Split-up fam­ily sur­vives

The Watkinses got sep­a­rated, saw death, helped ferry the wounded and made it through alive

Las Vegas Review-Journal (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - By Anita Has­san, Brian Joseph and Colton Lochhead

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

Ben­jamin Hager Las Ve­gas Re­view-Jour­nal

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.

Chase Stevens Las Ve­gas Re­view-Jour­nal

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.

Watkins fam­ily

From left, Jake Watkins, his father, Dan, sis­ter Alexa and brother Eric with a friend.

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