BREMERTON — A Bremerton couple and their friends were caught in the crossfire of the deadly mass shooting in Las Vegas, and amid all the chaos banded together to provide aid to the injured.
Bremerton residents Ali and Nick Pendergrass, Alicia Hounsley and Tyler Hickman were attending the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival in Las Vegas last Sunday when Stephen Paddock fired into the crowd of concertgoers from the 32nd floor of the nearby Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, killing 58 and injuring over 500. He later shot himself, police said.
The first shots rang out shortly after country music artist Jason Aldean took the stage, Ali Pendergrass said.
“We heard this really loud ‘pop’ ‘pop,’ and everybody thought it was a firecracker. You immediately kinda heard people jump at the sound,” she said. “About 15 seconds into the song, we heard a continuous rain of what sounded like either firecrackers or gunshots — although nobody believed it was gunshots, so the reaction rate was really slow.
“People didn’t drop down to the ground immediately, people didn’t panic immediately because it was so absurd that it would possibly be gunfire.”
After seeing holes shot through a large screen on the stage, the horror of the situation became clear.
“We dropped to the ground, the fire stopped for a few seconds and we were able to get up and run another 20 feet or so and then [gunfire] started up again and everybody dropped to the ground,” Ali said.
During another lull in the hail of gunfire, Ali, Nick and Hounsley made a break for the nearest exit but in the chaos of the crowd, the three became separated from Hickman. The group later would discover that Hickman had found shelter with a group of off-duty SWAT team officers.
“The only way to get out, at that point, was to go over a gate,” Ali said. “There was a fence that was made of these metal posts that had points at the top, so it was really a bad type of gate to be trying to climb over, but it was the only way out.”
As the droves of concertgoers struggled to climb the fence, the gunman once again opened fire.
Nick, a firefighter for Navy Region Northwest, began helping people over the fence, along with Hounsley and Ali.
“Just watching my husband pulling these people over the fence just snapped me out of it,” Ali said. “I was instantly calm and went, ‘Oh my God, we need to get people over this fence, that’s the only way for them to get out.’ And I ran back over to the fence and me and my friend Alicia started pulling people over the fence as fast as we could.
Hounsley added, “I’m kinda thankful I’m kinda tall, so I was able to actually just reach over and pick up a couple girls because they were like 5-foot-nothing. That’s when we saw that the other side of the gate had finally been broken down by everyone trying to get it open.”
With the gate down, the three took cover in a nearby parking lot between two large trucks. There, they found a group of wounded concertgoers, several off-duty emergency responders — who were providing triage to the wounded — and a woman who had been been shot in the head.
“There was a gentleman who was sitting on the floor and he was holding his mom because she had gotten shot in the head and she had passed,” Hounsley said.
“It’s the one thing that keeps replaying in my mind, just seeing it and seeing him and seeing her, seeing her face.”
Ali began looking for a way to transport victims to the hospital.
“I noticed some taillights at the opposite end of the parking lot, and I ran down there as fast as I could.” she said. “I found this girl who was absolutely hysterical, who had the keys to her boyfriend’s truck but could not find her boyfriend. Luckily, she was not injured in any way, so I just told her, ‘I’m sorry that you’re upset, you’re not hurt and I need to move these three gunshot victims to the hospital.’ ”
After taking down Ali’s phone number, the woman gave her the keys to the truck and said, “We’ll figure it out later.”
After making contact with emergency responders, Nick discovered that the wounded could not be evacuated because the area had not yet been secured. He was surprised to see his wife suddenly appear behind the wheel of a stranger’s truck.
“When I ran back, I looked and my wife pulled up in an F-350 dually and I was just baffled,” he said. “We decided to just load everybody up and go.”
Closely following an ambulance, the group sped down the strip, weaving their way between traffic in both lanes. On the ride to the hospital, Nick took a moment to console the son of the woman who had been shot in the head. He had been forced to leave behind his mother’s body to transport the wounded and get to safety.
“Hector, the guy who lost his mother, [I was] just holding him tight in my arms as we were driving to the hospital. I can’t even imagine his pain,” Nick said.
When the group arrived at Sunrise Hospital, they found that they were not alone in their efforts.
“When we got to the hospital, there were more personal vehicles in the emergency room driveway than there were ambulances. Private citizens responded and reacted faster than even the first responders,” Ali said.
“People took it upon themselves to find vehicles and transport people themselves.”
For Ali Pendergrass, last Sunday was a day marked by many firsts.
“There are things from that night that I won’t ever forget. That was the first time that I had ever seen a dead body. That was the first time that I had ever driven people to a hospital that could possibly die in the back seat of the car.
“It was the first time that I basically had stolen a vehicle from somebody to get what needed to be done, done.”
If there is any light, Ali said, it comes from the way people worked together to help those in desperate need.
“The second people realized what was happening, everybody immediately bonded together,” she said.
“People are tremendous. There are evil people in the world, but there are so many good people that outnumber them.”
Nick Twietmeyer is a reporter for Kitsap News Group, a member of Sound Publishing. He can be reached at ntwietmeyer@sound publishing.com.