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A week ago Monday, in the early hours of a Las Vegas morning, five women barricaded themselves in a laundry room just off the Strip after the unimaginable happened. Hours earlier they were strangers: A mother and daughter enjoying a girls night out, two school teachers taking a break from the classroom, and a 20-something planning to dance the night away to Jason Aldean.
In the midst of running away from the largest mass shooting in modern U.S. history at the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival, their lives crossed paths. They stumbled upon a maintenance room at the Hooters Casino Hotel a mile away from the festival and formed a makeshift army; after locking the door from the inside, they buried themselves underneath piles of maintenance clothing, armed themselves with sticks, the only protection they could find, and waited.
Missy Gross, one of the school teachers from Redondo Beach, California, spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about her story of survival and reflected on living with the trauma for seven days now.
Gross, 24, is a frequent festivalgoer. With two Stagecoaches, two Bonnaroos and two Warped Tours under her belt, she and one of her fellow teachers at Rolling Hills Country Day School in Rolling Hills Estates, California, decided to experience Route 91 for the first time. At the last minute, she almost canceled her trip after coming down with a cold. “I can’t say I’m glad I went, but I’m glad that I was able to be a positive influence and help people,” she explains a week later. “I would have felt helpless if I were here, knowing my friends were there.”
Gross says she will never attend a music festival again and has no plans to return to Las Vegas.
“Literally two minutes before the shooting started, my friend and I looked at each other and said, ‘We’re coming back next year.’ It was our first time at Route 91 and I thought, ‘I’m going to go every year,'” Gross recalls. “Then everything changed in a matter of seconds.”
Below, Gross tells THR her story of escape, seeking refuge with other women and how she is beginning to pick up the pieces after returning to Los Angeles County.
Your experience last week sheds light on how people banded together in the face of the violence. What are some of the more remarkable moments you witnessed of strangers helping each other?
The amount of hate in this world is completely flushed by the love. In the face of imminent danger, it was crazy to look out and see active duty [military], veterans or anyone who had some sort of training, standing up and making themselves targets, trying to protect us. It was so amazing to feel that little bit of safety, knowing that someone had been watching over you. They put their lives on the line so we could have ours. If I could go back and thank every single person, I would.
What were those initial moments like when you realized there was an active shooter?
I don’t know why, but in faith — I’ve never experienced an active shooter before — I was so calm. I told my friend, a mother of three, “We’re gonna get you home. It’s gonna be OK.” I was strategic. I was like, “We need to move. We need to get under cover.” Every time [Stephen Paddock would] shoot, we’d hit the floor and then we would run. My first thought when everything happened was a terrorist attack. There were so many people there, it was the perfect place for a terrorist attack. And so I thought, “We have to get off the Strip and go to a smaller area.” So I looked up and I saw Tropicana and a Hooters Hotel. And I said, “We gotta go to Hooters.” So I grabbed [my friend’s] hand and we both called our fiance and husband, told them we loved them, and we just started running.
What were your thoughts as you ran?
In the moment, I didn’t have tears. There were people, I will say girls, who just lost it. People were dragging them, not because they had been shot or wounded, but because they could not emotionally handle what was happening around them. I don’t know what it is about myself, but I was in motion and I was thinking, “I need to get my friend Tammy home to her three boys. I need to make sure she gets home.” That was my mission, I guess, to get us both out of there. In the moment I realized that crying was not going to help the situation. I needed to be safe. But I remember thinking, “If this man walks around the corner, we’re all fish in a barrel. He could pick us all off.”
So many of the injured were trampled. How did you manage to exit the festival and take refuge?
We tried to run out the gate that leads into the Strip. But this man was there with a gray T-shirt and pants. I’ll never forget his face. He looked at me and said, “You cannot go this way. This is where he’s shooting.” And he’s yelling at people to move. I looked at him like, “Well, why not if he’s shooting into the festival?” And then I saw people running into the festival with gunshot wounds. People were coming in from the exit, bleeding with bullet wounds. There was a break in the concrete wall and they were coming in to try to hide behind the wall. By the third round, it’s physically impossible for them to run from the center of the stage and then run to the Strip and then run in within a matter of minutes. It doesn’t make any sense. I think there was definitely another shooter. I thought there was someone on foot and that’s why I thought, “We have to run.”
We were jumping over people, hot coals that had spilled from grills. There were SWAT teams with their guns pointing towards us yelling, “Run! Run! Run!” So we thought there was someone behind us. We didn’t know. We got out of the festival gate and there were puddles of blood everywhere, where you could see that people had been there and dragged to the side. Then he started shooting again, so we hid behind a generator until the next pause.
We ended up behind some portable office buildings where there were a bunch of people. I looked down at one woman’s leg and she was profusely bleeding. My friend put pressure on her leg [until a nurse cried out to help]. When he would shoot, we would continue to get down and move on. We were moving to the point where we got under some bleachers. And there was a man there who had been shot in the head. So many people were around him helping him and I remember thinking, “Oh my god. What do I do? Do I run? Do I stay under cover?”
Then what happened?
At this point, we didn’t know whether he was up top or down below. We could hear that it was coming from a higher sound but we could also hear that it sounded like someone on the ground and I thought, “Someone’s on the ground. We need to get as far away as possible.” We went in the maintenance entrance of the Hooters Hotel and barricaded ourselves in the laundry room with three other women. We locked the door and a fence inside the building. We covered ourselves in maintenance clothing and hid there with sticks because we didn’t have anything else to defend ourselves. We were all concertgoers and they all ran from the venue. A mother and daughter and another girl named Bryce and we just saw her sitting on the floor and she was crying. She was shaking really badly and she was by herself. My friend and I sat with her and tried to calm her down. We gave her some water and we said, “Deep breaths.” And then we all hid together, all five of us, in that room until we got released.
Security came into the room, after clearing the building and told us to go to the lobby. There were so many people gathered there, covered in other people’s blood, looking around for their loved ones, seeing if they were there, trying to get ahold of them, frantically calling. There were people on the floor, who looked like they had honestly just passed out because they were so overcome with emotion … We were on lockdown, so we weren’t allowed to leave. We stayed there for what felt like forever, but I think it was about three to four hours. It was around 5 a.m. when we thought, “You know what, we can’t stay here anymore.” We were losing our minds. Trying to sleep on a casino floor is not working. We were trying to get to our other friends and wanted to make sure everyone was OK. Security told us the streets were still on lockdown and we weren’t allowed to leave. But we later snuck out a side door. I don’t even know how to explain the feeling of not knowing what to do, but knowing you couldn’t do what you were doing.
So we walked through the streets to our hotel [Luxor] which was about a block, a 15-minute walk. It was Armageddon. Cars in the middle of the road with their flashers on. Bloody shoes. Cars that had just driven on the sidewalk and [been] left. It was the eeriest situation I’d ever seen. All streets were blocked off. There were maybe 15 people on the streets of Vegas at that one point, not including cops. It was absolutely chilling. Luckily we got back to our room and all of our friends who we went with were safe.
I called my fiance and said, “I need you to come get me. I can’t stay here another day.” I had a flight home. I truly didn’t want to be on an airplane at that point. I wanted to be in his arms. I wanted to feel safe. And he got in the car and drove to get us.
Now that a week has passed, how do you feel?
I’ve definitely been breaking down a lot. I’m not saying I’m not crying or upset. I guess my mentality is, I survived. I’m going to move forward. And I’m going to live a life that I’m proud of. I’m not going to let this hold me back, if anything, I’m going to let it push me forward even further.
Do you plan to attend any future festivals?
I definitely know that I will not be attending any festivals in the future. I was supposed to go to Stagecoach this year and I am no longer attending. I had a bachelorette party [planned] in Vegas, which I will be cancelling. I don’t know where I feel safe anymore. Any possible thing that I do could be a target to someone. I work at a school, that could be a target. The mall on a Friday night could be a target. There is so much hatred in this world, and it scares me to my core to walk out my front door. This whole event has made me not only scared but also it’s turned around into a positive because it’s made me damn proud to be an American. I look around and that night and even hearing these stories after, in the face of hatred love overcomes.
In your opinion, do you think there could have been anything done, security-wise or in other ways, to prevent this?
I don’t think so when it comes to the festival. It’s an open-air festival, a very vulnerable venue. I don’t think the security there could have done anything to solve the problem. They checked us when we walked in. It’s not like it came from inside the festival. I think when it comes to how he acquired so many guns, that worries me. I don’t think anyone who’s a citizen needs a fully automatic weapon [or close to it]. I think it’s made for mass destruction. I am curious to know how he acquired all of those guns and how he got them up to his room without anyone noticing. Even if he brought them in, it’d be sketchy to have one guest bringing in like a dozen different bags. That’s one thing that just sticks out in my mind is how. There’s so many questions I still have. I don’t know if I’ll ever get an answer. My first instinct was terrorist attack. I don’t think this was one man getting back at country music lovers. He was trying to have as much destruction as possible, and I think he achieved it.
How do you think this will or should change future festivals?
I get chills at the thought of people feeling safe at future musical festivals. I used to. I used to feel safe there. I used to feel totally free. I don’t know if there’s a way to do an outdoor festival where everyone feels safe. If someone wants to cause that much damage, they are going to try and most of the time, if that is their goal, they’re going to succeed. I don’t think there’s a way to say it’s 100 percent safe, ever.
How are you working through this trauma?
There’s multiple ways to recover through a trauma. I do a lot of thinking. I’ve noticed myself pausing and thinking about it and then I look down at my bracelet and I think, “Yes, this happened I want to move forward.”
I have a lot of survivor’s guilt. I think, “Why me? Why am I here and they’re not?” I don’t think that’s something I’ll ever get over. But I want that to be something that pushes me forward. One one thing I did right when I got back [to Los Angeles County] was I went to Torrance Memorial Hospital. And I donated blood. And I know that when I was in Vegas I had to get out of there. That was my first thought was to get me home. And I now wish I stayed to donate blood there. I know that the blood I donated won’t go to victims there, but it will free up blood banks and that was just something for me to feel like I’m helping. So that was one thing that I did that made me feel like I’m at least making a positive influence.
It’s very difficult for me to have these memories and these images of people, this woman on the ground with her leg bleeding and this man who had been shot in the head, watching these faces on people who are scarred into my brain and not knowing how to help. I wish I did know how to help. I’ve taken a CPR class, but I might take a first aid class to better know how to help.
I’m not sleeping through the night. I wake up in sweats, having bad dreams about that night and how it could have gone differently. I have dreams where I confront the shooter or he comes around the corner, and I wake up in a pool of sweat. I’m hoping that as I move forward and as I’m able to talk about it more, that’s going to really help me. I’m home. I’m safe. Hopefully I’ll get more sleep in the next coming weeks.
I went back to work this week and I will say that was the best part of my week. Kids are therapeutic and all their hugs and innocence is so mind numbing, it makes you forget about everything else in the world. I look down every day at the bracelet on my arm from the festival and I think, “I am so lucky to be here. I’m not going to let this bring down my life.”
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