Iowans describe their experiences in Las Vegas mass shooting

Three people with Iowa ties describe the horrific Sunday shooting in Las Vegas.

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Iowans describe their experiences in Las Vegas mass shooting

A lone vase of flowers left on Las Vegas Boulevard and Reno Avenue for the victims of the mass shooting on Oct. 2, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nev. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

A lone vase of flowers left on Las Vegas Boulevard and Reno Avenue for the victims of the mass shooting on Oct. 2, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nev. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

TNS

A lone vase of flowers left on Las Vegas Boulevard and Reno Avenue for the victims of the mass shooting on Oct. 2, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nev. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

TNS

TNS

A lone vase of flowers left on Las Vegas Boulevard and Reno Avenue for the victims of the mass shooting on Oct. 2, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nev. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

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By Grace Pateras

[email protected]

What is being called the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, with at least 59 people dead and at least 527 injured, has grabbed the attention of viewers across America. The event resonates with people with Iowa roots. From vacationers at the concert to former University of Iowa graduates who now call Nevada home, The Daily Iowan talked on Monday to those with direct ties to the shooting.

On Sunday around 10 p.m. PDT, a shooter targeted an outdoor country-music festival in Las Vegas. The festival, Route 91 Harvest, was in its third and final day and its last performer — Jason Aldean. More than 22,000 were in the audience. Police found the shooter dead in a hotel room at the Mandalay Bay resort on the Las Vegas Strip.

The following recounts have been edited for length and clarity.

Justin Zimmerman, 31

Of Dexter, Iowa.

Visiting friend Derek Heyl (left), 31, a University of Iowa class of 2008 graduate who currently lives in Vegas.

Zimmerman is on a 10-day vacation and attended the music festival.

“It was Sunday, so it was the third night of the festival. By this time, you’re beat down, and you’ve been drinking nonstop for two days. It was a great lineup. There were two stages — so you had a smaller stage in the back, where there were some up-and-coming acts. We had Dylan Scott and Luke Combs, so over there it was a big party. And when that was over, you can make your way to the main stage, and when Luke Combs got done, you had time to walk over and see Jake Owen and Jason Aldean, which is perfect; those are the four I like. It’s a big venue, it’s a big area. There are 20,000 people there, plus. There are also buildings on top of this site with lounges and stuff you can go on to watch TV, and sit on couches, and hear the music. It’s just unreal.

“I didn’t want to get close to the stage, I’m not that kind of guy. I like to stay in the back for some dancing room and room to go to the bathroom and have easy access to beer. So we were probably 100 yards from the stage, on the right side. You could just see the skyline of Mandalay Bay. And we were just having a good time, and it was my turn to go buy beer, so I left my group and started walking toward the beer garden. We were back so far they had extra lights up there — like extra poles with lights shining on the stage. And as I was walking to get beer, I just heard POP POP POP. And I’m looking over at these lights, like ‘Are these things ready to blow up, or are they working, or what’? And then you realize quickly that that wasn’t it — they were shots. But Jason was still singing, so there was music and screaming, and all of that at the same time, you just don’t know what to think of it. And then everything stops. The gunshots stopped, Jason stopped playing, and everything on the video board went down. And then the next rounds came. And you knew for sure what it was, and you just hit the ground.

“I would say the first initial shots, I just looked at the lights, and then I kept walking. Maybe 10 or 15 seconds between the two [rounds]. The first fires were rapid, but they were muffled by the music because the music was still playing. So first, you just thought it was firecrackers, or the lights were flickering, or the sound was messed up. Once Jason stopped playing, and the next rounds came, it was just evident then.

“So I just froze, hid behind a garbage can, and got down. I was standing in the back about 100 yards, so about 25 yards ahead of me is where everyone was getting hit. The feeling I got [about the shots] was that it was aimed for the very first mosh pit, where everybody was packed in there like sardines at a concert. It was right there toward the front. So when the shots were going off, people were just hitting the ground, getting down, finding something to cover with. So I ducked down, and there was like a mosh pit of people falling on top of me. And then everything stopped, people got up and started running. So I had to wait for people to get off me. But I didn’t really get up and start sprinting, I just stood there and hid behind a garbage can just to collect myself. This is the craziest thing — I never felt in danger, but I knew something was going on. I could just feel I was fine where I was at. So I was just taking my time, and I was stuck between do I go forward and help, or do I just save myself. Because by this time, my friends had already been gone. I had left them to go get beers, so I couldn’t find them anyway. I was by myself, and I just [had] to get out.

“So I started making my way across the street. I was out of the gunman’s sight, so I had time to collect my thoughts, and it was a perfect time to take a video, and capture this moment, and just relay to my family how loud this is, and that I’m safe. And after that, the cops starting telling [me] to get inside, so I walked to the Luxor [a nearby hotel]. My jeans were all cut up, and beer on them, and everything is wet. I’m walking in there, and people are just staring at me. And my face is just, you know, stoned, and people are like, ‘What’s going on?’ I couldn’t even say anything, I just showed them my phone of my video that I just took and was like, ‘That’s gunfire outside.’ So people at Luxor had no idea. I just sat there for about 45 minutes, and my phone was about to die, at 10 percent battery. My buddy had made it to his friend’s house, but it was on the opposite side of the Strip, so I couldn’t cross back over. They had [the Luxor] locked down, but I found a back way through a parking ramp to get out and walk to the interstate.

“I walked across the interstate and got a ride from a girl friend that lives here in town, who’s from Iowa [Kristy Hingtgen]. She brought me home, and we sat, and watched the news, and made sure everybody was safe. I talked to my family back home. I’m just trying to relay the message that I’m safe, and here’s what happened.”

Tessa Hursh, 24

Graduated from UI in 2015.

Former managing editor and photo editor at The Daily Iowan.

Current social-media community manager for Station Casinos, a gaming business in Las Vegas.

Hursh has lived in Vegas for six months.

“I work for Station Casinos, which is the local casinos here in Vegas. It’s where all the people who live in the Valley, if they don’t want to go down to the Strip, they come out to our properties. We have 11 all across Las Vegas.

“Last night, I was home, and I had gotten a text at about 11 p.m., and normally when my phone goes off at 11 p.m., that’s not a good thing. So I was a little alarmed. So I looked over at my phone, and I saw my mentor, who lives here in Las Vegas, she texted me and said there was a mass shooting at Mandalay Bay. So then I logged onto social media. And the videos and the photos I saw were horrifying. Just to know that I had friends who were down there, and I hadn’t heard anything or seen any posts from them, that’s a very unsettling feeling.

“I truly believe in the power of photography. And there was one photo that just broke my heart. To think that all those people down there are just family and friends and kids, it just broke me. So I then realized I needed to do something because I work for the local casinos here, so I had found an image that said ‘pray for Vegas,’ and I decided to post it all across our social-media pages. The only words I put on it was ‘This is our city, these are our people #prayforVegas.’ It has reached over half a million people. We wanted to keep it short and concise, and make sure it was impactful, because these are our locals, this is our city, and we should represent it as such. That was a message I ran across my boss, and she approved it. So after posting, I finally saw a lot of people who I knew down there all checking in. I was very thankful to not know anyone that got hurt or injured, but I do have a few coworkers here right now who know people who are in the hospitals and who were shot.

“It’s a very somber day here in Las Vegas. No one is really talking, everything is pretty quiet. We’ve decided to do an entire blackout on all of our social media in respect to all of those who we lost and who are victims of this terrible tragedy. A blackout means we do not post anything on social media and that we only post places where you can donate your blood and where you can send donations financially. The blood drives out here right now are a six-hour wait. It’s incredible to see this city come together. I always knew that Las Vegas was special, and that’s why I wanted to move out here, but to see the locals just rushing to the blood drives, and helping victims, was just an incredible sight to see.

“I’m going to be bringing some donations like toilet paper and basic necessities to the blood drive. There are thousands of people who are willing to donate blood, and we’re just waiting on [enough] nurses to be able to draw the blood. When I drove past the donations centers and the grocery stores on the way to work, it was just an incredible sight to see.

“I just can’t believe something like this happened 20 minutes from my house and a place I’ve gone numerous times. I think that when these kinds of things happen, it’s a beautiful thing to see the light in the darkness and to see the city come together. It’s very unsettling how quiet it is here. I just am in awe in how people have been responding to this tragedy.

“Think about a country concert. All these people were there — music doesn’t hurt people, it brings people together. And all these people were here just for the love of country music and for a festival. And a lot of people there were very young. And to have kids my age [have their friends shot], I can’t imagine what it would feel like. The hardest thing for me was when I got the phone call this morning from my mom just to hear my voice. That was the hardest thing for me, because you never think it can happen anywhere near you, and then when it does, I’ve just received so much outpouring love. That just means the world to me. It’s a tough time here, but I think that we’re definitely on a road to recovery.”

Kristy Hingtgen

Graduated from UI in 1996.

Moved to Las Vegas in 1997 to teach — currently a teacher in the Clark County School District. 

Hingtgen has been president of the Las Vegas Iowa Club for 15 years.

“I met Justin [Zimmerman] at the Route 91 Harvest Festival two years ago. He is friends with a few guys I met through the Las Vegas Iowa Club. So at the concert a couple years ago, we were all there to watch Tucker Beathard, CJ’s brother, and they introduced me to Justin, and we became Facebook friends, and when he comes out here, we hang out. I knew they were there [this year], and they were trying to get me to go to the concerts. And normally, I would have been there. I love [the festival] — I had been there the first two years. So this year, the ticket prices were a little outrageous, and I’m a teacher, so I decided not to go. But I’ve been watching Offer Up (a mobile marketplace) and Facebook marketplace all the way up until Friday afternoon to try to go.

“On Saturday, I was at the Game Watch [for UI alumni]. We had a lot of tourists in town at the Game Watch. We had over 100 people there, and I’d say a good 15 to 20 people were in town for the festival. So my concern lies with these Iowans that I met that day and don’t have any way of knowing [if they’re OK]. I posted on the Iowa Club Facebook page that said, ‘Hey, if you were at the Iowa Game Watch, give me a comment.’

“On Sunday, I saw that somebody was selling festival tickets that were pretty cheap. I picked up my phone to call them, and then I looked at the lineup, and thought I like these people, but I’m really tired, so I think I just want a lazy Sunday watching football. And so that’s what I did. There are 10 different scenarios where I should have been there, and that’s what’s really getting to me.

“One of my friends was shot in the arm, and he is on the Las Vegas Iowa Club board. He has doctor’s appointments today and is quote-on-quote OK. I think he was the only one shot in that group. I’ve got another friend whose twin daughters were shot — one in the back, and one in the leg. But they should be OK. But as of now, I’ve had about 10 friends down there, and everybody is OK and got out. But when I called Derek [Heyl], who I met through the Iowa Club, he answered the phone, and he was pretty upset. I asked where Justin was, and he explained they had gotten split up because [Justin] was on a beer run, but he was safe at the Luxor. Well then, I started seeing reports on Facebook that there was a bomb at the Luxor, so I started texting him to use his smarts and get out of there. I told him I was coming to get him. I didn’t think twice about it; I texted him and said, ‘Leave no Hawkeye behind. I’m coming to get you.’ I live 10 minutes from this all.

“It was pretty scary driving toward the Strip when I should have been staying safe at home. I said to Justin, ‘You gotta get out of there and just start walking west, and I’ll pick you up when I can.’ So I picked him up about two blocks off the Strip. And it was honestly the biggest sigh I’ve ever done in my life, when I pulled into that gas station and saw him standing there. I just couldn’t leave him down there.

“I’m a teacher, and I see all the kids kindergarten through fifth grade, and they’re coming in and talking about it. In a horrible twist of irony, this week is Kindness Week in Clark County School District. So today, we’re all wearing red — we’re ‘REaDy’ for Kindness. And this was already planned. Never have those words rang more true.

“I’m teaching, so I’m not really checking Facebook during school, but I have some friends who are waiting in five-hour lines to donate blood. I’m actually going to try to get a bloodmobile at our Game Watch on Saturday. That way, we can give blood, and it’s at a strip mall, so that will get a lot of traffic. When I first started as president of Las Vegas Iowa Club, I was happy to have 10 or 15 people come to Game Watches. And now, we have anywhere from 75 to 300 people. It all depends on the game and how Iowa is doing, things like that. But we’re a lot of tourists, so we rely on the tourists finding us and coming together. It’s pretty great to be around other Iowans.”

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