EVERETT — On the third day in a row of country music song after country music song, fatigue had settled in for Joe Gaffney, of Everett.
He and his wife, Ashley, had stayed to the last act the past two nights of the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas.
The headliner Jason Aldean was on stage for the final night when Gaffney sent a text message to his cousin at 9:50 p.m., to say they were going to leave.
First, the Gaffneys stopped for a bathroom break. But they kept walking when they saw the portable toilets were, frankly, disgusting from days of use by a sold-out crowd of 22,000. A police officer waved them across the Las Vegas Strip to the Mandalay Bay casino. They said thank you.
“It’s an easy crowd,” the officer said. “Happy to be here.”
Minutes later, at 10:08 p.m., rapid gunfire erupted from a hotel room on the 32nd floor of Mandalay Bay. Music cut out across the Strip. Aldean ran off the stage in the middle of his song, “When She Says Baby.” Casino security guards sprinted out the doors. Dealers abandoned their tables.
The Gaffneys did not know, at first, what was happening.
As word spread of a shooter, they did not know what to do. No one told them what to do. No one announced where people should go. So they retreated as far back into the casino as they could. They called family to say they were OK, in case they saw the news and panicked.
Police in bulletproof vests rushed into the building in waves. The Gaffneys realized, “Oh God, this is really bad.”
They hustled through the chaos to a place they thought they’d be safe: their room on the 29th floor of the Delano, another high-rise hotel with shimmering gold windows hundreds of feet northwest of Mandalay Bay.
Up there they could see miles of flashing blue and red lights from police cars and ambulances converging on the concert grounds. A helicopter buzzed by and shook the windows. Spotlights lit up the sides of buildings.
The Gaffneys feared for their friends, another couple from Everett who had stayed to watch the last act of the festival. Later they would learn the husband and wife took shelter from the gunfire, hopped fences and escaped to a hotel about 3 miles north. They weren’t hurt.
Just as the news broke Mallory Bailey, 27, was riding a Lyft, as it turned out toward the gunfire. She was trying to reach her hotel room at the MGM Grand, two long blocks north of Mandalay Bay. Bailey works for CORT Party Rental in Everett. She had flown to Las Vegas for a wedding convention, along with about 30 others from the Seattle area.
People were flooding into the streets. One traumatized woman told Bailey she’d seen someone die in front of her at the festival, and many others dying. People were carrying people. There was a rumor of other shooters. That many gunshots, people said, could not have been fired by one person. Bailey was locked outside while police searched the MGM Grand. Dozens of ambulances flew by.
She kept thinking someone would open the nearest door firing a gun. Later, when Bailey turned off the TV, the news said at least two people were dead.
“We knew that was not the case,” she said.
More than 580 people were shot. Fifty-nine died. Police said the shooter killed himself in a hotel room stocked with 23 guns. His motive remains unclear. It’s the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
Across the street at the Luxor, an extravagant black pyramid-shaped hotel and casino, the Gaffneys watched police rush to an apparent bomb threat. They did not know if their building was being evacuated.
They waited on hold for many minutes before a hotel operator picked up and told them to stay put. Joe, 38, and Ashley, 37, could not sleep. Through the night they peeked out the windows to the 15-acre grounds where they spent the prior three days, on what was supposed to be a relaxing getaway from parenting their four kids.
“There are things you can’t unfeel or unsee,” Ashley Gaffney said. “Watching them clean up the scene, and knowing they were moving bodies into vans, is something I never want to see again.”
Since then the thoughts churning through the Gaffneys’ minds have been hard to explain. One feeling is shock. There’s also gratitude that they left when they did. Another part is guilt that they survived when so many did not. Mostly, they have been wondering what might have happened if they lingered in the line of fire, waiting to use the bathroom, or if they stuck around for one more song, or one more drink.
They heard the lockdown was lifted around 9:30 a.m. Monday. As soon as they could they flew home to Everett, where Joe runs Gaffney Construction Inc. Their two boys and two girls, ages 8 to 15, stayed home from school Tuesday. The family needed to be together.
“We feel pretty grateful for the things in our lives, and our kids, and our family, and our friends,” Ashley said. “This will magnify that.”
Caleb Hutton: 425-339-3454; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @snocaleb.