'Bullets started flying': Atwater native safely escapes Las Vegas shooting
ATWATER — After taking a "little vacation" to Las Vegas last weekend to listen to country music at the Route 91 Harvest concert, Justin Schroeder is back at work this week at Central Counties Cooperative in rural Atwater.
That should have been an unremarkable transition.
But while working at his job as an agronomist with the farm cooperative, Schroeder is also processing the harrowing experience of escaping a barrage of gunfire that killed at least 58 and injured nearly 500.
"It hasn't set in yet," said Schroeder, who said he will not let fear or the actions of the gunman change how he lives.
"I can't let this guy control my life," Schroeder said.
Authorities have said Stephen Paddock, 64, opened fire from his casino hotel room Sunday. He had multiple weapons in his suite on the 32nd floor and shot at the thousands of concertgoers far below.
Schroeder, who grew up in Atwater and currently lives in Cold Spring, was at the concert with his fiancee, Taylor Dombrovski, and Taylor's brother and sister-in-law, Jordan and Kayla Dombrovski.
Schroeder and Taylor are big country music fans and go to several concerts every year. The four flew to Las Vegas on Thursday for the three-day concert for "just a little vacation and getaway," Schroeder said.
Because they had seen the headliner, Jason Aldean, perform in the past, they initially were not going to stay for his performance. But they were having so much fun, they did stay and were about 60 to 70 feet away from the stage when Schroeder said they heard a "pop pop pop pop pop" that they first thought were firecrackers.
About 15 seconds later, "bullets started flying" around them and over their heads, and they dropped to the ground.
But then they decided to run.
"There was so much running and screaming," Schroeder said.
Determined not to become separated, the four held hands as they ran.
"There were people dropping," he said. "I don't know if they were getting trampled or shot."
With the benefit of Schroeder's height, they were able to scale several chain link fences that bordered the concert venue.
They helped two girls whose clothing was caught on a fence. "They were just hanging there. Stuck," he said.
At one point they rocked a fence back and forth and were able to knock it down, which allowed a "floodgate" of people to run through, he said.
The four ran down several streets to a hotel, but "there was so much gunfire" and they feared gunshots were coming from multiple buildings or "people were chasing us" that they decided to keep running.
"You don't have time to think. You don't have time to be scared," said Schroeder, who's thankful they "made the right decision" to run instead of remaining huddled on the floor.
Schroeder said they ran for about a mile-and-a-half before taking temporary refuge in a condo where they made calls back to Minnesota to let family and friends know they were OK. They eventually took a cab back to their hotel.
About three hours had passed from the time they heard the first bullets to when they got to their hotel, where they nursed bumps, bruises and a sprained ankle.
Nearly 45 minutes of that time was spent in the chaos of bullets and running for their lives.
"Thank God all four of us were able to stay together," he said.
The more he hears about the victims — including the "great people" he met at the concert — he said he realizes "how fortunate we are and we feel so terrible for the families that lost their loved ones."
And as more information unfolds about the incident, Schroeder said the persistent question he has is "why" the shooter did what he did.
"It just doesn't make sense," he said. "I don't know what his motive was."
Having an answer to that might help bring some closure for him personally, he said.
In terms of a national response to the shooting, Schroeder said restricting gun ownership won't solve the problem. "If someone wants to do this, they're going to do it," he said.
Schroeder said he and Taylor will keep going to concerts, but the incident has given him a new life-and-death perspective and a deeper appreciation for life.