It’s amazing how, in a single moment, a life’s meaning can come into focus.
Singing along to the country music, Allison Gardner didn’t want to believe it was gunfire she heard, popping and cracking, while she stood among families and revelers in the shadow of the Mandalay Bay Hotel.
It would have been so easy to hope it was fireworks – everyone else did.
Country star Jason Aldean was still singing, despite the silence that had fallen on the crowd. Then came 30 or 40 more rounds, fired in quick succession – pop pop pop pop – but there were no sparkles in the sky.
There was only taut silence, seeming to last forever and ominous as an oncoming tornado.
Then the bullets started peppering the ground.
“Literally five feet from us, this girl holds her arm up to her friends said, ‘What the fuck, I just got shot, I think just got hit,'” Allison said.
Once she saw that, her body unfroze and she grabbed her wife, Jacqulyn Lopez, by the arm and shouted that they needed to run, that this wasn’t pyrotechnics, that this was death.
“I just kept telling her ‘We have babies! Run! We have babies! Run! Run!”
Three days earlier, Allison and Jacqulyn were excited to head to Las Vegas to celebrate Jacqulyn’s 30th birthday, which fell on Sept. 22. The couple, living in the Lancaster/Palmdale area of California, had packed up their Honda CRV and were ready to make the three-hour drive to meet up with friends for the Route 91 Harvest Festival, headlined by Jason Aldean, one of Jacqulyn’s favorites.
First they dropped off their young boys – their babies – at Jacqulyn’s sisters’ homes. Allison gave birth to Maxton six months ago, and the couple adopted Liam when he was born two months ago.
“We dropped each boy off and we drove out to Vegas, just her and I,” Allison said.
Free from the major responsibilities of their lives, Allison and Jacqulyn were looking forward to cutting loose, except for one problem: Jacqulyn had laryngitis, and couldn’t communicate verbally very well.
The couple figured they’d make do, just as they’d always done.
“My wife, she was sick the whole time, had no voice so she could barely talk,” Allison said. “I felt like I was her translator all weekend.”
By Thursday night, Sept. 28, the couple arrived at the Rita Suites near the Strip, ready for a weekend of music and fun with friends they were meeting. The next day, Allison and Jacqulyn wandered out to Summerlin, a quiet, calm community west of Las Vegas, to visit Jacqulyn’s grandparents. “They always feed us,” Allison said with a laugh.
After dinner with family, the couple made the 25-minute trip back to the Strip to meet up with their friends Lena, Nicole, and Tilly to pre-game that night’s concert. They met at the Excalibur Hotel on the Strip, and Allison and Jacqulyn put away a few beers, though recent motherhood made their alcohol tolerance nearly nonexistent.
They walked over to the music venue where the festival would host music all weekend, and partied until the sun went down. They called it an early night, and went back to their hotels.
Saturday was the day they’d all go hard. After another meal with Jacqulyn’s grandparents, they got to the festival venue at about 4:30 p.m. and hung out by the main stage. This is an important aspect of their survival the next day, Allison noted: The first night, they were to the left of the main stage, and the second night, they stayed to the right.
Everyone was super drunk; it’s Vegas, it’s warm, there’s music, there are friends. Allison and Jacqulyn split up to hang out with various groups of buddies, and didn’t get home until the sun was threatening to come up.
“That was a good night,” Allison said.
Sunday, Oct. 1 dawned with hangovers and the realization their weekend was coming to a close. Jacqulyn went to the emergency room to find out she had a severe inner ear infection, and her throat was still like cut glass.
The new moms could admit they’d partied way too hard the first two nights – they weren’t in drinking shape like they used to be – and decided to take it easy, to stay sober.
Allison thinks it saved their lives.
“I thank God all of us were sober that night,” she said.
They parked their Honda at the Excalibur to meet up with their friends again. On the walk over, the women tossed around the idea of not even going tonight, maybe just hanging out the five of them and having some quality time, they’re all tired and wouldn’t that be nice? But then they remembered the tickets were $215, and missing Jason Aldean? That’d be a waste of money and opportunity.
By 5 p.m., they were by the main stage, this time to the right again, the side closest to the Mandalay Bay.
They walked over to the stage’s left side, wanting to switch it up a bit and be closer to Jacqulyn’s cousin and her cousin’s husband. Then they tried to get as close to the stage as possible, inching forward until they were packed in with people, tight as sardines.
“When you get that close you can’t move. You’re just body to body to body,” Allison said.
It was 30 minutes until Jason Aldean started.
Sober and stuck in the mass of people, Allison and Jacqulyn stood there for 10 minutes before deciding to give up on getting closer and to head back to the right of the stage again, to be with their friends.
“It is probably the best decision we made, because being that close we wouldn’t be able to move,” Allison said. “If this would have happened the night before, I was not in the right mind at all.”
For a while, it was perfect. For a while, it was bliss.
“Jason Aldean was singing ‘Take a Little Ride,’ one of my favorite songs that now seems so cold and eerie to me,” Jacqulyn said. “I remember swaying and looking over at my best friend watching her enjoy the music — he was our guy!”
As she sung along, Allison took a Snapchat, unknowingly capturing the first shot fired by a man in a room in the Mandalay Bay, high above the crowd.
“We hear the crackling go off and it sounded like firecrackers. Everyone’s like kind of in shock, like, ‘What is that?’ and Jason Aldean is still singing. Then the first round of fire goes off, 30 to 40 rounds. Everyone is still in shock, everyone goes silent, but Jason is still singing,” Allison said.
It’s fireworks, everyone said. It’s fireworks, the concert staff even hoped out loud.
But Allison is from California’s Antelope Valley. She knows what fireworks sound like.
Once she saw the bullet tear into the nearby woman’s arm, her tactical training from years in the U.S. Navy kicked in. She knew immediately that the bullets were coming from above, and that sheltering in place wouldn’t do them any good – they’d be sitting ducks.
She grabbed Jacqulyn and yelled at her to run, and Jacqulyn, who was still very ill, struggled to breathe as they went.
Allison chanced a glance over her shoulder, and saw, perhaps two feet behind her, a hail of bullets riddling live bodies.
“My wife kept gagging and I just kept telling her ‘We have babies! Run! We have babies, run, run!'” Allison said.
“I looked back to see if I could see Lena, Tilly and Nicole and I think they had already dropped to the floor,” Jacqulyn said. “Before I could try and say anything at all Ally was pulling me telling me we needed to run, we needed to run as fast as we could and stay together.”
Bullets flew, and Jacqulyn tried to hit the floor to shelter in place.
“I just saw Ally, she kept yelling at me, I tried pulling her down, yelling at her we needed to stay low and she said, ‘No, we need to get out of here,’ as bullets where whizzing past us,” Jacqulyn said.
They hopped over a small wall, finding shelter in the beer vendor area. People were running everywhere, falling over and trampling one another. A woman hit the ground hard next to them, and Allison still isn’t sure if she tripped or was shot.
She saw four girls cowering near the counter, and the Pulse massacre in Orlando flashed through her mind.
“I immediately thought of Orlando and if there’s a shooter on the ground, you can’t stay hidden,” she said. “It sounded like there was a shooter from afar, but I swear to God it also sounded like there was a shooter on the ground, too.”
They needed to get behind another counter. Jacquyln didn’t think she could jump over it and wanted to run around it, but Allison stopped her.
They looked over and watched a woman do what Jacqulyn had been planning; they watched her drink “go everywhere” as she got shot in what Allison thinks was probably the head.
“If (Jacqulyn) would have ran around that would have been her,” Allison said, the tension mounting in her voice.
Bullets continued to fly through the air, and Jacqulyn watched as another woman near her was shot in the arm.
“I see out of the corner of my eye a bullet whizzed through the top of her shoulder and through the arm, as she tripped, she fell into me leaving my left arm covered in blood, I pushed her toward the direction of the first aid tent and again heard Ally, ‘LET’S GO, WE HAVE BABIES.’”
“I could smell the gunpowder in the air, I could smell the blood in the air, I could smell the beer,” Allison said. “I was in the military for four years, military police, and I never once experienced something like that.”
They stood still for a moment, unsure what to do. Then Allison overheard what she believes was a guardian angel in human form, a woman talking about a back exit.
A loud voice in her head propelled her forward, urging her to get home to her babies. She grabbed Jacqulyn and ran again, moving as fast as they could through the chaos and blood.
They ran through the back exit into a wall of police rifles pointed at them; the police were closing in and just about to close the gate. Allison and Jacqulyn were two of the final people through, and gunshots still rang out from the Mandalay Bay.
“I see this SUV and I swear these were our guardian angels,” Allison said. “I opened their car door and I said, ‘Can we get in? We have babies!’ and they said, ‘We do too.'”
The SUV was packed with people, some even in the trunk. The parking lot was full of panicked festivalgoers, and somehow the man driving was able to maneuver through and over a curb and onto the main road without hitting anyone.
They could still hear gunfire as he peeled out, getting away, away and fast. Ten minutes away from the Strip, the man dropped Allison and Jacqulyn at a gas station and said he had to go back – he still had family back at the festival.
“We didn’t even get their names,” Allison said. “He was so calm and so composed to even drive through that.”
They walked to a nearby Best Western hotel. Rumors of gunmen shooting up hotel lobbies all around the Strip made the women terrified of staying in the open room. Jacqulyn realized she had blood on her. The couple got a room and tried to decompress, but the panic was still raging.
They called all their friends, breathing deeply for the first time when they knew everyone had made it out.
Everything shut down. The Strip closed, there were no taxis, no Ubers or Lyfts. No one could walk the sidewalks, and the couple’s Honda was still in the Excalibur parking lot.
But of course, family came through. Jacqulyn’s grandpa came to pick them up as soon as the women called. They tried to calm down somehow, to understand what they’d just been through. Sleep wasn’t easy.
Waking up to the reality of what had happened was harder.
“We knew it was tragic, we lived it, it was like being in the middle of the warzone,” Allison said. “The severity of it when we woke up and we saw so many deaths and injuries, that made me sick.”
They saw a picture of a woman who had been shot and Allison recognized her as a lady who had been leaning on her drunkenly during the concert. She also found out a man she’d served with in the Navy, who had done a tour in Afghanistan as an MP dog handler, had died in the gunfire.
At least 58 people died, with hundreds more put in the hospital. Allison and Jacqulyn walked away with scrapes and bruises.
“(My wife) tells me ‘You basically saved my life’ because I maintained a level head,” Allison said. “I was yelling at her like boot camp-style.”
They waited until midday, when they were finally allowed to get their Honda and get back to their lives, to their babies. When they arrived to pick up Maxton and Liam, the enormity of the situation crashed down around them.
“We just hugged them and squeezed them, I started crying, my wife was crying and I just said, ‘I didn’t think I’d see you again,'” Allison said. “I thought we were going to die and I saw flashes of everyone I love.”
That’s the big difference between this and war, she said.
“At least when you’re going to war you’re kind of mentally prepared, you’re trained, you can tell your loved ones, ‘Hey, I might not make it out.’ We had no time to say, ‘We’re being shot at, I love you.'”
Both Allison and Jacqulyn are now in therapy, trying to cope. Jacqulyn’s voice hasn’t yet come back, though last week both were headed back to work soon, Allison as a children’s social worker in emergency response, and Jacqulyn with the U.S. Air Force.
They know they have to move forward. But in the week since the chaos and violence, they’ve found little reason for what they experienced, and are still in shock.
And they may never know or understand what drove that man to kill and maim so many; that’s not the point. What they know for sure, for 100 percent certain, is that love will move you when your legs are heavy, it will push you past your limits, and it will always outshine hate and despair, like that which rained down from Mandalay Bay.
“My wife and I served four and seven-and-a-half years in the United States Navy, respectively, and not once experienced something as traumatic as this evening,” Jacqulyn said. “I am thankful for the readiness, and training we were taught that has been instilled in us. I am so thankful that God was protecting my family and friends and that through it all we saw a light at the end of the tunnel. For us, it was our baby boys leading the way, it was flashes of faces of the ones we love and it was survival mode that kept us alive!”
“It’s something we’ll never forget,” Allison said. “I’m not going to let it ruin my life, but it’s going to take a long time to heal.”