Split-up family survives
The Watkinses got separated, saw death, helped ferry the wounded and made it through alive
Jake Watkins knew instantly — he could tell from the first volley crackling out across the Strip — that it was gunfire, and he heard his father scream, “Get down!”
The 21-year-old former high school football player tackled a woman and her teenage daughter in front of him, bringing them down. He barely knew the pair, but he used his body as a shield to keep them from being hit by the barrage of bullets.
Jake peered up for a moment and saw his family ducking for cover. He looked down and saw the terrified face of the 15-year-old girl under him. A woman fell to the ground, maybe a foot in front of him. Her lifeless gaze met his.
She had brown eyes.
It was the beginning of the largest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. In those next few hours, the grounds of the Route 91 Harvest festival became a field of dead and wounded, many of the 22,000 concert attendees would use their own bodies to shield strangers and loved
ones from the bullets. They used T-shirts to stop the bleeding, turned signs into stretchers and held friends in their arms as they died.
Humanity tried to trump evil.
‘Fireworks,’ Dan thought he heard someone in the crowd say. He turned his head and looked over to the right of the stage where there was a bar and VIP area. He thought perhaps there was some kind of electrical failure. By the second volley, Dan knew it was gunfire.
Dan Watkins was an avid country music fan, but the 50-year-old attorney from California had never been to the three-day show. His daughter, Alexa, went the year before and raved about the show. Dan took a look at the lineup: Eric Church, Jason Aldean. He loved those guys. He was in. And so was the whole family.
Since the first night, the Watkinses had danced and laughed and made friends. Dan worried that the rest of the family would not enjoy the festival. Of the bunch, Dan was the big country music fan. He was delighted to see everyone having such a good time and loving the music the way he did.
The children were getting older. Alexa, 23, lived in Carlsbad, California. Jake, 21, was in Tucson at the University of Arizona. Dan and his wife, Susan, 54, were on their way to becoming empty nesters with their youngest child, 17-year-old Eric, expected to go off to college next fall.
Dan and Susan increasingly viewed their time together as a family as precious.
Those few days at the festival, the family was not just enjoying each other as family, but also as friends.
But it was the last night that they looked forward to the most. Jason Aldean was headlining. Everyone in the family loved Jason Aldean.
The few moments with his children at the beginning of the show — seeing them beaming, throwing their heads back in laughter as they stood with new friends, the sheer happiness — it was one Dan couldn’t imagine being any better or ever being re-created. Dan looked at his wife.
“This is amazing,” they both said to each other as they swayed to the music, her shoulder touching his chest.
Two songs later, gunfire rang out.
“Fireworks,” Dan thought he heard someone in the crowd say. He turned his head and looked over to the right of the stage where there was a bar and VIP area. He thought perhaps there was some kind of electrical failure.
By the second volley, Dan knew it was gunfire. In the National Guard for 14 years, he’d never been in a combat zone. But he’d shot machine guns and been inside tanks. It sounded like a fully automatic weapon.
But nobody was running. Nobody was screaming.
He grabbed his wife and told her to get down on the ground. He grabbed a young man next to Alexa and said, “You’ve got to cover her, please.” And he did. Dan turned to another young man and asked him to do the same for Alexa’s best friend.
He got to his knees behind Susan, covering her with his body. He was head-to-head with Jake, who was covering the mother and daughter.
He could see Eric. He was only an arm’s length away.
But they were packed in so tightly, Dan could not reach over and grab him.
At first, Dan believed the shooter must be on the ground. He could not conceive that someone was shooting from the 32nd floor of Mandalay Bay. But by the end of the second volley, he thought the shots were coming from above.
There was another round of gunfire. Dan was terrified, no one could move, they were sitting ducks.
He looked over at Eric, his youngest, who was wearing a white shirt. No one was covering him.
Please God, Dan thought, don’t let me see red on that shirt.
During a break in the gunfire, Dan saw people were still not moving.
People 10 to 20 yards away were still lying flat on the ground. He knew that to escape, everyone would need to move.
“Run, people, you’ve got to run,” he shouted. “We can’t move, you’ve got to run.”
Besides gunfire, the only sound Alexa heard was her father’s voice, shouting that someone had been shot. She was crouched down on the ground, her head down, eyes closed. The man her father had asked to protect her covered her as best he could. Alexa had only known him for 20 minutes. She could barely remember his name, and didn’t know if he could remember hers.
Everything was dark. She could not see her brothers or her parents.
“Mommy, Daddy,” she yelled in between sobs. She had been a child the last time she’d referred to her parents that way. At 23, Alexa had starting living on her own and was working at her first job out of college.
“It’s OK, I can see them and they’re fine,” the young man, Jeremiah, said to her. His friend Riley was nearby covering Alexa’s best friend, Christina.
Wedged in tightly with the crowd, Alexa gripped his arms. She heard her father’s voice bellow overhead. She had never heard him yell like that and thought it must have been the voice he used when he was in the military giving commands.
Another burst of gunfire split the air. Alexa crouched down farther. It went on for maybe 30 seconds, maybe a minute. Then stopped.
“Run people, you’ve got to run,” she heard her father scream.
Jeremiah told Alexa the next time the shooter was reloading, they would need to run and hop over the fence.
Just a few seconds after the second round of gunfire, Eric saw the performers drop their instruments and run off stage. He looked to the boy next to him, a 16-year-old named Nick he had befriended shortly before the show started.
Now the teens were crouched down, heads ducked, shoulder to shoulder and trying to cover Nick’s girlfriend from the flying bullets. They were both bewildered.
Suddenly, Eric looked down, feeling a slight gust near the side of his T-shirt. When he looked back up at Nick, the teen seemed stunned.
“I got shot,” he told Eric. Quickly, Eric began feeling Nick’s arm, looking for the bullet wound. A tall, barrel-chested boy with a baby face, Eric had never had any formal first-aid training. He only knew he needed to find the injury and apply pressure.
Eric looked at his hand, but he saw no blood. He couldn’t find the wound.
The gunfire began again, and Eric ducked back down. He knew that when people ran, they would become separated.
Eric took Nick’s phone, punched in his number and hit send so they could find each other again. He wanted to make sure he was OK.
The gunfire stopped. The three took off. Eric made sure that Nick and his girlfriend, Olivia, got over the barrier first.
Then they all ran in different directions, Eric going toward the left, his white T-shirt stained with Nick’s blood.
By the fourth volley, the crowd was finally moving. Dan grabbed Susan’s arm and they ran. Almost immediately, a woman fell in front of Dan. He stopped and pulled her up. “Come on let’s go,” he yelled as gunfire erupted again. “We’ve got to go.”
He took her to the end of a string of tents and around a corner where several people had taken cover.
When he looked up, Dan realized he was alone.
Susan was not with him and neither were any of the kids.
Jeremiah grabbed Alexa’s arm as they ran as quickly as they could. Others were jumping over the fence to escape.
Jeremiah got over first and tried to help Alexa. As she worked to get over the fence, she looked down.
Below her was the body of a woman, lying against the fence, alone. Her head had a bullet wound.
Alexa stared into her eyes. They were bright blue and blank.
Alexa fell getting over the fence. She got up and ran again, following Jeremiah. She tripped over large metal wires and bodies on the ground.
Jeremiah dragged her across the ground until she could get up. They ran.
Jake lifted the teenage girl he was helping to her feet, and the two ran past the stage, away from the gunfire. To reach safety, they had to jump just one more chain-link fence.
But the girl froze short of the fence, a statue amid disarray as another volley of bullets started.
There was no time to talk. Jake had not played football since trying out for the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks as a freshman years ago, but his 6-feet-2inch frame still had plenty of strength to throw the girl over the fence.
The girl’s mom followed, and the three crouched down amid more gunfire.
Susan kept running.
At the edge of the field, she ducked for cover behind a metal storage container. She heard bullets hitting everything around her. She pressed herself tight against the metal.
When it stopped, she ran into a parking lot. People were scattering everywhere. On the ground, she saw three bodies, with clusters of people
Dan and Susan Watkins, at Aliso Niguel High School on Friday in Aliso Viejo, Calif. The Watkins and their three children, Alexa, 23, Jake, 21 and Eric, 17, all survived the Route 91 Harvest festival shooting.
A wounded person is walked in on a wheelbarrow as Las Vegas police respond to the Route 91 Harvest festival massacre Sunday on the Strip across from Mandalay Bay.
From left, Jake Watkins, his father, Dan, sister Alexa and brother Eric with a friend.