Michele Murray smiled as she posed with her two younger sisters in a group photo at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival in Las Vegas. The three sisters had traveled from Massachusetts with their cousin and six friends for a much-needed vacation, and were enjoying hearing Jason Aldean perform on stage Sunday night when, just moments after the photo was taken, the music was interrupted by the sounds of gunfire.
“At first, we weren’t sure what it was,” said Murray, 49. “. . . It was so loud it was scary.”
Murray, of North Reading, and her companions turned around to see what was happening. Aldean stopped singing. Murray initially thought the noise was a helicopter.
“One of us said, ‘Oh my God, it’s gunfire, it’s shooting,’ ” she said.
Then they started running, trying to find a way to escape.
The gunshots continued for several minutes. But to the people who were there, it felt like much longer.
Murray said she couldn’t tell where the gunfire was coming from. And no one knew how many shooters there were.
It was only later that they learned that a lone gunman — 64-year-old Stephen Paddock of Mesquite, Nev. — had stationed himself in a suite on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino with the apparent goal of shooting as many people as he could. Hundreds of people were injured and at least 58 people were killed in the attack.
Murray and her sisters managed to escape, as did everyone else in their group.
After Paddock began firing on the crowd below, Murray fled in the same direction as her two sisters — Nicole MacArthur of Billerica and Jennifer Navaria of Haverhill. They ran toward an area where concession stands and vendors were located. They hid underneath the concession stand counters and kept moving ahead, hoping to eventually reach an exit.
Meanwhile, the shooting continued. Authorities say Paddock fired shots for 10 minutes.
“We didn’t know where it was coming from,” Murray said. “We didn’t know how many [shooters] were there. We didn’t know. . . . Your instinct is to hide, but you don’t know what you’re hiding from.”
The concession stands kept them out of sight, but the flimsy material they were hiding behind didn’t provide any protection from bullets. They kept moving and never stopped, hoping to find a way out of the venue.
“We started heading to what we thought was the exit,” she said. “We were just following everyone.”
But it was a dead end. A fence stood in the way.
A quick-thinking man grabbed a metal barricade and threw it against the fence, which was about 10 to 12 feet tall, she said. Murray and her sisters scurried up this makeshift ladder and scaled the fence.
“He helped all of us get up the ladder,” she said. “There were people on the other side helping everybody down. Shooting was still going on.”
Once Murray and her sisters made it over the fence, they continued running. Murray was barefoot, having lost her flip-flops somewhere along the way.
“Ahead of us was the Hooters hotel, and there was a parking garage,” she said.
They ran into the parking garage and found a back door into the hotel, one that is usually only used by the staff who work there. Murray, her sisters, and a bunch of other concertgoers ran inside.
“There were probably 20 or 30 of us back there, packed in . . . not knowing what was going on, if there were multiple shooters, or if they were following us,” she said. “We didn’t know where to go.”
One of Murray’s sisters was on the phone with her husband. She stayed on the line with him the whole time.
Murray noticed that some of the people were injured and bleeding. One woman in the group was wearing a shirt that said “I’m the Bride.”
“People were hysterical,” she said. “It was terrible.”
Hotel security eventually moved them into a kitchen area that wasn’t in use.
“They kept us in here until they secured the perimeter,” she said.
Murray and her sisters eventually left the hotel and started to head back to the MGM Grand, where they were staying. Outside they saw the aftermath of the shooting.
“It was mass chaos, as you might imagine,” she said. “At that point, we saw a man who had died. He was covered. We were told it was a ricochet bullet.”
When they reached their hotel, they encountered another chaotic scene.
“People were running out of the MGM screaming, saying the gunman was in there,” she said.
Murray and her sisters once again started running and hid until things appeared to calm down. No one knew for sure what was happening, and rumors abounded.
“We were told that there were three sets of shooters and they had made a triangle on the rooftops of three hotels.”
So instead of taking the direct route to their suite, Murray and her sisters followed the perimeter of the building, so they wouldn’t be visible if anyone was on the roof.
The sisters made it back safely. Their group had been split up, and nine out of the 10 women were accounted for. They anxiously waited to hear from one friend, and they eventually did.
“We all cried,” she said.
On Monday night Murray flew back to Massachusetts on her scheduled flight and by Tuesday morning she was home in North Reading. She is avoiding watching any video of the mass shooting.
“I cringe every time I see it on the news,” she said.
She’s also trying to make sense of it all.
“The whole group of us brought my sister there as a gift,” she said. “It was supposed to be a fun time. Sometimes I feel guilty that we gave her this gift and it turned out to be so traumatic.”Emily Sweeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.