About 12:30 a.m. on Oct. 2, I was working in the CNA newsroom with Kaleb Carter, finishing Monday’s sports section, when I got a text from my old Fort Dodge buddy, Jay Christensen, now living in Los Angeles.
Active shooter at Mandalay Bay, the text stated.
Sadly, in these times when it’s almost commonplace, I took notice for a moment and went on with my work.
Little did I know at the time that my sister-in-law Kate Boettcher and husband Brian of Waukee were caught up in the chaotic aftermath of the horrific shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival across from the Mandalay Bay hotel on the Las Vegas Strip.
It’s probably good we didn’t even know they were going to Vegas for Brian’s work-related conference scheduled to begin that Monday, or, like their children, we would have been worried sick. It wasn’t until Kate landed in Des Moines late Monday (Oct. 2) and she sent a text to Deb that we realized the close call the couple had experienced just hours earlier.
Consider this. They were staying at Mandalay Bay, on the 22nd floor. But, fortunately, they were out to dinner farther north on the strip and construction delays prevented them from arriving near the concert where they planned to stand outside and listen to Jason Aldean during the final portion of the concert. They were minutes from being in the line of fire.
A work colleague of Brian’s was even closer to the disaster. He was in bed on the 32nd floor, just a few doors down from shooter Stephen Paddock, and was rousted from bed by a SWAT team ordering him to get out immediately, before he could even gather any belongings and barely throw on a shirt and pair of pants. There wasn’t even time to find his socks and shoes.
That colleague is an avid hunter and knew the staccato-like rhythm of the gunshots was not fireworks, as some concert-goers originally assumed. He was petrified from the beginning, but didn’t know what to do, so he stayed in bed away from the windows.
Hearing Brian and Kate tell their story, I can’t imagine the terror they felt. Yet, Tuesday night Brian said he was a little embarrassed sharing their story, knowing there are 58 fatalities and 546 injury victims who weren’t as fortunate.
“We weren’t the ones being shot, we were just caught in the aftermath,” Brian said, “which was very scary itself. It’s hard to tell our story, knowing that so many other lives were changed forever. It certainly is a reminder that life can change at any moment.”
Kate said her emotions finally broke when she landed in Des Moines and was met by two of her children living in the Des Moines area. Just hours earlier, huddled behind a bar in the Excalibur Hotel and Casino as SWAT teams rushed past them with guns drawn, she wasn’t sure she’d ever see her children or grandchildren again.
“I’ll never forget the guy in a white T-shirt who came into the Excalibur,” Brian said. “Well, it was white on the back. Then when he turned around, it was all red from blood on the front. I don’t know if he had been helping someone who was shot, or what, but you could see how shook up he was. Right then the SWAT team came through and nobody had a clue if they were chasing a shooter or what. Their guns were drawn. A lot of these people in there were concert people already traumatized, and they were freaking out again.”
“We all panicked with them then,” Kate said. “People at the concert saw so many gunshots at once that they thought there must be shooters on the ground, running around. So we had no idea how many there were, or where they were. The bartender told us to lay down and not move, and he wasn’t fooling around at all. It was dead serious.”
Upon arriving in Las Vegas Friday, Brian and Kate had checked into buying concert tickets, but it was sold out and third-party prices were too high, ranging from $250 to $600. After dinner Sunday night, they had planned to walk back to the Mandalay Bay area to listen to the end of the concert, but stopped about 9 p.m. at an Oktoberfest beer festival near where they dined at P.F. Chang’s at the Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino.
They started walking toward Mandalay Bay at 9:45, just 20 minutes before the shooting began. As they were walking past the New York, New York casino, they saw that an escalator to the walkway across Las Vegas Boulevard was closed and under construction.
So, the only way to get across was to go through the New York, New York casino. They then made a decision that may have saved their lives.
“We had talked about playing some virtual craps together, but had never seen a table with two seats open together until we were walking through New York, New York,” Brian said. “So, we sat down and played for awhile.”
They got up and headed outside at about 10:15 p.m., about a half-mile north of Mandalay Bay.
“As soon as we stepped outside, there were cop cars going up the street like crazy, and they were shutting off (public) access to the street at that intersection,” Kate said.
“Somebody on the walkway said they had heard the shooting,” Brian said. “But we had no idea where the shooter was. The bizarre thing was, there were already a couple of ambulances at the corner, and paramedics were putting people inside. I thought, that makes no sense. Why would they be loading people right there at the corner? Then we started to hear that the shooting was at the concert up the street. Very early, the reports said two people were dead and about 20 were injured.”
Brian and Kate said they tried to keep up on the developments through Twitter and Facebook, but their cell phone batteries were getting low on power.
They saw a group of police officers rush into the New York, New York casino with rifles drawn, and police helicopters were hovering overhead with spotlights.
“There were conflicting reports about how many shooters there were, and where they might have gone, so officers were following up and not letting anyone back into New York, New York,” Brian said.
With nowhere else to go, they walked across the street into Excalibur Hotel & Casino, two blocks north of Mandalay Bay.
“By the time we got in there, a bunch of people were getting close to the TVs watching the local news, trying to find out what was going on,” Brian said. “When a SWAT team came in, that’s when people started freaking out and telling everyone to run and hide.”
“We hid behind a restaurant bar with about 30 other people,” Kate said.
Excalibur was on lockdown. After awhile, when the panic subsided, everyone inside was called to a ballroom area where food and drinks were provided, and they could try to rest with some pillows and blankets.
“We sat down with a couple from Dallas who had been at the concert,” Brian said. “Like so many people, they got separated from their friends and couldn’t reach them. Everyone’s phones were going dead. We sent out a basic text to our kids that we were OK, and then turned off the phones except for checking every hour or so for responses.”
They finally were allowed back into Mandalay Bay Monday afternoon, and regrouped just long enough to get cleaned up and pack for flights home later that day. Brian, director of IT operations for Kum and Go in Des Moines, told conference officials he wasn’t planning to stay.
Oddly enough, Brian had been at a conference in Washington, D.C., in September 2001 and had toured the Pentagon on Sept. 10, one day prior to the nation’s worst terrorist attack. He and a colleague got in their rental car and drove back to Iowa when the hijacked airliner attacks took place on that Tuesday, since all air traffic was grounded.
“My sons told me that they know I like history, but I don’t have to be part of history,” Brian said, finally able to joke a little after several restless nights following the Las Vegas ordeal.
They both say they are now more alarmed by loud noises, such as late-night thunder during a recent central Iowa storm. And, at a Christian rock concert Sunday night at Wells Fargo Arena, they found themselves observing where the exits were, and watching how the security people were behaving. They were admittedly a little on edge.
During the following nights, Brian would often wake up with thoughts of the chaos on the Vegas strip. Kate can’t shake the images and sounds of all the emergency vehicles rushing by, and the quiet looks of shock on the faces of so many blood-spattered concert goers huddled with them at the Excalibur.
“We literally thought we might die, hiding behind that bar in the casino,” Brian said. “We looked at each other, grabbed ahold of each other, and said, ‘It’s OK, if we die, we know where we’re going, and we’re going together.’ If anything, it reaffirmed our faith.”
“I think we appreciate everything a little more,” Kate said. “I don’t think you worry about the little things as much. I get to be here one more day. I can handle everyday life now. We’re thankful for our boring life in Iowa!”
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