Preparedness & Recovery

Las Vegas Mass Shooting Turns Refuge for Southern Californians Deadly

The wounded include off-duty sheriffs deputies from Los Angeles and Orange counties, off-duty firefighters from Los Angeles, an off-duty officer from the Ontario Police Department.

by Andre Mouchard, The Orange County Register / October 3, 2017

It's sometimes billed as "America's playground," but most of America doesn't live within four highway hours (much less if you speed) from downtown Las Vegas.

Which partly explains why the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history -- a Sunday night rampage near the Las Vegas Strip that left at least 59 dead and more than 500 wounded or injured -- feels like a local crime.

Though hard numbers aren't known, a huge chunk of the estimated 22,000 people on hand when Jason Aldean's performance was halted by the crackle of an automatic weapon, came from Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. Even the name of the three-day country music event -- the Route 91 Harvest festival -- refers to the former name of the stretch of freeway and highway that connects Long Beach to Las Vegas.

So it's no surprise that an early list of the dead includes a special education teacher and a police records tech from Manhattan Beach; a teacher from Simi Valley, a contractor from Santa Clarita and a Disney California Adventure cast member who went to high school in Orange County and lived in Riverside. The wounded include off-duty sheriffs deputies from Los Angeles and Orange counties, off-duty firefighters from Los Angeles, an off-duty officer from the Ontario Police Department and the manager of a contractor's office in Whittier.

The carnage in Las Vegas prompted a national address from President Donald Trump, who described it as "an act of pure evil." But it also brought a city-to-city message of condolence from Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti:

"Innocent people went out for an evening of fun," Garcetti wrote. "And (they) walked into a nightmare that defies our ability to understand or express sorrow in words."

The shooting spree was the start of a long night of fear and chaos.

Though about 10 minutes passed between the first and last showers of bullets, which came down from a two-room suite on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, the concert grounds and surrounding area was an active crime scene for several hours. Hundreds of people hid for much of night, believing the shootings were part of a broader attack; police were unable to assure them otherwise.

Initially, survivors were confused by the sound of the gunfire, which came faster than a human can pull a trigger. But confusion switched to grim recognition as some in the crowd fell, wounded or mortally shot.

"There was blood pouring everywhere," Melissa Ayala, of Orange, told the New York Times.

"We were trying to take cover and we had no idea where to go."

Police said the shooter was Stephen Paddock, a 64-year-old retiree from Mesquite, Nevada, whom they said took his life before authorities could enter his suite. Federal officials said Paddock doesn't appear to be linked to any terror group, though Islamic militants on Monday claimed otherwise.

Paddock apparently planned the night in meticulous detail.

Police said he used a hammer to break two sealed windows in his suite, No. 32135. He also set up at least two guns capable of automatic weapon fire near those windows, and may have used several other guns as the first weapons became too hot to use.

The choice of weaponry seemed to push the death toll higher.

Though it is generally illegal to own fully automated weapons, it is possible to modify semi-automatic weapons so they can shoot hundreds of rounds a minute. Police, who said Monday they are continuing to investigate all aspects of the crime, said they found had as many as 20 guns in the room, as well as more guns, ammunition and explosives in Paddock's home, about an hour away from Las Vegas.

Police also noted that the site -- about 300 feet above the targeted area -- was an ideal spot for taking lives.

The site, and the shooter's behavior, also seemed designed to amplify fear.

Videos posted online by survivors indicate about 40 seconds passed from the first burst of gunfire until more bullets came. The shooter then sprayed the area for about 10 minutes, with bullets coming from the sky in unpredictable waves.

During that time the crowd turned primal, as people either scrambled to escape or lay flat on the ground, hoping to avoid being shot. Hundreds of people climbed a nearby barbed-wire fence, though fire officials eventually ripped it up from the ground, letting people escape under the metal.

It's unclear how many of the estimated 527 wounded were hit by bullets and shrapnel, and how many were hurt trying to escape the area or by others trying to run away.

The events also overwhelmed medical help. Though hospitals in the area have trained for exactly the kind of attack that took place, emergency rooms and ambulances and even radio equipment were swamped by the sheer number of dead and wounded, forcing area hospitals to seek regional assistance.

It's unclear what sparked the crime. Paddock's brother, who lives in Florida, told news outlets that family is surprised, and that Paddock previously wasn't known to own or use guns and that he had no financial problems or signs of mental instability.

Paddock's father, Benjamin Hoskins Paddock -- who reportedly was not close to his sons -- was on the FBI's list of wanted criminals during much of the 1970s, described as a violent, serial bank robber.

But even as police worked to sort out Paddock's possible motive, the shooting kicked off discussion of tougher gun laws. Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Lakewood, said on Twitter that the carnage in Las Vegas is a result of political cowardice. "The police say the shooter appeared to have acted alone. That's not true. Every gun lobbyist and the politicians who do their bidding were all in that room with him."

But many survivors had little to say about gun legislation -- for now -- or the shooter's motives. Instead, they focused on what they described as courage and empathy they found in each other.

The list of heroes -- and many people helped or comforted the wounded, or shielded others from bullets -- also reaches deep into Southern California.

Melanie Cooper, an off-duty investigator with the Orange County Sheriff's Department, performed CPR on a half-dozen people and held a man as he died during the shooting spree.

Cooper, like many others, spent much of the rest of the night believing more bullets were coming. After she escaped the concert area, she led a group of strangers to safety when rumors circulated that there was another shooter in the hotel bar.

Similar stories were told about some off-duty police and fire personnel who were at the event. The country music scene, many said, is popular in that circle, and dozens of off-duty first responders from Southern California were at the festival.

Still, Cooper said the night sparked fear that'll be hard to forget.

"I keep hearing those gunshots going off and off and off and off."

Others have similar memories.

Rudy Rios, an off-duty police officer from Long Beach and an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan, remembers empty shoes.

"You're seeing everybody just running out of their ... boots," Rios said.

Rios saw concertgoers sweep up their children and barricade themselves in nearby gaming rooms and hotel rooms; even air conditioning ducts to escape the bullets.

Others, Rios said, simply couldn't move.

"There's people in the fetal position, crying. They don't know what to do."

Southern California News Group wire services and staff writers Keith Sharon and Jeremiah Dobruck contributed to this article.

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