Hillegeists faced direct fire at Las Vegas show
By Mike Courson
Most Kansans woke to the news of another mass shooting in the final hours of Sunday, Oct. 1. At least three Barton County residents did not have that luxury: they were on the ground, some 1,100 miles away on the Las Vegas Strip when 64-year-old Stephen Paddock opened fire from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, killing at least 58 and wounding nearly 500 more.
Kaylin Hillegeist, 19, was one of the 22,000 country music fans attending the Route 91 Harvest Festival. Matt DeLong and Lexi Nettleingham were less than a mile away from the concert and saw a different side of the night’s events. This is Kaylin’s story.
In the line of fire
The Hillegeists arrived in Las Vegas specifically to attend the 3-day music festival. Kaylin’s uncle, Scott Hillegeist, was on a three-week break from serving in Afghanistan and bought the tickets. Kaylin was not sure she even wanted to go to the concert that final evening.
“That day I definitely did not want to go to the concert,” she said. “Something just didn’t feel right. I wasn’t having a fun time. It’s like an instinct you have but you can’t pinpoint. That whole time, I didn’t want to be there.”
Country music star Jason Aldean had just started his third song when the first round of shots rang out at approximately 10:05 p.m. The Hillegeists were standing to the right of a small runway coming off the main stage, approximately 12 rows back from the big-screen TVs on the side of the stage. Kaylin had admired the Mandalay Bay Resort the previous two evenings, but once the shooting began, the direct line of sight to the hotel meant the Hillegeists were in the line of fire.
“We thought it was fireworks,” Kaylin said. “We realized there were no lights and Aldean ran off the stage, then a girl two rows in front of me got shot. That’s when we knew it was real.”
Kaylin ducked down and her uncle jumped on top of her and told her to stay down. It would take hours to figure out, but Kaylin’s cousin immediately ran to the left after the first shots. He would eventually make a quick exit of the grounds, safely ending up in a warehouse elsewhere on the Strip.
Kaylin and Scott, meanwhile, were pinned down between bursts of fire. “I looked up and just saw people running,” said Kaylin. “There were a lot of people on the ground. Three bodies away from me, another person got shot. I kept looking up and I kept telling myself this is how I’m going to die. You’re seeing all these people die around you and there’s no way you’re making it out.”
Every time the shooting stopped, more people got up and ran. Kaylin estimates it was about five minutes before she and her uncle got up and ran toward a barricade some 30 feet away. Once she got to the metal fence, the shooter opened fire again and Kaylin was in danger of being trampled as people ran to the barricade for cover. Kaylin watched as a girl standing near the barricade was hit by a round.
Kaylin was having a panic attack and struggled to breathe. When her uncle left to go find his son, a woman came over to comfort Kaylin, suggesting she take pictures to keep her mind off the shooting. The ploy worked until Hillegeist turned one way and saw another gunshot victim on the ground.
The woman eventually ran off and Kaylin sought comfort from a young man who was hiding nearby. “I looked at him and asked if he could please hold my hands,” she said. “He crawled over to me and we were holding both hands. He was telling me to count to 10 and take deep breaths. He was calming me down.”
Carnage was all around. Kaylin looked through the holes in the fence and saw countless bodies on the other side. While many survivors would later wonder what happened to the people around them, Kaylin knew.
“Most of them were fatal,” she said. “The one that was three bodies over, I saw him get shot in either the chest or the head. The girl two rows ahead of me, the first shot was in the face. I think she survived but I’m not sure. While I was behind the barricade, I looked through the holes and could see so many people lying on their backs. You just knew they were dead.”
A long 10 minutes
Police eventually estimated Paddock fired from his 32nd-floor suit for just 10 minutes. For those on the ground, that seemed like an eternity.
“It felt like two hours to me,” Kaylin said. “I felt like I was on the ground forever. It’s almost like I blacked out because I was just so scared. You block all of it out of your memory. Running was even scarier because you’re a target when you’re running.”
The stranger Kaylin met eventually helped her across a field, away from Mandalay Bay. Scott caught up with Kaylin and helped her to a parking lot where she took shelter behind a car with a group of girls.
“Me and these girls sat in a circle and we were praying,” said Kaylin. “Two of them lived in Vegas and one wanted to walk to her house. I wasn’t sure about it until the SWAT team came over and told us we needed to get out.”
On the way to one of those homes, the group was warned of another possible shooter in the area. The girls ran across the street to a hotel and hid in the breakfast room. Kaylin was able to text her uncle and tell him where she was.
‘I love you’
Throughout the event, Kaylin had no trouble texting with loved ones. It was after midnight in Kansas when Kaylin reached the first barricade and texted her mother.
“When I was hiding behind the barricade, I texted my mom and told her ‘I love you,’” she said. “I didn’t know if I was going to make it out alive. We didn’t know how many shooters there were and if they were on the ground. We heard so many shots they could have been anywhere. I just texted people I loved them because I didn’t know if I was going to make it out.”
Eventually, Scott found Kaylin in the breakfast room and the two made it back to their own hotel. Kaylin learned her cousin was safe and watched the news in silence.
“I couldn’t talk,” she said. “All I was doing was watching the numbers of dead bodies go up. It freaked me out more but I wanted to know more. I stayed up watching the news.”
Kaylin gives a lot of credit to her uncle for keeping her alive. She said he also helped several other people that night.
“I know if I would have ran, which I would have done if not for my uncle, something else could have happened,” she said. “That’s when everybody became a target. I think when (the shooter) saw most people were getting away, that’s when he shot at the ground. That’s when we got up and ran.
“I just feel so lucky because I was next to so many people who got shot. Literally right next to them. It’s just amazing how all three of us made it out without a scratch.”
Kaylin had one final hurdle before coming back to Kansas: getting on an airplane. There was plenty of fear about another attack at the airport but the trip was worth. “I was really glad to be home because I wasn’t sure I’d ever see it again,” she said.
And now the healing can began. Kaylin has already looked into counseling and knows she has a difficult road ahead.
“My life is not going back to normal as easy,” she said. “I’ve had so many breakdowns when people ask how I’m feeling. I try to play it off like it doesn’t affect me, but it does. It’s going to affect me for the rest of my life.”
If there are any positives from the Vegas ordeal, Kaylin was amazed by some of the acts of kindness she saw, including the young man who helped her out. She has no idea who he is or what happened to him.
“I would love to find him,” she said. “I haven’t heard anything whatsoever. It was awesome to see that everybody came together to help one another. You didn’t have to know somebody. You could just talk to them and they’d be there.”