” they both said to each other as they swayed to the music, her shoulder touching his chest.

Two songs later, gunfire rang out.

“Fireworks,” Dan thought he heard someone in the crowd say. He turned his head and looked over to the right of the stage where there was a bar and VIP area. He thought perhaps there was some kind of electrical failure.

By the second volley, Dan knew it was gunfire. In the National Guard for 14 years, he’d never been in a combat zone. But he’d shot machine guns and been inside tanks. It sounded like a fully automatic weapon.

But nobody was running. Nobody was screaming.

He grabbed his wife and told her to get down on the ground. He grabbed a young man next to Alexa and said, “You’ve got to cover her, please.” And he did. Dan turned to another young man and asked him to do the same for Alexa’s best friend.

He got to his knees behind Susan, covering her with his body. He was head-to-head with Jake, who was covering the mother and daughter.

He could see Eric. He was only an arm’s length away.

But they were packed in so tightly, Dan could not reach over and grab him.

At first, Dan believed the shooter must be on the ground. He could not conceive that someone was shooting from the 32nd floor of Mandalay Bay. But by the end of the second volley, he thought the shots were coming from above.

There was another round of gunfire. Dan was terrified, no one could move, they were sitting ducks.

He looked over at Eric, his youngest, who was wearing a white shirt. No one was covering him.

Please God, Dan thought, don’t let me see red on that shirt.

During a break in the gunfire, Dan saw people were still not moving.

People 10 to 20 yards away were still lying flat on the ground. He knew that to escape, everyone would need to move.

“Run, people, you’ve got to run,” he shouted. “We can’t move, you’ve got to run.”

family photo

Besides gunfire, the only sound Alexa heard was her father’s voice, shouting that someone had been shot. She was crouched down on the ground, her head down, eyes closed. The man her father had asked to protect her covered her as best he could. Alexa had only known him for 20 minutes. She could barely remember his name, and didn’t know if he could remember hers.

Everything was dark. She could not see her brothers or her parents.

“Mommy, Daddy,” she yelled in between sobs. She had been a child the last time she’d referred to her parents that way. At 23, Alexa had starting living on her own and was working at her first job out of college.

“It’s OK, I can see them and they’re fine,” the young man, Jeremiah, said to her. His friend Riley was nearby covering Alexa’s best friend, Christina.

Wedged in tightly with the crowd, Alexa gripped his arms. She heard her father’s voice bellow overhead. She had never heard him yell like that and thought it must have been the voice he used when he was in the military giving commands.

Another burst of gunfire split the air. Alexa crouched down farther. It went on for maybe 30 seconds, maybe a minute. Then stopped.

“Run people, you’ve got to run,” she heard her father scream.

Jeremiah told Alexa the next time the shooter was reloading, they would need to run and hop over the fence.

family photo

Just a few seconds after the second round of gunfire, Eric saw the performers drop their instruments and run off stage. He looked to the boy next to him, a 16-year-old named Nick he had befriended shortly before the show started.

Now the teens were crouched down, heads ducked, shoulder to shoulder and trying to cover Nick’s girlfriend from the flying bullets. They were both bewildered.

Suddenly, Eric looked down, feeling a slight gust near the side of his T-shirt. When he looked back up at Nick, the teen seemed stunned.

“I got shot,” he told Eric.

Quickly, Eric began feeling Nick’s arm, looking for the bullet wound. A tall, barrel-chested boy with a baby face, Eric had never had any formal first-aid training. He only knew he needed to find the injury and apply pressure.

Eric looked at his hand, but he saw no blood. He couldn’t find the wound.

The gunfire began again, and Eric ducked back down. He knew that when people ran, they would become separated.

Eric took Nick’s phone, punched in his number and hit send so they could find each other again. He wanted to make sure he was OK.

The gunfire stopped. The three took off. Eric made sure that Nick and his girlfriend, Olivia, got over the barrier first.

Then they all ran in different directions, Eric going toward the left, his white T-shirt stained with Nick’s blood.

By the fourth volley, the crowd was finally moving. Dan grabbed Susan’s arm and they ran. Almost immediately, a woman fell in front of Dan.

He stopped and pulled her up.

“Come on let’s go,” he yelled as gunfire erupted again. “We’ve got to go.”

He took her to the end of a string of tents and around a corner where several people had taken cover.

When he looked up, Dan realized he was alone.

Susan was not with him and neither were any of the kids.

family photo

Jeremiah grabbed Alexa’s arm as they ran as quickly as they could. Others were jumping over the fence to escape.

Jeremiah got over first and tried to help Alexa. As she worked to get over the fence, she looked down.

Below her was the body of a woman, lying against the fence, alone. Her head had a bullet wound.

Alexa stared into her eyes. They were bright blue and blank.

Alexa fell getting over the fence. She got up and ran again, following Jeremiah. She tripped over large metal wires and bodies on the ground.

Jeremiah dragged her across the ground until she could get up. They ran.

Jake lifted the teenage girl he was helping to her feet, and the two ran past the stage, away from the gunfire. To reach safety, they had to jump just one more chain-link fence.

But the girl froze short of the fence, a statue amid disarray as another volley of bullets started.

There was no time to talk. Jake had not played football since trying out for the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks as a freshman years ago, but his 6-feet-2-inch frame still had plenty of strength to throw the girl over the fence.

The girl’s mom followed, and the three crouched down amid more gunfire.

Susan kept running.

At the edge of the field, she ducked for cover behind a metal storage container. She heard bullets hitting everything around her. She pressed herself tight against the metal.

When it stopped, she ran into a parking lot. People were scattering everywhere. On the ground, she saw three bodies, with clusters of people tending to them.

They needed help.

A little relief

Dan reached Alexa, Eric and Jake by phone. The kids were OK, he felt some relief.

Still, he had not heard from Susan. He had taken her phone during the show because his own was low on battery power. He realized her phone was still in his pocket.

She was surely helping people. She would be OK, he told himself.

He could still hear shots being fired. He ran around the corner and almost immediately saw a blond woman on top of a man, her head pressed against his chest. There was blood on his cheek. The woman was screaming, sobbing.

She refused to leave him. Dan and another man struggled to tear her away from the man’s body and get her to safety.

The next hours were a blur.

Dan helped carry a man with a bullet wound in his back to a makeshift triage area. The man kept saying he could not feel his legs. He and others took off their shirts and used them to apply pressure to wounds.

He returned to the field where he saw a man lying still on the ground. Another man came by and determined that the victim had no pulse.

A T-shirt was draped over the man’s face, a gesture that had become a way to mark the dead.

Eventually, Dan made his way to another end of the makeshift triage area. The wounded were carried on pieces of a metal perimeter wall. Festival signs and ladders were also being used as gurneys and stretchers. They were being loaded into personal vehicles and rushed to hospitals.

Dan spotted a group of people carrying a woman out of the festival grounds on a piece of the red barrier wall. She had brown hair and a sheer light-blue shirt. She wasn’t moving.

Drawing on his military training, he talked to her to keep her awake.

He walked beside the group carrying her, put his head close to hers and began speaking.

“Honey you’ve got to stay with us, all these people are here and they love you and they are trying to help you,” he told her.

He could feel her breathing. It was shallow, but she was breathing. Oh God, maybe this is working, he thought.

You’ve got to stay with us, OK? You can’t leave. You’re not allowed to leave.

Dan Watkins

The group arrived at a black crew cab truck. There was already another wounded body in the bed of the truck with three or four other people. A woman in the back of the truck shouted for them to hurry, they only had five minutes. The group struggled to get the woman’s body inside the cab — another woman trying to help got pinned between the gurney and the vehicle door during the process, Dan recalled.

Finally, they got her body inside and the car sped off. Dan did not know whether she would live or die.

A way to the hospital

Susan spotted a big pickup truck with its driver’s side door hanging open. She ran over to an injured man, who was receiving CPR. She said: There’s a truck. Let’s get him in there.

Susan jumped into the driver’s seat. She punched the start button, but nothing happened. Frantically, she looked for the keys. Then a young man ran over and said the truck was his. Susan told him the people needed to go to the hospital. I know, he replied.

Susan slid over to the passenger seat while a wounded man and woman were loaded into the back and others piled in.

The truck sped off. Barreling north, the driver honked the horn while Susan leaned out the passenger window and waved her arm and screamed “Stop!” as the truck blew through intersections.

Police cars with their sirens blaring raced in the other direction.

Two thoughts passed through her head. One: I hope we don’t get hit. And two, if I don’t hang on I’m going to die.

‘I promise I’ll be back’

Alexa had not known her youngest brother Eric was running behind her until they took shelter in a sound production tent.

She grabbed him. The two huddled underneath a piano where Jeremiah had used large music equipment cases to form a barrier around them.

Tucked underneath the piano, the siblings held each other as gunfire began again.

When it stopped, Jeremiah started to leave to go help others. Eric and Alexa both yelled for him to stay.

“I promised your Dad I would keep you safe,” he told them. “I promise I’ll be back.”

While Jeremiah was gone, Alexa talked to her father. He told her he was safe, but he wasn’t with her mother and he had her phone.

Eric overheard Dan on the phone saying he was no longer with Susan. Panicked, the teen broke down.

“Mom is dead, Mom is dead,” Alexa recalled him screaming over and over again.

Alexa began to sob, but stopped herself. She needed to keep Eric calm.

“She’s OK,” she told him, not sure she believed her own words. “She’s going to be OK.”

family photo

Susan’s pickup arrived at Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center. Emergency staff rushed to the back with a gurney.

They loaded a lifeless woman onto the stretcher. Her arm dangled off the side, limp. A man with her started screaming as staff wheeled her in. Susan thought she was dead.

In a daze, Susan followed them into the hospital, and tried to get the man to calm down. She followed them as far as the entrance to a triage area. Susan never knew what happened to her.

She went back out to the truck. What about the other wounded man, she asked some people milling about. He didn’t make it, they said.

Finally, Susan felt she’d done what she could. And then it hit her: Oh my God. My family.

She hadn’t seen them since the shooting started.

Dan could not count the number of dead bodies he’d seen at this point while trying to help the wounded. Some images he knew would never leave him: The young, thin girl whose dead body lay in a wheelbarrow or the man staring into the distance, holding a dead woman’s head in his hands.

But Dan also could not put a number on the amount of selfless acts he had witnessed. People passing out water, giving away shirts — someone noticed Dan was without one and gave him a tank top — personal vehicles being used as ambulances. Some were leading prayer circles for the fallen.

Everyone was helping someone, and it was probably someone they had never met.

Thinking of Mom

Eric walked with Alexa and Jeremiah toward the Luxor. It was the closest hotel to them and Jeremiah suggested the three try to take cover there away from the festival grounds.

The teen was preoccupied with thoughts of his mother. He knew his father was OK, and they had spoken to Jake, who told them he had gotten out of the grounds safely.

But where was his mom? Was she alone? Was she dead?

The last notion was not one he could live with. He could not imagine life without his mother.

He began to sob.

Needing the truth

Panicked about her family, Susan went back into the hospital to figure out where they were.

Susan felt guilty. The whole ride to the hospital she had been focused on helping the wounded. How could she not think about her kids?

In the emergency room lobby, she asked to borrow someone’s phone. She immediately dialed Dan, who told her he was still at the concert venue. Everyone is OK, he said, but I can’t talk now. Call me back later.

When he hung up, Susan thought: Is he telling me the truth? I need to get back there and see for myself.

family photo

Jake, the mom and the daughter had made it outside the festival grounds to Tropicana Boulevard. They were safe. Jake’s phone rang, his mom’s number flashed across the screen. It was his dad’s voice.

Dan told him his mother was safe and had been helping people at the hospital.

“Where are you?” Jake asked.

Dan was still at the venue. There were more people to help.

He said he needed to go, and hung up.

Jake had been running on adrenaline all night, and now he lost it.

He bolted back to the concert grounds — toward his father — but a burly, bearded man stopped him. He grabbed Jake and threw him backward.

The weight of it all hit him, and Jake fell to his knees in tears.

Silence

Alexa, Eric and Jeremiah walked inside the Luxor, which was silent. There were no guests in the lobby, no staff working on the casino floor.

They took the elevator to the fourth floor, Alexa recalled. Why the fourth floor, she could not remember. It was a random choice.

Exiting the elevator, they stood in the quiet hallway, aimless.

Moments later, a couple walked down the hallway. They asked the three if they wanted to come inside their room. They gave them water and sheets to get warm.

The couple had just gotten married that morning and they were headed out to get dessert when the shooting occurred. They didn’t have any food, except a bag of Hershey’s kisses, which they offered to the three. They also offered them refuge for the night.

They thanked the couple, touched by their kindness.

By now, Alexa had also learned that Riley and Christina were safe. She looked out the window to a view of the festival grounds.

Helicopters were circling the area and she could see the tent where she thought her father was helping people. She talked to him on the phone and this time he told her their mother was fine.

“Dad says mom’s OK,” Alexa told Eric.

But he still did not feel at ease.

He wanted to hear his mother’s voice.

Meanwhile, Susan tried hitching a ride back to the venue, but the streets were blocked. Police sent her to a nearby Motel 6, where she broke down crying. She got a free room, where she waited out the night, watching the news.

Jake knew his family was safe, and the family he had helped to escape offered to let him stay the night in their hotel room at the Hilton Grand Vacations. He tried to sleep on the pull-out couch, but he could only stare at the television as details of the shooting emerged in the news. Within the day, the death toll would climb to 58, along with the shooter, who had taken his own life.

family photo

Dan eventually found himself at the Hooters Hotel, staying there only for about an hour before his sister, a Las Vegas resident, picked him up some time before the sun came up.

They drove to Sunrise Hospital. They searched for Susan for about a half hour, but they could not find her.

After they left the hospital, Susan made contact. She borrowed a security guard’s cellphone at the nearby Howard Johnson hotel and called Dan’s sister.

From there, they picked up Jake and eventually made their way back to Delano Las Vegas, where they had been staying.

It was mid-morning when the family finally reunited, nearly 12 hours after the shooting. Eric and Alexa went through a walkway from Mandalay Bay to the Delano where their parents and brother were waiting on the other side.

Alexa rushed to her father, fell into his arms and began to cry.

Eric walked toward his mother. She still seemed to be in shock. So was he. He hugged her tight. It was the first time he felt a sense of relief since the shooting.

Jake wanted to comfort his little brother. But he could not find the words. He stood off to the side of his family, speechless.

The family went up to the room. They sat together and prayed. But every time Jake closed his eyes the same haunting image from the night reappeared.

He saw the face of the woman who had fallen next to him when the shooting began, her brown eyes staring back at him.

Epilogue

Eric spent the rest of the day after the shooting scouring the internet, trying to track down Nick. Eventually it worked and the two finally made contact. Alexa and Jeremiah have kept in touch. Susan thinks altogether, the family has found at least eight people they met that night.

But Dan still has questions about the woman he tried keeping awake as she was being carried off on a makeshift stretcher. He is also concerned about the man who could not move his legs. He wonders whether either of them made it. He thinks about them often.

As with the Watkinses, many festivalgoers that night became bound to those they had known only moments before the gunshots rang out.

Some found each other later.

Others are still searching.

Contact Anita Hassan at ahassan@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4643. Contact Brian Joseph at bjoseph@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5208. Contact Colton Lochhead at clochhead@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4638. Review-Journal newsroom assistant Kerry Blanchfield contributed to this report.

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