Oak Park native Kyle Harris moved to Las Vegas last February and, “on a whim,” he decided to go to the Route 91 Harvest Festival on the Vegas Strip on Sunday night.
Within hours, he found himself in the middle of a terrified and confused crowd of 22,000 people, being fired upon by a gunman perched in a room on the 32nd floor of a nearby hotel.
“It was just pandemonium,” he said.
Harris, a 25-year-old restaurant manager, and a few friends decided to go to the country music festival about 6 p.m., he said.
Authorities said that shortly after 10 p.m., as Jason Aldean was performing, Stephen Paddock opened fire on the crowd from a room at the Mandalay Bay Hotel across the street, killing at least 58 and leaving more than 500 others wounded.
Prior to the deluge of bullets, Harris and his friends had parted ways, but he decided to stay and watch some of Aldean’s set. He was standing near the stage’s sound booth, about 15 rows back from the stage.
After Aldean performed a few songs, Harris “started hearing something like firecrackers,” he said.
Even before he knew for sure what was going on, Harris believed the crowd would soon begin to panic.
“People are going to start freaking out,” he recalled. “There’s going to be a stampede. I need to move away from the situation.”
“I somehow had the wherewithal, before all the mess started, to know to get out of the way,” he said.
Harris parked his car about a mile and a half north of the music fest. He made a point to take “the backroads home, not the Strip or highway.”
He called his family around 12:30 a.m. Monday, waking them up to tell him he was unharmed. He woke up to about 35 texts messages and Facebook notifications from people asking if he was safe.
Keri Lynch, a resident of Ravenswood, was in the Las Vegas area with her husband to visit his family. As shots rang out from the Mandalay Bay Hotel, Lynch and her husband were walking out of a show at the New York-New York Hotel and Casino, less than a mile north.
Lynch said they were exiting the theater when she heard two gunshots. Staff of the New York-New York shuffled people — at least 400 — back inside.
“It was like a reverse tide,” she said.
Lynch and her husband did not get back to their hotel until about 3:30 a.m., four and a half hours after the shooting started.
“I didn’t sleep very well,” she said.
Lynch’s in-laws live in Mesquite, Nevada, the same city of about 17,000 that was home to the shooter. She and her husband will be back in Chicago on Tuesday.
Spencer Ellena, 28, of the West Loop, saw the comedian Carrot Top perform Sunday night in Las Vegas, where he was celebrating a pal’s birthday. Ellena said he would have rather gone to watch Aldean perform.
After seeing the auburn-haired funnyman, Ellena and his pals piled into a taxi. As the driver pulled away, the group listened to a few seconds of Aldean playing across the street at the festival.
Ellena, a big country music fan, had a tinge of regret.
“If we knew he was playing we probably would have gone,” said Ellena, a medical device salesman.
Minutes after Ellena’s taxi departed, Paddock opened fire.
When Ellena woke up around 4 a.m. Monday to catch a cab to the airport, he saw news alerts on his phone and realized how close he came to tragedy.
His taxi driver’s route to the airport again took Ellena past the concert venue, which was now a crime scene.
“There were people with blood on them on the side of streets crying and holding themselves,” Ellena said. “They were wearing cowboy boots and hats. There was glass shattered on the ground. There were crashed cars. SWAT teams were there.”
“It was an act of God that we weren’t there,” said Ellena, who called his fiancee and family early Monday to let them know he was all right.
Ellena shared his story with reporters after picking up his luggage upon arriving at Midway Airport on Monday around noon on his flight back from Las Vegas.
There were 20 vacant seats on his plane home. He figured the people who were supposed to be in them may have been affected by the massacre.