A glitch in the sound system. Glass shattering. Fireworks. Twenty-two thousand music fans absorbed the sounds of terror and searched for alternative explanations. Then, as the shots kept on coming, they saw the truth. LAS VEGAS —
They saw the blood. They saw people fall. They saw the country music star flee from the stage. They saw what they had to do.
They ran. They crouched down. They fell on top of their daughters and their sons and their partners.
Sandra Galvan said she "thought it was glass. Like someone dropped some glass."
Her friend Melissa Ayala heard people say it was just fireworks.
Then Galvan saw a man on the ground, bleeding. Two women stood over him crying and screaming. A fresh round of rapid-fire pops.
Galvan, Ayala and Shami Espinoza had planned this girlfriends' getaway from Orange County, Calif., to hear their favorite country bands at the Route 91 Harvest festival on the Las Vegas Strip. It had gone beautifully. They danced. They laughed so much, Espinoza said, "our abs hurt. We didn't have a care in the world."
Now, they had one care only.
On Sunday night, just after 10 p.m., thousands of people who had gathered to hear songs of love and longing fell instead into yet another American trauma, a mass shooting in a place that rose out of the desert expressly to provide respite from troubles. Twenty-two thousand people came to a concert to dance and sing. Fifty-nine of them are dead; more than 500 are wounded.
The three women from southern California hid in a merchandise booth, the first place they saw that looked like shelter. Espinoza tucked herself beneath a cash register.
"It just felt like it went on forever," said Ayala, 41. "I felt the gunfire would never stop."
They found a hole in the back of the booth and crawled out. They ran for their lives.
"Everyone was running," Ayala said. "People were climbing over fences and other people. There was blood everywhere."
They made it out onto the Strip, Vegas's glittery boulevard of excess and escape. They tried to flag down a car, any car.
One wouldn't stop. The next did. They got in. Safe.
The erratic bursts of noise Sunday night didn't create an immediate panic because there had been technical trouble with the sound system earlier in the three-day festival. Jason Aldean kept singing "When She Says Baby" for 11 seconds after the rapid rat-a-tat pulses began.
Then, without another word, the singer, on only his second number of the evening, wheeled and bolted backstage.
"Get down! Get down!" people shouted. "What is it?"
The sounds echoed across the 15-acre outdoor concert venue, across from the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino. They seemed louder even than the concert, some people said.
"It's fireworks," a man assured his friends. "Stop." No, it's part of the show, others said.
Kayla Ritchie, 21, and Megan Greene, 19, had come to Vegas from Simi Valley, Calif., to attend the festival. They thought the noise was just more "trouble with the speakers," Ritchie said. "Then everything went dark."
A fireman told them to get down. They bolted for the exit.
Greene hid behind a truck and then made her way to the MGM Grand hotel, where she sought refuge in a hallway. Ritchie ran into the Tropicana hotel, where a stranger let 20 people who had fled the concert into his room.
Outside, The Strip, always a blizzard of dazzling lights and honking horns, almost instantly turned into a frenzied hive of pulsing police lights and sirens. People fled every which way, many taking cellphone video of their run to safety.
A young man walked up to a pickup on the Strip and told the driver, "Hey, bud, right now, we need your truck. We just need to get people over to the hospital, okay?"
"Okay," replied a woman in the truck. "Go ahead. Put 'em all in the back."
The shots, the sirens, the screams — it created chaos. Dinora Merino, 28, a dealer at the Ellis Island casino, was at the concert with a friend when the shooting began. She figured it was firecrackers.
"No one moved or reacted because we thought it was just some dumbass guys messing around," Merino said. But when Aldean stopped singing, "everybody freaked out and started ducking." Merino and her friend lay on the ground. They saw bullets hit around them.
"This girl moved her leg, and the bullet hit that part of the ground right where her leg was. I told my friend we had to run," she said. As they moved, they saw people on the ground "bleeding, crying and screaming. We just had to keep going. There's no place to hide. It's just an open field."
They ran toward the exit, but then they heard more shots that seemed to come from a second direction. "People that were running out of there were trying to run back in," she said.
Strangers carried the wounded off the field, keeping their heads tucked low, scampering toward any shelter they could find. Police had their weapons drawn and were searching for a shooter.
Former minor league baseball player Todd Blyleven and his wife had traveled from Dallas to attend the concert with about 15 friends and relatives. The group was center stage, toward the back of the crowd, when they heard the "pop pop pop," Blyleven said. He looked up "and you could see the muzzle flashes from the window at the Mandalay Bay. The stage went black. . . . Everybody started screaming, and then you start to see people going down."
Blyleven and his brother-in-law guided their group out, ducking behind barbecue vendors' carts. Then, Blyleven, the son of Hall of Fame pitcher Bert Blyleven, headed back, joining volunteers who hoped to bring out those who had been hit. He helped carry out the lifeless body of a young woman. He saw a police officer who looked like he had taken a bullet in the neck.
"Young girls and guys, older folks, just people walking out of a country concert with bullet holes," Blyleven said.
People pressed themselves against one another, crouched down and huddled along fences and low walls around the field's edges. A pair of cowboy boots was left amid a littered landscape of soda cans and plastic bottles.
In locked-down hotels, people sat on ballroom floors as heavily armed officers walked among them. No one knew anything. In the casinos, many tables were empty; few were in the mood to play. A handful of people kept at the slot machines, hoping some measure of luck might survive this night.
Vanessa and Philip Dyer came to Vegas from Lowestoft, England, to get married Sunday in the famous Little White Wedding Chapel. A few hours after they'd tied the knot, they were out celebrating, walking along The Strip.
"I turned to Philip and said, 'That sounds like machine gun fire,' " Vanessa Dyer said.
As police cars raced by, the couple were pushed into Famous Footwear, a shoe store whose staff corralled 30 people away from the front showcase.
"We spent our wedding night in a shoe cupboard," Vanessa said. They would end up at the MGM Grand, lying on the floor with a big crowd of people, watching TV.
Marriage was also on the minds of Sandy Casey and her fiance, Christopher Willemse, who came to the country music festival from Southern California with some friends. The couple had originally bonded over their love of country tunes. He worked as a behavioral therapist in the special education classes that she taught at Manhattan Beach Middle School.
Willemse, 32, had proposed on a vacation in New Zealand in April. As she played by the edge of a lake, Willemse took a ring out of his pocket. When she turned around, he was down on one knee. They had planned to tour the final wedding venue on their list at the end of the month.
When they first heard the shots Sunday night, they were huddled up in front of the stage. They dropped to the ground. Casey said she'd been hit. She couldn't feel her legs. She had been shot in the lower back, and Willemse stuck his finger in the hole to stop the bleeding. He lifted her up and carried her out to the street as the shots kept banging.
He told her he loved her. He told her she was amazing.
"She made everybody smile," Willemse said. "She was an excellent teacher and loved the kids she taught."
He held her until she was gone.
Others made it to medical care. At Sunrise Hospital, the emergency room floor was a tangle of bloody footprints. At University Medical Center, "We saw mostly gunshot wounds, but we also saw people who were injured fleeing the scene — pedestrians struck by cars, people who had fallen," said John Fildes, the medical director for trauma.
The hospital treated more than 50 patients, about half of whom were in critical condition late Monday.
Inside the Mandalay Bay, police went door to door checking on guests. A 43-story, gleaming arc of gold with 3,211 rooms, three spas, and three wedding chapels, the Mandalay's rooms can go for $700 a night. But it's possible to stay for as little as $112.
Mike Jones, 36, was staying there, one floor below the shooter's room. He had gone to bed early after flying in for an all-day conference. But something woke him. Then the fire alarm went off.
"I think the smoke from the gunshots set it off," he said.
The alarm was quickly silenced, but Jones thought something was wrong. He saw texts from his wife in North Carolina, checking on him and informing him that there was a gunman.
Jones looked out his window "and saw a sea of cops pulling in," he said. "I figured it was safer to stay put."
At 3:30 a.m., police pounded on Jones's door. They asked if he was alone, then checked to make sure. They told him to stay inside.
Jones didn't know it, but just before midnight, on the Las Vegas police scanner, a dispatcher had put out the word: "They have one suspect down inside the room, Zebra-20 has one suspect down inside the room."
The shooter, Stephen Paddock, was dead.
Fisher reported from Washington. Dan Michaelski and Felicia Mello in Las Vegas and Colby Itkowitz and Wesley Lowery in Washington contributed to this report.