LAS VEGAS — Jonathan Smith is likely to spend the rest of his life with a bullet lodged in the left side of his neck, a never-ending reminder of America’s deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
The scene after a gunman opened fire on concertgoers at a country music festival in Las Vegas
As the bullets rained down, family was Smith’s top concern. He had driven to Las Vegas from Orange County, Calif., on Thursday to celebrate the 43rd birthday of his brother, Louis Rust, a big country music fan who had attended the festival in the past. They spent the weekend enjoying the music and had scored seats close to the stage for Jason Aldean’s prime-time performance Sunday night.
When the gunshots started, Smith initially thought they were fireworks. The music kept playing, Smith and Rust recalled. But the bullets kept coming. Aldean looked at his security guards and ran off the stage. Then the lights went out.
Rust realized what was really going on and told the entire extended family — all nine of them — to hold hands and run. By then, it was a stampede.
Smith was focused on saving his nieces — 22, 18 and 17 years old — but they separated in the crowd. He says he turned back toward the stage to look for them, he saw people hunched behind a sheriff patrol car at the northwest edge of the concert lawn. Others were so frightened they didn’t know what to do. He kept shouting, “Active shooter, active shooter, let’s go! We have to run.”
He grabbed people and told them to follow him toward a handicapped parking area in the direction of the airport, away from Las Vegas Boulevard. It was a large field with several rows of vehicles. Smith and the others crouched down behind one of the last rows of cars.
“I got a few people out of there,” Smith said. “You could hear the shots. It sounded like it was coming from all over Las Vegas Boulevard.”
A few young girls weren’t fully hidden. He stood up and moved toward them to urge them to get on the ground. That’s when a bullet struck him in the neck.
“I couldn’t feel anything in my neck. There was a warm sensation in my arm,” said Smith from the Sunrise Hospital lobby Monday afternoon as he was waiting for his final discharge. He has a fractured collarbone, a cracked rib and a bruised lung. The doctors are leaving the bullet in his neck for now. They worry moving it might cause more damage.
“I might have to live with this bullet for the rest of my life,” Smith said, grimacing from the pain. A large white bandage covers the bullet hole.
Smith believes an off-duty San Diego police officer likely saved his life. The officer came over and tried to stop the bleeding and then flagged down passing cars to try to get Smith a ride. Many just drove by, but a pickup truck stopped and Smith was put in the back of it along with several other wounded victims. By then, he was struggling to breathe.
“I really didn’t want to die,” Smith recalled. The off-duty officer kept telling him he would be okay, just as he had said a few minutes earlier to other concertgoers.
Smith later reconnected with his relatives and found out that his nieces — along with the rest of his family — made it out safely.
On Twitter and Reddit, many were quick to hold up Smith as a hero. A photo of Smith has been shared more than 74,000 times, with 177,000 “likes.”
“I don’t see myself that way,” he said. “I would want someone to do the same for me. No one deserves to lose a life coming to a country festival.”