An Atwater man was at the Las Vegas concert Sunday where a gunman opened fire on a country music festival, killing at least 58 people and injuring hundreds of others in the largest mass shooting in U.S. history, according to authorities.
Rich Howard, 46, of Atwater, said he was in the center of the crowd listening to country singer Jason Aldean perform when he began to hear gunshots. Howard is a retired Merced County sheriff’s deputy who still teaches classes to deal with active-shooters.
At first Howard figured it was the kind of fireworks that accompany a concert, but then a hailstorm of rapid fire rained into the panicked crowd.
"Initially everyone starts to panic (and) hit the ground, where there's no cover," he said on Monday. "My initial thought was to take my wife and move to cover."
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The gunman, identified by police as 64-year-old Stephen Paddock, opened fire from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel into the crowd of 22,000 where Aldean was playing. He killed 58 people and more than 500 were injured, according to authorities.
Paddock was killed during a standoff with police, Sheriff Joseph Lombardo told reporters.
"The shooting just seemed like it was never going to stop," he said. "People running everywhere, walking wounded. People shot. People trampled. People hit by cars."
The venue was surrounded by locked gates and brick walls, Howard said, making it difficult to leave in a hurry.
"The things that are designed to make it a safe event, controlled entries and exits, proved to be a huge problem because you have 25,000 people trying to squeeze in every exit," he said. "The crowd running in big packs, trying to run from the gunfire, it was like a fish bowl. They'd run from one end to the other end, and then rounds would start there, so they'd run back."
Howard and his wife, Lisa, got to Las Vegas on Thursday and watched many performances during the three-day festival, he said. It had never crossed his mind that the festival could be a target, he said.
The retired Merced County deputy had 21 years of law enforcement experience, 15 of those with the sheriff's office. That training helped him keep his emotions under control, he said.
"This was a country music festival. Even with all of my years in law enforcement and as an active-shooter instructor, I never considered that that would happen there in downtown Las Vegas," he said. "You never factored in you'd be in a sniper situation with automatic fire, and kind of defenseless."
The Las Vegas music festival was fully staffed with security personnel, according to local authorities. And law enforcement was well aware of the potential for such incidents, particularly after the mass shooting at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub last year. All over America, law enforcement officials, politicians and hotel and concert managers offered the same sad lament: There’s very little, they said, that could be done to prevent the shooting.
It took about 15 minutes to get clear of the venue and about 35 minutes passed before the couple was inside a casino and "felt reasonably safe," he said.
"I'm lucky that we're unhurt and out of there safely," he said. "Having a law enforcement background, it weighs on me a little bit (that) I wished we had been in a position to render more aid to some of the hurt and dead."