Like other concert-goers, Bruce Nguyen thought he was hearing firecrackers, not gunshots.
But the former Fremonter and his girlfriend, Misty Butler, and thousands of others were the target of a lone gunman who fired on them from the 32nd floor of a Las Vegas hotel and casino.
Unlike spectators at the back of the crowd, Nguyen and Butler were close to the stage where country music star Jason Aldean had been performing Sunday night.
So when people began to take cover by dropping to the ground – they couldn’t get out. And in the darkness, they couldn’t tell where the shots were coming from.
Just 20 hours after the deadly shooting rampage that has left almost 60 people dead and more than 525 wounded, Nguyen talked about the experience.
It had started out as a date night. Nguyen, 36, and Butler, who live in Las Vegas and are country music fans, saw Eric Church perform in an outdoor concert on Friday night. Butler took daughter Michaela the second night of the three-day festival.
On Sunday night, Butler’s brother and sister-in-law were watching Michaela and Nguyen and Butler’s 1-year-old son Kyler.
So at about 5 p.m., Nguyen and Butler headed to the festival across from Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino on the Las Vegas strip. It was a festival for all ages. Children under 6 could get in for free. Nguyen saw an infant with headphones designed to protect the baby’s hearing.
“These festivals are normally some of the most fun times of the year. It’s a very good festival,” Nguyen said. “It’s not like there’s fights and crazy stuff that happens. It’s just a really good, old time.”
Nguyen and Butler made it to the center stage, near a railing only about two people away from Aldean.
They’d never seen Aldean perform. The singer had a high-energy performance and even sang some rock and roll songs. Earlier in the show, the couple heard people shooting off confetti noise makers.
It was dark – about 10 p.m. – and Aldean was in his fourth or fifth song, when they heard what sounded like Black Cat firecrackers.
“Everybody kind of looked around and some people actually said, ‘It’s just fireworks. It’s part of the show,’” Nguyen remembered.
The musicians kept playing, then the crowd heard more of the noise.
“He kind of stopped playing and we looked to our right. There was one guy that yelled out that his friend was shot and that he needed help,” Nguyen said.
Then everyone in the middle of crowd went down to their knees or stomach and tried to take cover on the ground.
People in the back of the crowd were able to run.
“The people up front could not run anywhere, because everybody sat down and – without stepping on hundreds of people – you couldn’t get out of there,” Nguyen said.
“We were literally stuck up there and couldn’t move,” he continued. “We didn’t know where all the shots were coming from; I felt like they were coming from above, but I also felt like there were some coming from the ground.”
Nguyen knew there were no places to hide.
But if shooters were on the ground, he thought they’d try to find the spectators.
He turned and saw a young woman behind him, who was held by her husband. The woman had a gunshot wound in her back.
“But she didn’t make any noise,” Nguyen said. “When these people were getting hit, it wasn’t like they were screaming out, ‘I got hit.’ It was complete silence.
“We’ve got to get out of here,” Nguyen told Butler.
Nguyen told those around him that they needed to get up. He threw Butler over a metal railing and jumped over it.
They crawled over a dead security guard to get under a sound stage in front of the main stage. They hid with about 40 people, who were either on top or under the sound stage for about 10 minutes. They could hear shots ricochet off the stage and elsewhere.
Then there was a pause.
Still thinking there were shooters on the ground, Nguyen thought this was a good time to get away from the stage and run for an exit. He told two young women in their mid-20s to also make a run for it and to stay against a wall.
He and Butler crouched as they ran toward some vendors. Nguyen kept an eye out for anyone who might be a shooter on the ground.
They ran across a field and Nguyen saw at least seven dead victims on the ground. He saw a group of people trying to resuscitate a friend in the middle of the field.
Nguyen and Butler stopped at a beer stand to catch their breaths. He saw the exit and they ran for it.
“As we were going to the exit I could see a SWAT team and police officers getting ready to come inside where we were exiting,” he said. “Outside was total chaos—of people hiding in the bushes and people carrying their friends to the emergency vehicles.
“It was really like a war scene,” he said.
People pushed the wounded on carts and in wheelbarrows to the ambulances.
Nguyen and Butler kept running. He wanted to get her out of danger. They made it to the Tropicana Hotel, but continued to hear gunshots.
They were getting calls and texts from friends, telling what they’d heard.
There were many false reports of multiple shooters and of other hotels supposedly involved in the incident. They told Nguyen and Butler to leave the Tropicana so they went to the MGM Hotel. There, they stayed in a security office for two hours.
Around 1:30 a.m., they were told it was safe to go out, but streets like Las Vegas Boulevard were closed. They got a cab ride home, arriving there at about 2 a.m.
Nguyen recalls the horror of the situation.
“When you’re put in that position and you hear those multiple shots and you don’t know where they’re coming from – you think that any move that you make, you’re basically going to die,” he said. “There’s no right move that you can make.
“It’s just that feeling that you weren’t going to get out of there.”
Nguyen is still amazed that he and Butler were able to make it to safety.
“I still don’t understand how we got out of there,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense from where we were and how many people were in that area – how we were able to escape there without any injuries besides a couple scrapes and bruises here and there.”
He recalls the helpless feeling of the situation and how even though he’s an athlete, his body wanted to shut down. Nguyen was in football, track and baseball while a student at Fremont High School.
“Your body just reacts different in this type of situation,” he said.
He’s grateful that Butler is all right and for friends and family who’ve come to visit. He’s had an eye-opening experience.
“This world isn’t as safe as you think it is,” he said.
Nguyen knows he’ll never forget what happened.
“There’s a pit in my stomach,” he said. “I’m sure it’s going to go away in time, but right now I don’t feel safe anywhere doing anything. We’ve discussed not wanting to go to concerts anymore.”