By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: Oct 12, 2017 | 12:26 p.m.
PRINCE GEORGE – What should have been a 40th birthday celebration for lifelong Prince George residents Brent and Laura Johnson at a popular Las Vegas country music festival took a dark and sinister turn as a man perched inside a nearby casino gunned down fellow concertgoers as thousands of people fled from what would become the deadliest mass shooting in modern United States history.
For the Johnsons, the pair had traveled to Las Vegas for the celebration of Laura’s birthday, opting to return to Vegas for the event after having a good time the previous year.
Having attended all three days, Sunday was slated to be a full day and evening of music, culminating with the performance of country music star Jason Aldean. Brent and Laura were both there in the concert viewing area along with tens of thousands of fellow music fans as Aldean began his set.
About 15 minutes into his set, Brent said he told his wife he was going to use the restrooms nearby and as he washed his hands, terror descended on the event, the city, and the nation.
“When the first shot rang out, this girl beside me said, ‘What is that noise,'” Johnson recalled. “I started listening and the sound went off on stage and I told her I thought it was an audio problem or a speaker blew or something like that.”
“Then there was a lull in the shooting,” he continued, “Then another round of shots went off that were even more rapid, louder for a longer duration and I realized that was gunfire.”
Johnson said he could tell the general vicinity of where the intense gunfire was coming from, but it wasn’t until later that it was revealed the gunman, identified as 64-year-old Stephen Craig Paddock, was firing from above, housed in a 32nd-floor room of the nearby Mandalay Bay hotel and casino, roughly 1,000 feet away.
“There were so many rounds and they were coming so quickly that I would’ve never guessed, now knowing after the fact, that it was just one person,” Johnson said. “It just felt like there were multiple people just firing off round after round.”
Within seconds, Johnson said he grabbed the young woman he was speaking with when the first rounds were fired and sought shelter behind a steel storage box being used for the concert while getting his phone out to make contact with his wife, who was still in the main concert area, around 10:08 p.m. local time but, cell phone service in the area became spotty or nonexistent as thousands of people tried to make similar calls to try and find friends and family at the event.
“Even that quickly, I couldn’t get a call out,” Brent remarked. “So I started texting her and she was able to text me back pretty quickly and she said she was ok and I told her to just get out of there any way she could and we would just meet up later, but I asked her to keep texting me.”
As his wife made her way toward safety, Brent helped a group of fellow concertgoers find a way out of the fenced-in venue area, snaking their way through some portable toilets, overturning several of the units to find a fence they all climb over and finally escape the carnage of the concert area while keeping an active ear to what was unfolding around them.
“When there was a lull in the shooting, we ran,” he shared. “When there was shooting, we ducked and covered.”
Finally free of the confined concert area, Brent said he sought refuge under a set of bleachers, affording him the opportunity to reconnect with his wife via text message. His wife had made it out of the area safely, with police directing people toward the Hooters Hotel and Casino nearby for safety as law enforcement raced toward the gunfire themselves, risking their lives for the protection of their citizens and visitors.
“I told her I am still trying to get out of here and that we would meet up soon,” Brent recalled as he scrolled through his messages to his wife.
Once there was another break in the gunfire from Paddock’s weapon, Johnson said he simply took off on foot and he was finally able to get beyond the concert area, ending up at the doors of the Tropicana Hotel and Casino, which was just across Reno Avenue from where the shooting took place.
The popular casino went from being a resort destination to simply a makeshift triage as staff and ordinary people tried to help those injured and wounded.
“When I got inside there, people were steadily going in there; people who had been shot, trampled, and hurt,” he said. “We tried to comfort some people and take care of others in there and someone comes busting through the door saying that somebody was coming and someone is shooting.”
“It was just such mass chaos and so much gunfire that people just didn’t know what was going on,” Brent recalled. “It turned out to be false but everyone inside there took off running again because they thought a gunman was coming in there.”
Back on foot, Brent said he was finally to reach the same casino that his wife Laura was ushered to minutes earlier, the Hooters Hotel and Casino, where he was met by their security team who issued a stark warning to those fleeing the deadly shooting.
“They weren’t really sure what was going on either and they just said to go find someplace to hide because they were hearing there were multiple shooters and they didn’t know where they were so we just needed to hide,” he said, explaining that he sought shelter in the casino’s kitchen area, utilizing the room’s equipment for safety.
Even though he was in the same building as his wife, the Hooters casino was a sprawling complex and he said it took some time for him to finally physically reconnect with her as she was in a security room off from the casino floor.
“When things seemed to be getting a bit calmer, I went out into the casino trying to find where that office was and I was finally able to meet back up with her,” he said, estimating it was around 11 p.m.
With a large portion of Las Vegas Boulevard now a crime scene, the Johnsons had to wait to get back to their hotel room at the Luxor, which was across the street from both the concert venue and the Mandalay Bay casino, where authorities had descended and found Paddock dead inside Room 135 of the casino. According to Johnson, it wasn’t until 7 a.m. Monday when they were finally allowed inside their room to gather their belongings, which allowed them to make their flight home on time.
Recalling what he saw and heard last Sunday, there was one thing Brent witnessed that was more powerful than the evil act carried out at the hands of the gunman; people helping people in a time of tragedy.
“When people figured out what was going on, there was a big sense of unity and working to protect other people,” he said. “People were carrying people. When they fell down, they would be picking them up and helping them move.”
“The way the festival was situated alongside Las Vegas Boulevard, right next to The Strip, there were people weren’t even attending the concert, simply driving along The Strip and someone is out there bleeding and they would open their car doors and say, ‘Get in, I’ll take you to the hospital.'”
After finally arriving home in Virginia and Prince George, both he and his wife were able to finally begin to process truly what they had experienced at what should have been a celebration full of smiles and laughter.
“It is definitely something that you would never think would happen to you,” Brent remarked. “You never think you’re going to be involved in something like that. When you are, you just go into crisis mode and that kicks in. Do what you have to do to protect yourself and others.”
For the Johnsons, they hope that is what the nation will keep at the forefront of their minds as days and weeks advance past the deadly shooting, what was done to help save lives.
“The thing I hope people take away from this incident is the amount of support people gave each other, not the evil of it,” Brent said.
When asked, Johnson said it’s too early to say if their experience in Las Vegas will affect any future plans to attend similar events in the future.
“I think it is too early too early to tell,” Brent remarked. “On the one hand, I tell myself that I am not going to let stuff like this change my life and not going to let it affect my happiness and what I do on a regular basis. Then, on the other hand, you wonder if it is worth it. We have a 10-year-old son… I truly don’t know.”
According to the Associated Press, 58 people were killed, not including the perpetrator, and over 520 people were injured in the shooting, eclipsing the total of the June 2016 Orlando, Fla. nightclub shooting that left 49 people dead and over 50 injured.