Three Penhold firefighters and one of their wives were caught in the midst of the worst mass shooting in U.S. history last weekend.
The four Central Albertans, who’d helped wounded and panic-stricken concert-goers, are still working through difficult emotions in the aftermath of their fateful Las Vegas trip.
In a joint statement about the “unbelievable incident” that was posted online following the 58 deaths and 500 injuries to concert-goers on Sunday, they urged the public to remember the victims, not the killer:
“The casualties should be remembered, feel sad and sorry for them. The shooter should be forgotten. Don’t feel anger or hate for him…”
Like other concert-goers, Sean Pendergast, a Penhold fire department captain, and his fiance, fellow firefighter Danielle Meeres, initially mistook the sound of rapid gunfire for fireworks as they watched country singer Jason Aldean performing at the outdoor Route 91 Harvest Festival.
“But after 10-20 seconds, and three or so bursts of gunfire, the concert stopped, the lights came on, and a massive wall of people were heading towards us,” recalled Pendergast, who described a scene of panic and confusion as concert-goers realized people were being killed.
Although their friends, Mackenzie Johnston, a senior Penhold firefighter, and his wife Laura Johnston, a provincial worker, were also at the show, the couples became separated in the stampede.
At one point, Pendergast recalled a running girl fell and was trampled by fleeing people. He and Meeres shouted “stop, stop, stop!” pushing, and urged the dazed girl to get up and start running.
The two helped force open two exit gates while about 200 shots were being fired. Pendergast and Meeres eventually stopped and sought shelter behind a trailer “to catch our breath and assess.” Were there several shooters? And could they access the casino? Pendergast remembers wondering.
As the gunfire finally trailed off, the two stopped at several hotels to see if they could help.
Meeres assisted a man who’d been shot in the knee get into an elevator. She found towels to wrap his wound as they both hid behind a hotel desk. She later helped push this man, Bobby, in an office chair to paramedics, before turning her attention to a woman with a chest wound.
The firefighters helped calm people who were panicked by grim sighting of a body and crime tape — or crying because they were separated from family members.
But the response of Las Vegas emergency crews was described as “incredible.” Within 20 minutes, a triage tent had been set up in the intersection, with dozens of emergency workers and police — an “amazing” response, said Pendergast.
While he and Meeres had offered assistance at the medical tent, they were told they needed to evacuate.
The Johnstons had also offered to assist people before becoming caught up in the confusion within the casino. A crowd began scrambling to get out the back doors after a shooter was (wrongly) rumoured to have entered from the front.
The Johnstons ended up on the roof of the Tropicana hotel, where they were reunited with their friends.
In the hours following the shooting, the Central Albertans were approached by people who’d noticed their purple fabric concert bracelets and wanted to pass on sympathies. “Cutting that bracelet off was like lifting a weight off my shoulder,” recalled Pendergast.
Penhold Fire Department is grateful for the safety of the volunteers, and “so proud of their efforts in helping the injured and confused in their unbelievable incident.”
The four Central Albertans, now back from Las Vegas, can access counselling through their work, but are “working through this together.” Their thoughts turn to the families of the victims, and to the “countless off-duty police, fire and EMS (personnel) at the concert who risked their lives to save others.”