The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Pair survived the Las Vegas massacre. A California shooting took one away.

Brendan Hoolihan, 21, at his home in Santa Ana, Calif., survived the 2017 mass shooting at a music festival in Las Vegas. (Philip Cheung for The Washington Post)
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THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — The first frantic message buzzed Brendan Hoolihan’s phone at about midnight Wednesday, and for hours the messages continued to flood his Snapchat group text. His friends had created the chain after the Las Vegas shooting massacre a year earlier, just in case something unimaginable like that ever happened again.

It had.

“There’s been a shooting at Borderline,” a friend said, and Hoolihan, 21, was shocked, because he couldn’t believe this was happening to his friends a second time. One year, two mass shootings.

Some in the group of 30 had survived the Route 91 Harvest festival attack — the deadliest mass murder in modern U.S. history, with 58 people cut down as they enjoyed a country music concert. One of the survivors was Hoolihan. Another was 27-year-old Telemachus “Tel” Orfanos.

The 12 lives lost in the California bar shooting

The Snapchat group message was where the friends had been coordinating their plans for Wednesday night, which included a trip to Borderline Bar and Grill, where Orfanos worked as a bouncer and promoter. Justin Meek sent a group photo that included Orfanos. On the dance floor, college-age regulars were working the steps of the “Askin’ Questions” line dance, swaying to the catchy beat of this generation’s going-out anthem: “A Little Party Never Killed Nobody.”

Then, a gunman entered Borderline and started shooting with a Glock .45-caliber handgun. Bodies fell as the crowd busted through windows, slid behind tables, ran to hide in the attic. The tone in the group chat changed instantly.

Eighty miles away in Orange County, Hoolihan wondered whether Orfanos, with whom he had survived one mass shooting, had made it through this one, too. Meek had not texted anything else. Neither had Orfanos.

Strangers in Las Vegas

Hoolihan and Orfanos were strangers before the gunfire in Las Vegas, when all around them people were falling and fleeing and bleeding as bullets streamed toward the crowd through the darkness, a shooter positioned high above in the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino across the street. They knew nothing about each other, only that while others were running away, they decided to stay.

By the end of the night, they had witnessed enough carnage to bond them for a lifetime. They exchanged numbers and last names, and for a year shepherded one another through their toughest days — at times overwhelming depression and intense post-traumatic stress. Nobody else seemed to understand them.

They had spoken twice in October: On the anniversary of the Las Vegas shooting and a second time at the end of the month, when Hoolihan needed advice after “the best worst date I’ve ever been on” — with the woman he is now seeing. Orfanos offered this: “Just tell me when the wedding is.”

Hoolihan had come to rely on Orfanos’s steadfast assurances in trying times. On Wednesday night and into Thursday morning, as he was facing another mass shooting among his peers and needed to hear his friend’s voice more than ever, Orfanos wasn’t picking up.

In the group chat, information came in bursts: some friends had been spotted in the background of television live shots at the scene. Others had been interviewed about what had happened.

When the shooting started at Borderline, his friends had heard that Orfanos was trying to help others, just as he had done in Las Vegas. They braced themselves for the worst but hoped for the best: Amid the mayhem, somebody had spotted their friend outside the bar — alive.

'A toll on your soul'

When the gunfire started in Las Vegas, Orfanos and Hoolihan helped topple a barricade so concertgoers could run into a parking lot. Then they crawled between cars, looking for people to help. It was there, at eye level with tires, that they quickly introduced themselves.

They worked the field for hours, loading the injured into the back seats of Uber cars and using their collective trauma training to stop the victims’ bleeding and pack their wounds. Orfanos, a Navy veteran, used his flannel to make a tourniquet. Hoolihan, in school and training to be a police officer, packed his shirt into an off-duty officer’s gaping wound. Both had to cover corpses.

Seeing something like that “takes a toll on your soul,” Hoolihan said.

Officials eventually urged the men to leave the sprawling crime scene, so they moved on to the Tropicana resort where, both shirtless, they walked over tile floors slick with blood searching for victims hiding in alcoves. Hoolihan began to sob. Orfanos wrapped him in a bear hug. “It was a ‘we’re in it together’ type of thing,” Hoolihan said.

They finally stopped about dawn, exchanged phone numbers and took a photo with a third man, a Las Vegas bartender they had met overnight. Covered in blood, they held flag-patterned fabric and smiled.

“That’s kind of where that bond grew,” Hoolihan said. “Even though I don’t know this person personally yet, that’s your partner.”

They went their separate ways.

The Wednesday after Route 91, survivors from Ventura County gathered at the one place that felt safe, that felt like home — Borderline Bar and Grill.

'Borderline family'

Six months later, Orfanos invited Hoolihan to join his Borderline friends at the Stagecoach country concert in Southern California. It was the first and only time they met up after Las Vegas.

Hoolihan quickly was adopted into the greater “Borderline family,” even though he had never visited the beloved bar. Orfanos invited Hoolihan to the 30-person Snapchat group message, a place to plan lodging and logistics — and keep track of one another.

Even as they built friendships and enjoyed the country music that gave them roots, reminders of Las Vegas were everywhere. Near the Ferris wheel, the Route 91 survivors gathered to take a group photo. With some close friends, Orfanos cried. He always carried Vegas with him, and when the emotions bubbled up, Orfanos’s viewpoint remained steady: “I’m glad I’m here, I’m glad you’re here, and I wish there was more we could have done.”

When he wore his Route 91 T-shirt in public, other survivors would come up to shake his hand. In return, he would invite them to Borderline.

“He made them feel so welcome they kept coming back,” said Taylor Allen, 25, a Borderline regular who became close with Orfanos and Hoolihan at the Stagecoach concert.

Of everyone who worked and partied at Borderline, Orfanos “made himself the most known,” said Kaitlyn Maki, 22, who was on the dance floor Wednesday when the shooting began. To anyone who needed it, he made himself available as a counselor, hype-man and drinking buddy. Gregarious and charming, he had a risque sense of humor and an affinity for women.

As other Borderline employees came and went, Orfanos couldn’t leave. “He was too tied,” Allen said. She smirked: “It was the girls in the boots.”

Orfanos’s most defining characteristic, though, was a fierce loyalty to those he loved and a deep sense of duty to protect them at all costs. When a friend at Stagecoach was unaccounted for late one night, Orfanos dragged Hoolihan into an Uber vehicle and they drove around until they found her.

“That’s the kind of person he was,” Hoolihan said. “He will not leave anybody behind.”

'I loved your son a lot'

Alone in Orange County, the Snapchat group message his only connection to his adoptive Borderline family in Thousand Oaks, Hoolihan waited at home for answers.

For most of the morning, those on the chat had behaved as though Orfanos would be okay. “Because I know Tel will read this eventually,” one message began.

But by late morning, Orfanos still hadn’t surfaced — not in the group chat, not on his cellphone. At 12:44 p.m., Hoolihan got the call.

It was true that Orfanos had been spotted outside the bar, safe and alive. But witnesses said he ran back inside to help.

Communication among those on the group chat was complex because people were without their cellphones, having abandoned them on the dance floor as they fled. Together, Orfanos’s friends filled in the blanks from tidbits of information they collected.

Somebody heard that Orfanos had made himself vulnerable while lifting others into the attic, a space only employees knew existed. They heard that he had thrown himself on top of someone as a shield from the gunfire.

Hoolihan couldn’t be alone, so he climbed into his car and drove to Thousand Oaks to be with those who knew Orfanos. On the way, Hoolihan tracked down the phone number for Orfanos’s mother. Hoolihan had never met her, but he wanted to let her know how much her son meant to him.

He dialed her number, and she answered.

“Is this Tel’s mom?” he asked. When she said yes, he formally introduced himself. He talked about Las Vegas and how he considered her son to be one of his best friends, a steady force, an important part of his life.

“I loved your son a lot,” he said. “He was one of the greatest people I ever met.”

She started sobbing. Then she apologized and said, “I’ve got to go, honey,” before hanging up.

Residents of Thousand Oaks, Calif. gathered for a vigil Nov. 8 after a mass shooting at a local country-music bar left 12 people dead. (Video: Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)