San Diego first responders speak on what they witnessed at deadly Las Vegas shooting
SAN DIEGO (KUSI) — Three San Diego-area lawmen who survived Sunday’s mass shooting in Las Vegas, providing aid to wounded victims while scrambling to save themselves and their loved ones, made their first public statements about their ordeals Wednesday.
Two officers with the San Diego Police Department, Tom McGrath and Max Verduzco, shared details about the harrowing experiences they had during the massacre, which left 59 people dead, including the lone gunman, and about 500 others wounded.
"I remember it was the beginning of another song that Jason Aldean was about to play, and before he was going up to the mic to sing, we just heard … consecutive, just, popping (sounds) — just round after round,” McGrath said while describing the shooting spree, which began about 10 p.m. during the closing act of the three-day Route 91 Harvest Festival on the Las Vegas Strip.
McGrath, who was with his wife, a fellow off-duty police officer and other friends about 25 feet from the stage, said he initially thought the noises might have been fireworks or "something malfunctioning onstage.”
"And I looked behind me because I thought maybe … somebody bumped into me or (something) like that, and when I turned around, I saw a young (woman), probably in her 20s,” he said. "She’d taken a round to the chest. She was holding her chest, and I could see a large amount of blood come out.”
McGrath responded by tearing off his shirt and pressed it onto her wound.
"And I felt more hands go on top of mine … from everywhere, trying to help me put pressure on this wound,” he said. "And we were trying to lay her down. … And while we were trying to get (security personnel’s) attention and tending to her, the second round of (gunfire) came on, and I remember I just grabbed my wife … and I just pulled her close to me, and I laid on top of her, and I tried putting her on top of the (wounded) girl, and still everybody had their hands on top of mine.”
When the shooting paused again, they ran, and he helped his wife and some others get over a fence, then scaled it himself. At that point, as he realized that he had gotten separated from his wife, a third spate of shooting began.
Desperate, he began looking for his wife.
"I didn’t know if she had been trampled, or if she had been hit (by gunfire),” he said. "I just — I didn’t know where she was, so I turned back … and I was trying to find her, and I knew a lot of people had gotten hit, and I was checking to make sure 1), that they weren’t my wife, and 2), if there was any … aid I could give them. You know, I’m only in swim trunks and flip-flops. I don’t have anything else, but I’m trying to find ways that I can render aid if I can.”
Realizing that his wife was not nearby, McGrath began trying to leave the event grounds again, but had to take cover once more when a fourth round of gunfire erupted.
"And, I don’t know — for whatever reason, it felt like the fourth … round was the closest,” he said. "I don’t know if it was because I was alone, or just, you know, that the adrenaline was pumping, but I could just hear … the rounds hit metal poles, hit the ground … . And the firing just seemed like it went on for a very long time. Once there was a break, I just ran — I ran, you know, as fast as I could.”
Coming across a man who had been shot in the neck, McGrath pulled him behind a vehicle, grabbed the tank top the victim was using to stanch the flow of blood and packed the wound more securely.
"So (then) I said, `We need to go,”’ McGrath told news crews. "We need to try to run, and I’ll go your pace, (and) I’m not going to leave you.”
When they reached a safe spot, McGrath laid the man on the ground and flagged down a passing vehicle. He then put a makeshift tourniquet on a wounded woman’s leg and loaded her and the injured man into the bed of the truck before getting in himself.
After the victims were dropped off at a police command post to await an ambulance, McGrath realized he could not get back into the fairgrounds because police had instituted a lockdown around the site.
The officer told reporters he could not remember how many people he helped during the nightmarish emergency.
"I just remember bouncing from person to person, making sure everybody kind of had a buddy … (that) they weren’t applying pressure to (their own wounds),” he said.
Like McGrath, Verduzco described the shock of hearing gunfire begin while enjoying a festive concert. He said it promptly occurred to him that the shooter was "on higher ground” — actually, on the 32nd floor of nearby Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino.
"So there was nothing for us to do,” Verduzco told reporters. "So we just ran … ran toward the exit. I don’t remember which one. I just remember it just bottle-necking, everybody just trying to fit through one little hole.”
Verduzco and other terrified audience members bolted into a parking area and took cover behind vehicles.
"And at that point I was just telling people … what I’ve been trained to know — you know, hide behind the (car) engine, the wheel well, places that are going to actually provide cover, not just concealment.”
He told people near him to wait for a break in the gunfire and then make a break for it — if they were able.
Verduzco went on to apply a tourniquet for a wounded man and helped a woman who had been shot in a leg.
"I could tell she was going to be fine,” he said, "so I wrapped her up, and (told her), `Hey, look at me — you’re going to be fine … . You’re going to make it. You’re going to be fine. … And she started to calm down.”
Verduzco directed people who weren’t helping victims to flee for their lives, telling them: "I don’t know where the shooter is — I don’t want you getting hit too. … Then you become somebody we have to care for as well. So get out. Get out. Get out.”
After making sure that everybody in the immediate area "was taken care of,” Verduzco "started running too,” he said.
"And I called several people in my family and let them know (what had happened), because I didn’t want them finding out on Facebook … that there were casualties at the concert I was at and not knowing if I was OK,” he said.
Also Wednesday morning, Chula Vista police Agent Fred Rowbotham described his experiences at the disastrous event, which he was attending to celebrate his 45th birthday.
Rowbotham described his moments of disbelief when the shooting started.
"I immediately recognized the sound, but in my mind, I was trying to explain it away,” he said. "I looked at the stage for pyrotechnics (that might) explain away the sounds. I didn’t see anything. I looked at the nearby speaker tower, thinking perhaps there was a problem there.”
He and a firefighter friend of his then grabbed their wives and yelled, "We need to go!”
Knowing that there was nowhere to hide in the open venue, Rowbotham headed toward an exit with his companions, running to the east because the shots were coming from the west.
They could feel something hitting them on their backs, possibly asphalt chips kicked up by bullets, and heard rifle rounds sailing by through the air.
When Rowbotham’s wife fell, he held onto her and pulled her toward the exit, he said. He then felt a bullet graze his left hip, but continued rushing toward safety despite the pain and shock.
The group pushed on until they reached a large security fence at the edge of McCarran International Airport. Someone kicked in a gate, and Rowbotham and his companions emerged onto a runway. There, they came upon Las Vegas police officers who directed them to continue across the tarmac, Rowbotham said.
They then took a rented car to a friend’s house in the city. After tending to his minor gunshot wound, Rowbotham was able to begin to relax, though neither he nor his companions would sleep that night.
"As much as I try, I’ll never forget this birthday,” he said. "The sound of automatic rifle fire, even in this line of work as a police officer, is very rare. The sound of hearing bullets whizzing by is something you never want to hear.”
The traumatic events, Rowbotham said, underscore how vital it is for people to be vigilant at all times and to scope out their surroundings in public places, just in case an unforeseen emergency requires them to run, hide or fight.