Kenny Forsythe said people’s belongings were all over the ground — shoes, cellphones and bags were strewn everywhere as he and his wife, Kayla Barrietua, ran away from the Route 91 Harvest country music festival. He said many of the concertgoers had been drinking and there had been a party-like atmosphere just moments prior. People were in good spirits. There was no way anyone could have been prepared for a situation like this.
Forsythe and Barrietua escaped with their lives after a gunman opened fire Sunday on country music fans watching singer Jason Aldean. The barrage of gunfire killed at least 59 people and wounded more than 500 in the worst mass shooting in American history. SWAT officers swarmed the nearby Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino and found the apparent shooter, Stephen Craig Paddock, 64, dead in his 32nd-floor hotel room with a cache of rifles and ammunition.
The La Grande couple were in attendance at the festival over the weekend to celebrate Barrietua’s birthday, Forsythe said. They arrived on Friday for the festival and were staying at the Excalibur Hotel, less than half a mile from the festival grounds. Forsythe said the group they were with decided to splurge for VIP passes on Saturday and Sunday because of how crowded the festival was.
The group went to the festival later in the day and joined up with another couple they met earlier at the festival.
“We discussed having this be a yearly thing,” Forsythe said.
He said he felt safe in terms of the festival’s security.
“There were police stationed everywhere. There were police dogs there. No one could’ve imagined something like that happening,” he said.
When Big & Rich sang “God Bless America” earlier on Sunday, Forsythe said the band invited servicemen and women up to the stage.
“No fights were breaking out, (and) the attitude was good,” he said. “Jason Aldean came out later, and he had sung three to four songs when we heard what sounded like firecrackers.”
Aldean stopped singing for a second and the popping noise stopped, Forsythe said. Then he started to sing again and the popping noise started back up.
“That’s when he stopped singing,” he said.
And that’s when the screens went black and the floodlights came on, Forsythe said. People realized the popping noises were gunshots and panic erupted in the crowd.
Forsythe and his wife were in the VIP area on the roof with 100 to 200 other people away from the main stage. Forsythe said when they heard the repetitive gunshots, everyone went to the floor.
“There was no way of knowing where the bullets were coming from,” he said. “I kept (my wife’s) head down. The bullets kept coming. I was looking above the crowd trying to figure out where it was coming from — where the danger was.”
Forsythe said he initially thought there were multiple gunmen on the ground in the crowd. It was impossible to know whether to run or stay in one place.
He said it was mass panic.
At the time, he said, they didn’t know if their friends were safe.
“I didn’t have time to check and see,” Forsythe said. “It was all such a blur.”
After what he estimates to have been about 10 to 15 minutes of lying on the ground, Forsythe and his wife were able to reach the staircase and leave the roof. When they made it to one of the entrances to the festival, the police yelled at them to keep running.
“In a time of such horror, though, people were helping others,” he said. “People who had fallen were helped up.”
Forsythe said he and Barrietua ran and kept running. Law enforcement began locking down the casinos and hotels and checking the area. Forsythe said they heard sirens, helicopters and ambulances drive by.
“All I was focused on was getting my wife to safety and comforting her,” he said.
They made it to the MGM Grand and found a quiet spot in the corner to catch their breath and call their parents to let them know they were safe.
Forsythe said they eventually were able to return to their hotel, where they found the other members of their group, who had left the festival early because one of them had gotten sick.
He said he didn’t get accurate information about what had transpired until 1 a.m. — three hours after the shooting began.
The misinformation of gunmen in casinos kept Forsythe and Barrietua running. Once the couple got back into their hotel room and checked to make sure everyone in their group was safe, they turned on the TV to watch the news. That’s when they learned it was a lone gunman, and the number of victims began to be reported.
The effects of this night will stay with Forsythe and his wife for a long time, he said. He mentioned that Barrietua hasn’t wanted to go to any large group events, and loud noises frighten them both. While at Las Vegas’ McCarran International Airport to return home, a siren blared over the speaker system to make an announcement.
The sound put them on edge.
Forsythe said he feels blessed, though, that they and their friends made it through unscathed.
Forsythe said getting back to La Grande and his community was a huge comfort.
“There’s nothing warm and fuzzy about this, but (we) got to come back to our friends and family,” Forsythe said. “Pray for those who didn’t. Pray for their families.”