What I saw in Vegas during an active shooter scare will stay with me forever

“Don’t come back. I don’t want to scare you, but something bad is happening. I love you.”

There were so many things I didn’t say in that July 16 text to my boyfriend: I’m huddled behind the bed, so I’m not visible from the door. The lights and TV are off, so there’s no sign of life. I’m too scared to cry, but that’s OK because I need to be silent.

I hate that I know how to do these things because I’ve heard so many children describe their schools’ active shooter drills on TV that it almost feels like I’ve been through them myself. You have to turn off the lights, pull the shades down, be completely silent and barricade behind tables and cabinets.

I hate that I know how to do these things because I’ve heard so many children describe their schools’ active shooter drills on TV that it almost feels like I’ve been through them myself.

Politicians spend endless hours debating whether mass shootings result from mental health issues. But the mental health issues caused by a constant onslaught of mass shootings don’t get enough of their attention.

Everything had been perfectly normal 10 minutes before I sent the text.

I was in the elevator at the New York-New York Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, calculating how much money I’d lost to the slot machines so far. One more go before I went to bed, I figured, to try to win back my $75. My boyfriend, more of a night owl than me, was across town perusing Fremont Street.

After 2 1/2 years of pandemic living, he and I had braved a long weekend out of town. We’d been anticipating it for a month, playfully yelping “Vegas, baby!” at each other in odd moments.

With a ding, the lift doors slid open into a small vestibule.

Waves upon waves of screaming people were running straight at me. I was standing in the only set of open elevator doors.

“Don’t get off!” a woman bellowed, body-checking me back into the car.

A cacophony of voices rose around me.

“Close the doors!”

“We have to get out of here!”

I wasn’t processing any of what was happening. The noise and movement of the casino floor had been controlled chaos. This was something altogether different.

At least 20 people crammed into a space meant for no more than 10, and I was pushed into the corner, hitting the wall with a thunk. Between having the wind knocked out of me and the panic surrounding me, I couldn’t catch a breath.

The air no longer smelled like money; it tasted of fear. And the screaming suddenly shifted focus. All the voices were now directed at me — the person closest to the elevator buttons that would get us out of there.

“We have to go NOW!”

“WHY AREN’T THE DOORS CLOSING?!”

There was no time to think, and I didn’t ask questions.

With fingers as useless as hot dogs, I scanned the key card required to travel between floors. The telltale swoosh of closing doors wasn’t happening.

Once again, the voices changed their target.

“There are too many people! Get out!”

“It’s too heavy! The doors won’t close!”

Two young men jumped off the elevator and were absorbed back into the screaming mob. They had sacrificed their own safety to give us ours. The doors closed.

As the elevator car finally ascended out of the danger zone, I sagged against the wall and looked at my companions in escape. Every inch was filled with bodies.

I turned to the woman who pushed me back to safety. “What the hell is going on?” I ask.

“There’s a shooter,” she said, her eyes spinning. “We heard two shots.”

I can’t pretend I hadn’t already been thinking that, but hearing it confirmed was a gut punch.

A woman wailed, “It’s not safe anywhere anymore!”

When I finally made it back to my room on the 29th floor, I ran around and turned off everything that shed light or sound. Some part of my brain whispered that with over 2,000 rooms, it would be wildly unlikely for a gunman to target our specific room.

But the active part of my brain wasn’t operating rationally. It was stuck in survival mode.

Pull out phone.

Dim screen

Boyfriend text.

Open Twitter.

Search “Vegas active shooter.”

The first post had been three minutes earlier.

For a half-hour, I scrolled Twitter obsessively, watching the #ActiveShooter posts spread from shots heard at the New York-New York and the MGM across the street to the nearby Aria to casinos further down the strip. Tweets detailed thousands — perhaps tens of thousands — of people in a blind panic up and down the strip.

For the next two days, every time I took the elevator, my mind got caught in a loop of memories from the scariest two minutes of my life.

Thirty minutes later, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department issued a statement: “Reports of a shooting near the MGM tonight are unfounded. Initial reports are a glass door shattered causing a loud noise which startled people in the valet area.”

Our lobby was not a crime scene. All of the adrenaline drained from my body. I collapsed like a limp noodle on the bed.

“You can come back now,” I texted my boyfriend. “I need to cuddle.”

For the next two days, every time I took the elevator, my mind got caught in a loop of memories from the scariest two minutes of my life.

That’s where I was when the woman shoved me.

That’s what a tsunami of people looks like when it’s coming right at me.

That’s what screams of life-and-death terror sound like.

That’s what guilt feels like when you leave two people behind in order to save 15.

Two days later, I was still breaking out in tears for no discernible reason.

In the United States, we live in a perpetual state of panic to the degree that the sound of glass shattering in one hotel causes mass hysteria the entire length of one of America’s most famous streets.

Children know as much about hiding from an active shooter as they do about multiplication and adverbs, and it is affecting their mental health.

A 2021 study by the Georgia Institute of Technology showed that children experienced up to a 42% increase in anxiety, stress and depression following active shooter drills — not from shootings themselves, but from practicing for a potential shooter.

In a 2019 study, the American Psychological Association found that 79% of adults in the United States experience stress over the possibility of a mass shooting, and 32% can’t go anywhere without worrying they will be a victim of a mass shooting. About 1 in 4 adults are living their lives differently because their fear of mass shootings is so severe.

APA CEO Arthur C. Evans Jr. said of the findings: “It’s clear that mass shootings are taking a toll on our mental health. … We don’t have to experience these events directly for them to affect us. Simply hearing about them can have an emotional impact, and this can have negative repercussions for our mental and physical health.”

When will the mental and physical health of our entire population become more important than the desire of a very small percentage to own a semi-automatic rifle that, even without modification, can fire approximately 60 rounds a minute?

In Las Vegas, a pandemonium was caused by a rumor — one we took seriously because we’ve been conditioned to do so.

Two men jumped out of the elevator without hesitation. I wish I knew the calculation they were making. Instead, what I know is a peculiar sense of survivor’s guilt: We had no way to know there wasn’t a gunman. If there had been, those young men might have been two of the ever-expanding number of people killed in mass shootings. We would have been the next big story that shows up in the headlines for a couple of weeks, then fades — just another statistic in an endless string of statistics.

Our terror was real, but thankfully no one was killed. The people in Highland Park, Illinois; Uvalde, Texas; Buffalo, New York; and so many more places weren’t so lucky.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *