COLORADO SPRINGS — The dance floor was alive, people bouncing to DJ T-Beatz’s pulsing tunes, a Saturday night at Colorado Springs’ trusty spot for gay people and their friends. For 21 years, Club Q, tucked behind a Subway sandwich shop on a suburban strip six miles from downtown, had been more than a nightclub — it was a community center, a place where families of all ages gathered for brunch on Sundays to watch drag performers play Madonna and Cher, Beyoncé and Cardi B.
Moments before midnight Mountain time, a young man wearing a military-style jacket and carrying a long, AR-15-style rifle and a handgun walked into the club, where the bouncers knew many of the patrons and were known to give everyone else a hard look.
Joshua Thurman, a regular at Club Q for many years, was dancing when something sounded wrong: “We heard the music and then we heard pop-pop-pop-pop-pop. That was it,” he said, “so I kept on dancing.” There was no screaming, he noticed, and the pops sounded muffled.
But then, a second series of pops, louder now, closer. This time, he could see flicks of fire as rifle shots exploded into the air. “When I heard another set of shots go off,” Thurman said, “that’s when it clicked in my mind that, oh, it’s going down.”
With two other customers, he immediately ran to hide, tucking into the dressing room behind the club’s performance stage and locking the door.
Within minutes of midnight, Club Q became the latest in a never-ending series of places of pleasure and possibility that one person with a deadly weapon turned into an American address of tragedy and fear. In a matter of seconds — probably less than a minute, the city’s police chief said — the man with the rifle shot and killed five people. At least 18 others were injured.
For Colorado Springs, a city of 480,000 people that lies 70 miles south of Denver, the attack on a gay-oriented nightspot immediately raised worries about any connection to the country’s corrosive cultural conflicts: The shooting took place during Transgender Awareness Week, in a place of sharp political division, a city that is home to prominent socially conservative and evangelical Christian organizations such as Focus on the Family, yet is becoming increasingly secular.
The shooter started firing right after he walked in and kept shooting as he walked deeper into the club, witnesses said. He didn’t say anything.
There was anything but silence in Club Q. There was confusion, flight and panic, and there were heroics, too, moments of confrontation and rescue.
It had been a bit slower than the typical Saturday night at Club Q, maybe because the weather had turned cold, maybe because people were already scattering for the Thanksgiving holiday. Seven drag performers had entertained earlier in the evening, and then the DJ, Tara “T-Beatz” Bush, took her place in the booth, enticing people onto the dance floor.
But now, people were running for their lives. The club’s general manager, Beyonca Deleon, was sitting outside when she heard cracking, like loudspeakers about to blow, she said. She looked toward the front door and saw bursts from a gun. She yelled at everyone on the club’s patio to move. Climb over the gate, she told them. Some people couldn’t make it over the gate, so they broke it down and took cover behind a garbage container.
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Inside Club Q, as bullets flew, customers hit the floor, glasses and bottles shattering around them. Bush, the DJ, was shot twice in the back, according to her roommate, Bonnie Herbst, who said Bush was recovering from surgery Sunday.
Thurman and others called police — the first call came in at 11:56 and 57 seconds.
In a city that had been through this before — seven dead at a birthday party in 2021, three dead at a Planned Parenthood office in 2015 — the machinery of mass shootings clicked into gear.
On the Colorado Springs fire/EMS emergency radio, the evening’s sporadic roll call of traffic accidents was interrupted right about midnight, when a dispatcher announced: “This will be a command four, active shooter, Bravo 34, Engine 14, Engine 8, Battalion 2, … to 3430 North Academy Boulevard, Club Q. Active shooter. All units respond.”
Police said their first cruiser was on the scene by midnight.
By then, the shots had gone silent, though customers and staffers remained tucked into hiding places. Somewhere in the chaos, an unarmed patron grabbed hold of the shooter and “acted so courageously as to remove a handgun from his waist and use that handgun to subdue him,” hitting the gunman in the head with the weapon, Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers told The Washington Post on Monday. “This person is a real hero.”
The hero was Richard Fierro, who went to Club Q with his family to celebrate a friend’s birthday and watch the drag show, which included a performance by his 22-year-old daughter’s best friend.
When he heard the shots, Fierro hit the floor, then saw the shooter.
“I ran across the bar, grabbed the guy from the back and pulled him down and pinned him against the stairs,” Fierro told The Washington Post on Monday.
Although Fierro weighs 300 pounds, the gunman was bigger, wore body armor and carried two firearms. “He went for his weapon, and I grabbed his handgun,” Fierro said.
Fierro said he ordered a young man to “Kick him! Move the AR! Then I just started hitting him … The back of his head was my target.”
Fierro’s daughter broke her knee as she ran for cover. His wife made it to the outdoor patio.
“I had to do something,” Fierro said. “He was not going to kill my family.”
Fierro started hitting the shooter with the pistol, “beating the back of his head,” he said. “I’m yelling to people at the same time, ‘Call the police! Let’s go!’ ” As a drag queen in high heels went by, Fierro shouted, “Kick him!” She did.
Fierro had the shooter pinned to the floor when police entered the club. Officers found Fierro “in the middle of a puddle of blood,” he recalled. Fierro said he was held in a police car for an hour while officers sorted out who was the bad guy and who was the hero.
The customer who grabbed the shooter’s weapon “saved dozens and dozens of lives,” one of Club Q’s owners, Matthew Haynes, said at a memorial vigil Sunday evening. “Stopped the man cold. Everyone else was running away, and he ran toward him.”
Police identified the suspect as Anderson Lee Aldrich, a 22-year-old Colorado Springs resident who was not known to have been at Club Q before. Although the mayor cautioned that the police investigation was just beginning, he said the shooting “has all the trappings of a hate crime, but we need to look at social media, we need to look at all kinds of other information that we’re gathering from people that knew the individual before we make any definitive conclusions about a motivation.”
Aldrich faces five murder charges and five charges of committing a bias-motivated crime, Max D’Onofrio, a city spokesman, said Monday. He noted that the charges might change after the suspect is released from the hospital and booked at the jail.
Eventually, 39 police officers, 34 firefighters and 11 ambulances would arrive at the club, which sits in a neighborhood of low-slung apartment buildings, chain stores and breathtaking views of the Rocky Mountains.
People whose job it is to save others did whatever it took: Police officers took the shooter into custody and to a hospital for treatment of unspecified wounds. Other officers took injured people into their cruisers and sped them to hospitals. Medics treated at least one shooting victim inside a nearby 7-Eleven.
On the fire department radio, a firefighter asked if dispatch knew how many victims were at the scene.
“We are getting reports of four to seven possibly injured,” came the reply, the voice calm, dispassionate. “I’m still getting further details … No indication suspect has been detained yet.”
The numbers quickly ballooned, and dispatchers put out the call for more ambulances. “They’re trying to get seven to come in,” a dispatcher said. “They do want you guys to come in.”
Then, moments later, on the radio: “Reports of 10 people shot, which makes it a mass casualty.”
About 10 minutes after midnight, as the scope of the devastation became clear, dispatchers put out the word to surrounding jurisdictions to send in more units. “Dispatch, can you give me three more FD [fire department] units?” a commander said on the radio.
“Engines or trucks?” the dispatcher asked.
“I don’t care,” came the reply. “Just give me three more closest units.”
Emergency workers set up a “casualty collection point,” and at least 14 victims were transported to three hospitals in the city; several others made it to emergency rooms on their own, police said. Some were shot; others were hurt in the rush to escape the club. At least seven of the victims remained in critical condition early Monday, authorities said.
Inside the club, it was too late for too many. Two bartenders, Daniel Davis Aston and Derrick Rump, were killed, as were three customers, Kelly Loving, Ashley Paugh and Raymond Green Vance.
Aston, 28, was a transgender male who had completed his transition in June. He was on his way to the patio for a smoke, his mother said, when he got hit.
Rump, who was also a co-owner of the club, was a primary reason clubgoers like Kayla Rene Cortes kept coming back. Rump was a friendly face who kept her company when she was alone and had her favorite fruity drink ready as soon as she walked in, said Cortes, 26, a regular at Club Q since she turned 18. She heard from friends that Rump died while fighting the shooter. She remembered him hanging out at the club on his off days, joining karaoke sing-offs and occasionally dressing in drag.
Sometimes he filled in as a bouncer at the door. “They take security very serious there,” Cortes said. “Every time you walk in, you get wanded down.”
The club had several hiding places — there was an area with pool tables, a stage where drag shows played, the kitchen, the dressing room. After about 25 minutes, Thurman and others finally emerged from the dressing room. They saw blood and shattered glass, the remnants of chaos. And they saw bodies. Ushered out of the building by police, they were rushed away from the area, many leaving their cars, phones and other belongings behind.
Just before 12:30 a.m., word went out on the EMS radio: “Everyone’s been removed from the building.”
Investigators set up perimeters and moved into the club to begin the painstaking process of reconstructing one minute of fear.
A few hours later, the sun rose on a spectacular early winter morning, 19 degrees, a bit of frost on the ground. Before word spread through the waking city, the most-read story on the Colorado Springs Gazette website was about the opening of Colorado Springs’s third Whataburger outlet.
Club Q would ordinarily be gearing up for its next act, an 11 a.m. Sunday, all-ages, musical drag brunch, to be followed that evening by a drag show “celebrating Transgender Day of Remembrance with a variety of gender identities and performance styles.” The club’s drag shows did well; the group that staged the events said on its site that “Colorado Springs drag has become more and more mainstream in recent years.”
But Sunday’s show was canceled. Instead, Club Q announced on its Facebook page that it “is devastated by the senseless attack on our community. Our prayers and thoughts are with all the victims and their families and friends. We thank the quick reactions of heroic customers that subdued the gunman and ended this hate attack.”
On its homepage, the club replaced its promotional announcements with images of flickering candles and one line: “Club Q Will Be Closed Until Further Notice.”
The club, which Colorado Springs Police Chief Adrian Vasquez called “a safe haven for our LGBTQ citizens,” was something of a home to people like Del Lusional, a drag performer who had played the Club Q stage earlier Saturday evening.
“I went from being so proud of myself for what I accomplished tonight, to … this,” the performer wrote on Twitter a few hours after the attack. “I hate this so much. I hate this so f---ing much …. I never thought this would happen to me and my bar. I don’t know what to do with myself. I can’t stop hearing the shots.”
Cortes called the city’s LGBTQ community “a family. We don’t have much support here in Colorado Springs,” she said. “That was a place you could go, a home. And to ruin that, to ruin our family, is just rough.”
Cortes, who works at a downtown hotel and lives a few minutes up the road from Club Q with her wife and their 4-year-old son, was 19 when a gunman attacked Pulse, a nightclub in Orlando that attracted a large LGBTQ following. Back then, her mother, frightened for her lesbian daughter, asked her to stop going to Club Q.
“I was like ‘No, that’s more of a reason to go,’ ” Cortes recalled. “I’m not going to run around scared. I have a life, and I shouldn’t be afraid to show who I am.”
But now, she’s not sure she will ever return to the club after her friend the bartender was killed.
“He was what made Club Q,” Cortes said. “It’s never going to be the same. Even if they reopen, I don’t see myself going back.”
On the morning after the attack, Thurman returned to the parking lot outside the club, trying to retrieve his car and phone. He spoke as if to the shooter: “You’ve harmed us in a way that I don’t know how we can bounce back from. What can we do? We can rebuild, we can come together, we can do vigils, we can raise money. But that’s not going to bring back those five people that lost their lives.”
Fifteen hours after the shootings, 1,500 miles away, in Orlando, at a memorial to victims of the Pulse massacre six years ago, a crowd gathered to honor those lost in the latest attack on a gathering place for LGBTQ people. Forty-nine people died when a gunman opened fire at the Florida club; more than 50 others were injured.
The fear inflicted by that shooter has abated little in the intervening years. The emotions evident at the memorial on Sunday evening were raw, unsettled: anger, frustration, abiding pain.
“I’ve seen this pain before — staring back at me from the mirror,” tweeted Brandon Wolf, who escaped the Pulse shooter by hiding in a bathroom and now works for Equality Florida, a civil rights organization.
Now there was one more place on the long list of clubs and schools and theaters and other spots around the country where, in a single moment, by the actions of one person, what had been a center of joy, hope and community was transformed into a memorial, a symbol of the searing violence that the nation seems powerless to stop.
Boorstein and Hennessy-Fiske reported from Colorado Springs; Fisher, from Washington. Annie Gowen, Maria Paul and Joby Warrick in Washington contributed to this report.
Mass shooting at Club Q in Colorado
What we know: The suspect, Anderson Lee Aldrich, will be formally charged at a hearing today. Aldrich is accused of fatally shooting five people and wounding 17 others at a Colorado Springs night club last month. Records show that Aldrich changed his name at age 15, obscuring a tumultuous past.
Remembering the victims: Officials on Monday identified the five victims killed in the Colorado Springs shooting. Their names are Daniel Aston, Raymond Green Vance, Kelly Loving, Ashley Paugh and Derrick Rump. Here’s how to help family members of the victims and survivors of the Club Q shooting.