Last night I woke up soaked in sweat. I didn’t know where I was. I searched my brain and realised I was still in the cold dark space under my seat in the Mandalay Bay. I held my breath and waited. No Janine! You can’t be in Mandalay. You got out…you’re in the hotel room with Michelle. She’s right beside you, look to your left. I looked to my left and didn’t see my sister but I saw him. His dark outline in the corner of the room. Standing silently with his rifle. Staring right at me. I was frozen in place for a long time before I recognised my own bedroom in my own home. My brain is determined to take me back to the horror of Sunday as often as it can. That’s healing I suppose? Sleep is where your brain processes trauma. There’s no point in shutting it all out. Parking up and living there 24/7 isn’t healthy but shutting it out entirely isn’t either.
On Sunday 1st October a man named Stephen Paddock killed 58 people and injured almost 500 from his hotel room in the Mandalay Bay with a pimped up semi-automatic rifle that fired like an automatic. I was inside the Mandalay Bay watching the Michael Jackson One show with my mum and two sisters. I’d seen the show before and absolutely loved it. During Billie Jean I noticed that the performers had disappeared. I didn’t remember that happening last time. The screen was still showing the graphics and the music was playing away. A technical glitch maybe? I looked at my watch to see if there was an intermission I’d forgotten about. 10:12pm. Strange. Then the music stopped. The screen went dark. The audience didn’t budge. Everyone thought this was part of the show. I knew it wasn’t.
The lady in the seat beside my sister answered a phonecall. She was repeating what she was hearing to her husband and Michelle overheard. There’s shooters firing automatics all over the place. People are lying dead in the street right outside the hotel. There’s nowhere to hide. Bullets everywhere. The lady was listening to her family (who were at the concert outside) screaming, crying for help and trying to find a place to hide all the while the rat-a-tat-tat of that machine gun relentlessly took dozens of lives around them.
This was the first information we had. Michelle started telling us what she was hearing and I grabbed her hand. I’m sure I almost broke her fingers. This can’t be right. Is she sure it’s here? Maybe it’s on down the strip? There’s no concert here, we would have seen it or heard about it.
The lights went out. Darkness. Breathless silence.
*Tap tap tap* (coming from a microphone from the back of the auditorium).
"Um...guys…My name is Officer (I’ll never remember his name, my brain could only absorb the tone of his voice and the instructions he gave).
There are shooters using automatic weapons inside the hotel and they are killing people. We don't have any details on how many of them there are or their motives for the attack. What I can tell you is that the doors to this auditorium lock from the outside so I cannot lock you in and I don't have enough officers to guard every door. Right now we are going to assume that a shooter could come in here at any moment. So, I'm going to turn off all the lights and have you hide under your seats. This is the best way I can try and keep you guys safe at this moment in time. Stay under your seats and keep quiet. If they see you, you are a target."
I looked to my left and to my right. We were right down by the exit doors. If the shooter came in from the back we would be stampeded by the 1,000 plus people in the room. If the shooter came in those unprotected exit doors we would be the first people he saw.
My youngest sister took over and told us to take off our heels incase we needed to run. We lifted the seats and got right under them, as far as our bodies could get. We held hands and lay there for what seemed like a second, what seemed like an eternity. There was no time. There was no breath. There were only thoughts. Mentally escaping every scenario my brain offered.
I heard gasps and screams from the back of the auditorium where the police were stationed. I peeked up and saw the back few rows on the right all had their hands on their heads and were bent over crying. He’s here. He’s here.
I ducked back down and a sob that I didn’t know was there broke out. He’s here, he’s in here now. I see them all bent over up there. We’re dead. My wee sister got in my face and told me to stop. We won’t get out of here by losing it. Keep it together. Run when you need to. Otherwise do not lift your head from under this damn seat.
*Tap tap tap*
"Uhhh...guys…there is a man with a gun inside the auditorium. He is an armed citizen and he has approached us with his gun to offer his assistance. Please. If you are in here with a gun please do not reveal your weapon. Every person in this room is on high alert and in a state of terror. We do not want to mistakenly take out an innocent person whose motivation is to help.”
Breathe. Keep it together. Don’t let go of the people on either side of you. Feel the cold cement of the floor on your back. The seat above you is solid. If they all stampede you are safe here. If he gets in you are safe here. You are safe now in this moment. Breathe.
*Tap tap tap*
"EVERYONE GET DOWN NOW! Quickly! Get down as low as you can!”
Moments of mass panic and hysteria like this one bubbled up frequently in the hours that we were there. Maybe people were running at the doors, trying to get in to safety. Maybe there were more armed civilians wanting to be the hero who took out a terrorist. All we saw was darkness. We were afraid to look above and check. To become targets. Hysteria is as dangerous in situations like this as the madmen themselves.
Reports started filtering through that one gunman inside the hotel had been caught but his accomplice had escaped. There were shooters at the Bellagio too. Is this another 9/11-style act of terrorism with fresh batches of hell timed to happen every hour? Will there be bombs next? How many dead bodies are outside? Is the hotel lobby filled with them too? Is this the beginnings of a war?
How many seconds until those exit doors blast open in an explosion of bullets directed at me?
Just over three hours had passed when the familiar *tap tap tap* came and we were told that they were going to start getting us out of there. The noise of that tapping on the microphone and the ‘uh, guys…’ that signified more bad news will live with me forever. My mum had already done her mum duty and informed someone that the trifecta of my seizure causes (stress, lack of sleep and late meds) would likely cause me to thrash at any moment and so the officer in charge decreed that we would be the first out on the small airport shuttle bus.
Being first in a line of 1400+ people was wonderful, I was grateful for it. But I was also insanely terrified because as far as we were concerned there was still another shooter on the loose and in hiding. We walked up the back of the auditorium with jelly legs, still shoeless, just incase. When we got outside we were told the only way out was through the crime scene and there was a lot of blood and glass so we must put our shoes on. I tried to protest but it was non-negotiable. Shivering, still holding each other, we boarded the small bus silently, following instruction to the letter. Someone said to sit and bend our heads down over our knees so that we wouldn’t be targets if there were still shooters on the streets.
Blue and red flashing lights enveloped us. Ours was the only moving vehicle on the barren street. I’ve never felt so vulnerable. I was frozen upright, looking around me. I’d given myself to the darkness and the hysteria for too long, I needed to see. Bear witness to what had happened right outside that exit door. What I saw will live with me forever. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to write that down or say the words out loud.
We made it to the safe place and Uber drivers were lined up to give people from our bus free rides to their hotels. An unbelievable act of bravery and kindness. When we got to our hotel we loaded up as many layers of clothing as we could find because a coldness had climbed deep inside our bones and nothing could shift it. It’s still in me, I’ve been shivering for days. The adrenaline crash hit us hard the next day. We spent all day inside in the safe cocoon of our adjoined rooms with all those layers of clothing still on us. Watching the news in disbelief. Putting together the pieces of our experience.
I’ve desperately tried to find meaning to all of this in the days that have passed. I’ve found myself pages deep in online conspiracy theories, researched motives, types of weapon, detailed reports on the how. I’m no further on. There is no sense to be made of it. It was a senseless and terrifying act of violence and insanity. The ONLY way forward for America is gun control. I can say I bore witness to the unnecessary additional terror that was caused by an innocent armed civilian wanting to protect and help during a crisis. No-one on the ground with a gun could have prevented Stephen Paddock from taking the lives he stole. No-one on the ground with a gun will be of any help the next time it happens either.
And there will be a next time. That’s a certainty.