By KEN BELSON, JENNIFER MEDINA and RICHARD PEREZ-PENA
LAS VEGAS – At first, it sounded like fireworks – a loud, crackling noise. Then the awful realization began to spread, unevenly, through the huge crowd.
It dawned on people when they heard screams, when they saw bloodied victims collapse around them, or when others stampeded for the exits, trampling some of the people in their way.
Many of the terrified concertgoers followed their instincts and crouched or lay flat, not realizing that they remained exposed to a gunman lodged high above them. Others surged into surrounding streets and buildings, leaving behind debris lost in the panic – drink cups, shoes, and cellphones that kept ringing for hours, as relatives and friends tried to reach their loved ones and find out if they were safe.
By sunrise Monday, the staggering toll at an outdoor country music festival on a cool desert night was becoming clear: at least 59 people killed, police said, and 527 injured, either by gunfire or in the flight to safety.
A lone gunman perched on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino had smashed the windows of his suite with a hammer, taken aim at a crowd of 22,000 people, and committed one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history. Late Monday, law enforcement officials said they still had no idea what the motive was.
Police said they found 23 firearms in his suite. And when they searched the shooter’s house, “we retrieved in excess of 18 additional firearms, some explosives, and several thousand rounds of ammo,” said Sheriff Joseph Lombardo of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. He added that they also found ammonium nitrate, a fertilizer sometimes used in making bombs, in the gunman’s car.
The sheriff said some rifles found in the hotel room may have been modified to make them fully automatic. Automatic rifles, which fire multiple rounds with a squeeze of a trigger, are highly regulated, and on videos posted online by witnesses, the rapid-fire sound indicated that at least one weapon was fully automatic.
Down below at the Route 91 Harvest Festival, Melissa Ayala, 41, was drinking and laughing with four friends from California when they heard the gunfire, which at first they thought was fireworks. Then a man near her fell with a bullet wound to his neck. “There was blood pouring everywhere,” she said.
And then: “It was just total chaos,” she said. “People falling down and laying everywhere. We were trying to take cover and we had no idea where to go.”
Police identified the gunman as Stephen Paddock, 64, a retiree with no significant criminal history, who liked to gamble and seemed to live a quiet life with his girlfriend in Mesquite, Nevada, about 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas. He shot himself to death before police reached his room.
The Islamic State claimed Monday that the gunman was “a soldier of the Islamic State,” but provided no evidence. The group has generally been accurate in claiming only violence carried out by those directed by ISIS or inspired by their ideology online. However, in recent months, the group has become more sloppy and has made at least two false claims, including for an attack on a casino in Manila and a bomb plot at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris.
Aaron Rouse, the FBI special agent in charge in Las Vegas, said that so far there was no proof that Paddock had links to any international terrorist organization.
Speaking at the White House, President Donald Trump called the shooting “an act of pure evil,” ordered flags flown at half-staff, and said he would travel to Las Vegas on Wednesday.
On Capitol Hill, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, sent a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan calling for him to create a select committee on gun violence to “study and report back common sense legislation to help end this crisis.”
Previous mass shootings have not generally resulted in changes to federal gun laws. Asked at a news conference about whether the president, who has said that some mass shootings could be mitigated if victims had more liberty to buy guns, would now ask for changes to gun laws, his press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said that “there will be, certainly, time for that policy discussion to take place, but that’s not the place that we’re in at this moment.”
“I think one of the things that we don’t want to do is try to create laws that won’t stop these types of things from happening,” she added.
Last Thursday, officials said, Paddock checked into the gold-tinted, 43-story Mandalay Bay, at the southern end of the string of big hotels that line South Las Vegas Boulevard, the renowned Las Vegas Strip. He took Suite 32135, one of the hotel’s “Vista” suites, which spread out over 1,700 square feet and offer floor-to-ceiling windows. “This is the perfect Las Vegas suite for those who seek the perfect views,” the hotel’s website says.
He brought in more than 10 suitcases during his stay, but no one saw anything amiss, the sheriff said.
Over the following three days, the Las Vegas Village and Festival Grounds, northeast of the Mandalay Bay, played host to the Route 91 Harvest Festival, featuring dozens of country music acts.
It was after 10 p.m. Las Vegas time Sunday, while Jason Aldean was on stage singing “When She Says Baby,” that the first burst of gunfire hit the crowd. At 10:08, someone broadcast on a police radio channel, “we got shots fired – sounds like an automatic firearm,” and less than a minute later, “It’s coming from upstairs in the Mandalay Bay.”
Video of the shooting captured nine seconds of continuous, rapid bursts of fire, followed by 37 seconds of silence from the weapon, as some in the crowd screamed in panic and others looked around in confusion. Aldean kept singing for a few seconds before realizing what was happening and taking cover.
Gunfire then erupted again and again, in rapid-fire bursts.
Jamey Eller, 66, said she and her friends hit the ground with the first fusillade, and then “the second round came and we started to belly-crawl.” As the shooting continued, they decided they had to get up and run.
“We had no idea where we were going,” she said. “We just kept hearing shooting. It felt like they were following us.”
Her sister, Cindy McAfee, 56, called her husband, Steve McAfee, who had stayed back in their hotel room – on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay, where the gunman was. “He was looking down and seeing what was going on and said, ‘Just get out of there – he’s not in the venue, he’s here,’” Cindy McAfee said. “It was absolutely the most scared I’ve been in my entire life.”
Almost nine minutes after the shooting began, an officer radioed, “We’re still taking gunfire, we’re pinned down.” Seconds later, an officer broadcast: “We need to snuff the shooter before there are more victims. Anybody have eyes on him?”
Some survivors tried to climb the chain-link fence topped with barbed wire around the nearby McCarran International Airport, until firefighters ripped the fence up from the ground, allowing them to crawl under it.
Krystal Legette, who was visiting from New York, was at Sundance Helicopters office at the airport, waiting for a sightseeing flight around the city, when, she said, three women burst into the building, screaming, “They’re shooting, they’re shooting!” Then another woman came in, bleeding from a bullet wound in her right arm, and Legette, a nurse, and three others applied a tourniquet.
More and more people ran into the office, until about 100 had taken shelter there, she said. A worker turned out the lights, locked the doors and told everyone to go inside closets and other areas away from the windows.
Ambulances arrived at the festival grounds quickly, but were overwhelmed. Some victims were rushed to hospitals in cars and the backs of pickup trucks. Paramedics’ radio frequencies were so clogged that some used cellphones to call ahead to emergency rooms.
“It was a wide range of injuries, from gunshots to shrapnel wounds, to trample injuries, to people trying to jump fences,” said Greg Cassell, chief of the Clark County Fire Department.
As survivors poured into nearby streets and buildings, police swarmed the Mandalay Bay, conducting a room-by-room search starting on the 29th floor, Lombardo said. At one point, he said, Paddock fired at them through the door of his suite, wounding a hotel security guard. The officers backed off, he said, and then SWAT teams went in.
Police also searched for Paddock’s girlfriend, Marilou Danley, thinking that she might have been with him, in part because he had been gambling using a Players Club Card, a kind of casino debit card, that was issued in her name. Later, it was determined that Danley was out of the country. Police searched the couple’s home in Mesquite and another house Paddock owned in northern Nevada.
Hours after the shooting, as guests returned to the Mandalay Bay to retrieve luggage, those who had been at the concert were still in shock.
Ayala and her friends from California described how they had run for several minutes, reaching the top of the MGM Grand parking lot, where they continued to see the chaos on the Strip below. They called their children, worried it would be the last time they spoke.
They flagged down a driver who agreed to take them to a friend’s timeshare, far off the Strip.
“It wasn’t until we got there and locked the door behind us that we felt safe,” Ayala said. “That was the first time I really breathed.”