Hiding in an abandoned area in the MGM Grand Las Vegas late Sunday night, Hilary Rehfield-Green and her husband Ryan Green faced an impossible question:
“If you never get to talk to your kid again, would you rather spare them the worry of what you’re going through or would you want to see their face and say you love them?”
A couple hours earlier, they had been sitting in the bleachers at Route 91 Harvest Festival watching country artist Jason Aldean perform. Then bullets rained down on the crowd, killing more than 50 people and leaving hundreds injured in the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history.
After sprinting for their lives amid gunfire, hiding in a crammed hotel room at the Tropicana and then leaving there, they were crouched in an enclosed employee area at the MGM Grand. They had no idea how many shooters there were or where the gunmen might be.
Now they were weighing whether to contact their 13-year-old son Braeden, who was asleep back home in Juneau.
“What is more damaging?” Rehfield-Green recalled them asking. “Calling your child when they can see you panicked and crying and in danger to say goodbye if they might never see you or talk to you again? Or to just let him be home, without his parents, to sleep the night away and see all this news and say, ‘Oh my god, are my parents alive?’”
They decided to call him.
Unity in music, under fire
The couple had planned on going to the music festival for about a year, and bought their tickets in May.
Green is currently going to school in Washington to become a refrigeration technician, so he’s gone for nine months out of the year. One of the ways he gets to see his family is through live music.
A week before going to the festival in Las Vegas, the pair went to a Coldplay show in Washington. They took Braeden to that show. Before going, Braeden brought up the bombing of a concert in Manchester, United Kingdom, that killed 23 people in May and asked if that could happen at the show they were at. Rehfield-Green said they’d pray that it wouldn’t happen.
When Braeden asked to go to the show in Vegas, his parents decided it would be better if he stayed at home. Vegas is no place for a child.
For the first couple days, the festival lived up to their expectations. Tens of thousands of music fans, all wearing matching purple wristbands, swarmed the concert area every day despite the heat. For the first two days, Green and Rehfield-Green decided to stand up near the stage where they could get the best view.
They made quick friends with the people around them and got to recognize some of the more distinctive members of the crowd. It encouraged them that when the country is so politically divided and people can find a reason to argue over just about anything, this many people could come together and simply enjoy each other.
On Sunday evening, they decided they’d had enough of standing in the 90-degree heat and chose to sit in the bleachers near the back of the venue. Midway through Aldean’s set, they heard what sounded like firecrackers, but didn’t see any flashes or smoke. Then the screams started.
“All you can hear is screaming and gunshots,” Rehfield-Green remembers.
Aldean stopped playing as the screeching crowd turned from the stage and stampeded away, toward whatever exits were open. Those on the bleachers were frozen, Rehfield-Green remembered, not sure what to do.
After a moment, they started to move, trying to get down and exit behind the bleachers. As they crowded into the narrow corridor between the bleachers to try and find a way out, Green was dragged away by the rushing crowd while Rehfield-Green was stuck behind. As the gunshots continued, they weren’t sure if they’d see each other again.
They eventually found their way back to one another as they reached the back of the bleachers. Above them, people were leaping off the top of the bleachers, trying to get out as fast as they could. Without even thinking about it, Green and Rehfield-Green stopped and caught a few of the jumpers as they tumbled downwards.
Then they ran.
‘Panic on their faces, blood on their clothes’
The first place people ran to was the Tropicana, which was just next door. The crowd of concert-goers pushed through the lobby and through the hallways to find rooms in which to hide. One man opened his door, and people swarmed inside, including the Juneau couple.
Green estimated 40 people in that room, and almost none of them were calm. People were screaming and fighting. One man had his pocket knife out and was trying to unscrew the vent cover in the ceiling of the bathroom. Women sitting in the bathtub were trying to tend to their bloodied knees. Rehfield-Green texted her mother to tell her she was OK.
The man whose room it was went into the hall, asked around and returned with news. Tropicana employees said the hotel wasn’t safe, and people should head to MGM Grand.
Almost relieved that they could leave the room, Green and Rehfield-Green took off running again. It was a miracle, they thought, that with Green in sandals and Rehfield-Green in boots, that neither of them fell or hurt themselves running for their lives that night.
They arrived at MGM Grand, where they had been visiting as vacationers earlier that day. Now they were there as stunned survivors looking to stay alive.
“When we got there,” Rehfield-Green said, “there were just droves of people with panic on their faces and blood on their clothes.”
They also saw another surreal sight as they went by the casino portion of the hotel. They saw people calmly sitting at slot machines. People were going up to the bar to try and order drinks, oblivious to the horrors around them. The employees of the hotel had been evacuated, both of them noticed, and the only people left were either people enjoying their vacation or people running for their lives.
Green and Rehfield-Green huddled in one of the abandoned employee areas and plugged in Rehfield-Green’s phone to charge. There, they spoke briefly about whether or not to call Braeden before deciding to FaceTime him.
Breathing heavily and trying to contain their emotions, they told him everything that had happened and that they were safe for the time being. Then they told him they loved him.
“It was a scary moment to be telling your child, ‘I love you’ for maybe the last time,” Rehfield-Green said.
Gun rights, human rights
Fortunately for them, it wasn’t the last time.
Hours later, when they made it back to their hotel on Fremont Street, they couldn’t sleep. They didn’t want to be in Vegas anymore. They wanted to be with family. They rented a car (an electric blue Hyundai Elantra) and drove 19 hours straight to Green’s parents’ house in Bellingham, Washington.
They flew home Tuesday to be with their son, and Braeden’s question about whether a disaster could happen at a concert they were at came back to Rehfield-Green.
“I don’t know if I can honestly tell him, ‘No, that’s not gonna happen’ from now on,” she said. “I don’t even know if I can go to another large event like that.”
What she does know is that she’s not going to feel safe in heavily populated places for a long time.
During the 45 minutes that they spoke Wednesday morning about the harrowing experience, the emotions were clear and raw on their faces. It was difficult for them to recount the events, but Rehfield-Green said they wanted to get their story out to as many people as they could, because as she said, “we are the face of gun violence in America.”
Even though she and her husband are gun owners and enjoy hunting and fishing, Rehfield-Green says it’s time to change the way guns are regulated. She’s seen arguments arise on Facebook, and though she appreciates both sides of the argument, Rehfield-Green wanted to make it clear that tragedies like this touch real people, not just statistics you see on the news.
“What’s more important: being able to have an automatic rifle, or being able to have your neighbor alive or your sister alive or your teacher?” Rehfield-Green said. “It doesn’t compute in my mind why gun rights are more important than human rights.”
A reminder and tribute
When they were in the MGM Grand, all they could think about was their family and their son in Juneau. Now that they’re back in Juneau, Rehfield-Green says her thoughts keep returning to the MGM Grand.
After FaceTiming with Braeden, the two of them remained at the MGM Grand for a while as other concert-goers congregated. Clad in their purple general admission wristbands, the attendees had become a community of sorts.
“You think about all these people you were mingling with for three days straight,” Rehfield-Green said. “Did the lady with the funky moves we were laughing at survive? Did that couple that two-stepped the whole entire concert every day make it?”
As they sat at their table in Juneau on Wednesday morning, both Green and Rehfield-Green still wore their purple wristbands. They’re not ready to take them off quite yet.
A few inches above Rehfield-Green’s wristband is a scratch she sustained during the ordeal. The wound will heal soon, but they know that Sunday night will stick with them forever. The wristbands serve as a reminder.
“I don’t know how long I’ll keep it on,” Rehfield-Green said, taking a deep breath. “I don’t know.”
Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or email@example.com.