Ryan Cholock and his wife Jessica had flown to Nevada to celebrate their one-year wedding anniversary with tickets to the Route 91 Harvest music festival on the Las Vegas Strip.
During the first night of the festival, Ryan, a local electrician was in a state of bliss after shaking hands with his favourite singer, Eric Church, as he performed on stage. But by the third night, the husband and wife from Florence were beginning to tire so they backed away from the heavy crowds.
Standing to the right of the stage, the couple heard what they thought was someone setting off a pack of firecrackers. The noise faded briefly before starting up again. They then thought it was fireworks, until country star Jason Aldean suddenly ran off stage.
“You could see the flashes,” said Ryan. “Everybody started running toward the back of the festival because the shooting, at first, was kinda aimed up near the mosh pit at the front of the stage.
“We held each other’s hands the whole time. There was no way we were being separated. Everybody started running and panicking and it was kind of like there were breaks in between the bursts of bullets. I don’t know if he was reloading or what he was doing.”
Sunday’s attack from the 32nd floor of the nearby Mandalay Bay hotel is now considered the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. At least 59 were killed and 527 were injured.
As the shots rang out, the Cholocks ducked behind a small bar inside the festival grounds and continued running for safety during pauses in the gunfire.
“We were trying to go toward the other side of the concert to get away from it and we ran across to the open part of the festival,” said Ryan. “We got to the back and there was a section that they had set up there with a concession stand and lawn chairs. He started shooting again and we didn’t really have anything to hide behind we just kind of dove down and laid flat on the ground.”
The Cholocks later found themselves trapped between a concession stand and a wall of large barbecue grills. Ryan said there were hundreds of panicked people trying to funnel through a small gap while trying to not get burned by the heat. The couple moved a chair that was blocking their way and continued on toward the street.
“When we got outside the festival and got on the back street, there were people shot all around us and they were bleeding and the cops they were starting to move into the concert,” said Ryan. “We thought we were running right at another gunman. That’s when it was the most scary for us because we didn’t really know what was going to happen.”
After hiding a few more times, the couple ran through bushes and across the street to what they later learned was the Tropicana hotel.
“There was a bunch of people standing with their hands up in the air. We didn’t know why they were like that. We thought there might have been a shooter there, too, so then we kind of stopped and we didn’t know which way to go,” said Ryan.
“They were just showing that they weren’t the shooter and they just wanted in the building so we ended up, we went in the Tropicana. It was just a back kitchen door or something that everybody was coming through.”
Inside the hotel, the couple saw a group trying to help a man who had been shot. There were screams that the shooter might be coming to the Tropicana to continue his rampage. For a moment, the Cholocks hid inside a washroom before ending up at a crowded lobby. As heavy crowds packed a lobby elevator, the lift stopped working.
Ryan said a man then began instructing hotel guests to take groups of 10 with them up to their rooms. The Cholocks headed to the fifth floor with an older couple but when doors slid open they heard an eerie silence and feared there was a shooter was inside.
Together, the two couples ran down the hallway until they reached a dead end. The couples then separated as they were let inside different hotel rooms.
“We just started banging on the doors,” said Jessica, who cried as she recalled the Arizona couple in their 20s — whose names were Margaret and Tyler—who had let them inside.
“We were so scared. We closed the blinds. I didn’t know if there was going to be gunshots, so we stayed on the floor.”
Also in the room was a couple from Huntington Beach, Calif., who became separated from their friends at the concert including a man who they believed was shot in the arm.
Together, the strangers watched TV reports, while the Cholocks called their families to tell them they were safe. On Monday the couple returned to their hotel, the MGM Grand, and contacted Beth Cassidy and Margaret Crowdis from Maritime Travel in North Sydney.
Within five minutes the couple said they had a flight booked home for Monday night.
Jessica, a social worker, said she and her husband are constantly thinking of the families of the victims who died and everyone else who experienced what they did.
During the shuffle, the Cholocks forgot to ask the last names of the people who they stayed with in the hotel, including the young couple from Arizona who had let them inside.
They are hoping that their story will reach the kind strangers who provided them with a safe space to stay.
On Wednesday, American authorities were still trying to piece together what might have motivated gunman Stephen C. Paddock, 64, to carry out his attack.