LAS VEGAS — I had just folded a losing hand at the poker table when the first alerts started to pop up on my twitter feed — “Active Shooter at the Mandalay Bay.” I have spent years writing about the tragedy of mass shootings and the epidemic of gun violence, and the normal impulse to shelter in place was overwhelmed by the need to report what was happening.
I quickly cashed out my chips and headed down toward the Mandalay Bay. As I got closer to the southern edge of the Strip, the first indications of what had taken place were becoming obvious — the blaring sirens from police vehicles and ambulances speeding toward the scene, the tourists streaming north, the streets increasingly devoid of pedestrians, even as the cheesy music from outdoor bars all along the Strip continued to play.
At the corner of Tropicana Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard, it looked like a war zone. Dozens of police cars, fire trucks, and ambulances parked haphazardly; officers crouched behind their vehicles with guns aloft. A SWAT team, dressed in civilian clothes, passed behind me while another came from the direction of the shooting.The ambulances streaming toward hospitals became too numerous to count — an indication that the first reports of two dead and 24 injured would inevitably rise.
I headed to the Tropicana Hotel, which is directly across the street from the concert grounds. The noise inside the casino was jarring — not music or slot machines blaring, no cries of victory from the craps or black jack tables. Rather, there was a low hum of conversation from dozens of shell-shocked concertgoers talking among themselves, or on their cell phones reassuring their friends and family that they were OK. The omnipresent televisions that usually showed football and Sportscenter were tuned to local news.
Several of the men were bare-chested, having taking their shirts off on a sultry night in Vegas. A few women wearing cowboy boots and shorts were covered in dirt from having hit the ground when shots were fired. Some were crying, others hugging or nervously smoking. Many were oddly upbeat, joking and laughing with each other, even ones who told me that not 20 or 30 minutes earlier they’d been running for their lives in a scene of utter pandemonium.
I asked one young man what he’d seen. Complete chaos, he said; multiple shots fired, every one running to and fro seeking cover but not knowing exactly from where the shots had been coming.
Everyone told some variation of the same story. Their initial thought had been firecrackers or fireworks, and it took a few seconds to realize that someone was firing at them.
“I felt bullets whizzing by my head,” said a tattooed man who had hid in a refrigerator at a food stand to avoid the gunfire. “There’s blood everywhere,” two women told me.
After a while, I could no longer bear to ask people what they’d seen. It felt as though I was interfering in their moment of personal grief, like an unwelcome guest at a funeral.
Eventually the crowds were herded into a nearby ballroom after first being searched for firearms. I found a back exit to a parking lot where an officer directed a few of us to the MGM Grand Hotel across the street. When I asked him if he’d been on the scene, he said yes and that he’d been doing triage. Could he describe what he’d seen? “Not good, not good,” he replied. I made it back to the Strip where I ran into a few SWAT members and asked one of the officers what he’d seen. He told me he’d carried out at least seven dead people and that he couldn’t even count all the bodies strewn on the concert site.
I continued walking down the Strip to my hotel and it was a scene like nothing I’d ever seen. From Mandalay Bay to the center of the Strip — a distance of more than two miles — there was a barely a soul in sight. The only traffic: a few taxis and police vehicles. The Las Vegas Strip had become a ghost town.Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.