Programming note: Watch “New Day” and “CNN Newsroom” each Friday to see inspiring stories of officers going above and beyond the call of duty.
Travis Haldeman thought it was silly that someone would set off fireworks while country music superstar Jason Aldean was on stage. A Clark County fire engineer, Haldeman was off-duty, enjoying the Route 91 Harvest Country Music Festival with his wife Haley on the Las Vegas Strip. The couple was about 15 feet away from the main stage when they realized something was wrong.
Beyond the Call of Duty
“And then we heard another round of gunshots come through and we were like ‘oh, that sounds more like gunshots, not fireworks,’” Travis recalled. “Jason Aldean stopped playing and ran off stage. That’s when it hit us.”
From birthday fun to bullets flying
Elsewhere in the crowd, another off-duty Clark County firefighter Jesse Gomez was having a good time with his wife Debbie, his sister and brother-in-law and his cousins Steve and Opal Ruiz. Enjoying all three days of the festival, the family had celebrated Jesse’s birthday the day before, meeting up with Travis and some other firefighters. But at this point, just the family was hanging out together.
When Jesse realized the sound was gunfire, he covered his wife.
“It was a non-stop popping sound, gunfire,” Jesse said. “The moment it stopped everyone went running and then it started again and we sort of crouched down.”
‘I am afraid for my husband’s life – afraid for my life’
Normally when firefighters are responding to emergencies, their wives and loved ones aren’t with them. As the scope of the situation became clear, both Jesse and Travis felt they had to stay and help but first they needed to get their wives and family to safety.
Travis told Haley to run to their car. He said he’d meet her at home. “I felt like somebody with my skill set and my calmness in that moment could do a lot of good for people who needed it,” Travis said.
Haley knew he was going to stay but was terrified. “I am afraid for my husband’s life – afraid for my life. I am afraid for my children not to have parents,” Haley said. “I am afraid for everything any normal person would be afraid for at that moment.”
Jesse and his family began running to the east side of the venue – away from the gunfire. Along the way, he came across a woman who was bleeding from her head and face. “We just picked her up and we carried her to the other side, me and a couple of strangers,” Jesse said, recalling how he urged his family to keep running to their cars.
Debbie didn’t want to leave her husband. “His cousin’s wife basically dragged me to the car running, ‘cause at that point I had lost my shoes and we are running through a dirt lot,” Debbie remembered.
‘Why did he go back?’
But as they get closer to their car, they realize about 10 people are using it as a shield. “They are just begging and pleading for me to let them in, and at that moment I realize I don’t have keys,” Debbie said. Jesse sprinted to give her his backpack and keys, but after helping get the injured woman to safety, he was covered in blood.
Debbie thought he had been shot. When she realized he was OK, she could see it in his eyes that he was going to go back and help some more. But she felt he was running back into what she called a “war scene.”
“I was in hysterics. Absolute hysterics,” Debbie said through tears. “Just screaming like, ‘Why did he go back? Why did he go back?’”
Read more about what happened to Debbie that night.
Rescuing people amidst gunfire
Back inside the venue, it is chaotic. “People on the ground. People hurt; people running around. People deceased and other people laying with them,” Jesse said. But everyday people were stepping in to help – even as the bullets were still flying – making gurneys out of tables, barriers and banners. With his makeshift team of strangers, Jesse carried more people to safety.
“After we carried the second person there is more gunfire,” Jesse recalled. At the time, it sounded to Jesse as if there was a gunfight on Las Vegas Boulevard and it seemed to be coming closer and closer. “There was a metro police officer standing there and I said, ‘Hey, you are going to protect us’ and he said, ‘fine, let’s go!’”
Jesse estimates he physically carried out six to ten people on his own but said they started using rolling trash cans to get the injured out of the open. But there were some people that he just couldn’t help.
“There was a couple that was behind the grandstand,” Jesse said. “She was deceased and I said, ‘we have to go’ and he says, ‘I am not leaving.’” Feeling the man was in a safe enough position he left him there with his fallen love.
Shots skip just feet away from rescue
Meanwhile, Travis came across a man who had been shot in the leg. Using his own belt, Travis made a tourniquet to stop the profuse bleeding before carrying the man on his back toward the medical tent. Just a couple of paces in, more gunfire pelted the venue. “Three shots skipped out about four or five feet away from my feet across the pavement,” Travis said.
Seeing two more injured people huddled near a bar, Travis ran back to help them. One had been shot in the shoulder, the other in the hip. After he rescues them, he ushers a half dozen more to safety.
When he gets back to the medical tent, there are people everywhere – some injured, some just willing to help. Some had little to no medical training; others were first responders or medical professionals.
Of the three people he is triaging, the most concerning is an 18 year old named Rylie Golgart who had been shot in the lower back. “Her feeling in her legs was really touch and go at times,” Travis said, noting that no one was with her in the tent.
A first responder’s shock: His daughter was shot
Golgart’s father, an off-duty police officer, didn’t know his daughter had been shot. He had just returned to the medical tent after taking some of the injured to a hospital in his pickup truck.
“I was insistent that we needed to wait for a backboard. This wound was way too close to what could be some real damage,” Travis recalled. “So her father went off and it was a real quick moment later that he showed up with an actual backboard from where I’ll never understand.”
Travis and Golgart’s father loaded her into the pickup truck. Travis jumped in the back with her and they headed to the hospital. Travis has kept in touch with Rylie, visiting her and getting updates on her progress, like the first time she stood after the shooting.
“That was a really cool uplifting moment,” Travis said, the emotion pooling in his eyes. “I cry about every single time I say this but it is not because it was sad but because I was so, so proud of her for being that strong.”
Both men struggle with the fact that they left their wives to help others but ultimately both women believe their husbands did the right thing. “I am very proud of him. I am thankful that he made that decision to stay,” Haley said. “Some people were heroes and some people needed a hero and that’s OK.”