'We Were All Sitting Ducks': Country Music Family Reflects On the Vegas Massacre
When the crackling started during Jason Aldean's Oct. 1 performance of "When She Says Baby," most of the 20,000-30,000 people at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas thought it was a sound problem.
But within moments, as the popping noises intensified, it became evident something more sinister was occurring. A celebratory concert was under siege, and everyone was a potential target.
"It wasn't an accident," SiriusXM personality Storme Warren said hours later while still in a state of disbelief. "This was a deliberate act, and we were all sitting ducks."
News reports called it the -deadliest attack in modern American history. A wealthy 64-year-old, Stephen Paddock, opened fire on the audience, with some reports indicating he may have had more than an hour to attack concertgoers with rapid-fire automatic guns from a 32nd-floor room in the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, several hundred yards away from the outdoor venue. Some 59 people were reported dead with 527 injured, though it was possible both numbers could escalate.
The attack is the latest in a series of horrific concert tragedies that have affected the country music business this decade. A stage collapse at a 2011 Sugarland concert in Indianapolis left seven dead and more than 40 injured. Two June 2016 -incidents in Orlando, Fla. — the killing of former The Voice contestant Christina Grimmie by an obsessive fan and the attack on the Pulse nightclub by a lone gunman that left 49 dead — coincided with the CMA Music Festival, heightening the sense of vulnerability that artists and their entourages feel when performing in public. And just last month, Montgomery Gentry's Troy Gentry died in a helicopter crash near the Flying W Airport & Resort in Medford, N.J.
Warren, who was the MC for Gentry's public memorial, was in the middle of the chaos in Las Vegas. He was standing at the side of the stage with Jake Owen's road manager, Greg Fowler, taking in the Aldean show, only to go diving for safety behind a mass of concrete under the stage when they realized they were under fire. As the initial reports began pouring out in a media frenzy, Warren discovered he had been in the vicinity of the killer -- who had checked into the hotel on Sept. 28 -- for several days.
The shooting "happened four floors above my room," says Warren. "So whoever he was, I probably went up the elevator with him a few times."
The "whoever" points to the difficulty of patrolling concerts in an era when firearms are plentiful. In the initial hours after the incident, law enforcement indicated Paddock had no prior record and was not on their radar, though searches of his property and his hotel accommodations turned up several thousand rounds of ammo.
Facilities have stepped up security in recent years, with metal detectors a familiar sight at many venues. But outdoor festivals in densely trafficked -locations create more issues. The CMA Music Festival in Nashville, the -Downtown -Hoedown in Detroit and Route 91 are among those tucked into urban centers. While there is always a risk of a tragic incident, Las Vegas law enforcement officials admitted they never anticipated Paddock's strategy — treating a high-rise hotel as a deer stand -- as a potential scenario.
It was, President Donald Trump said in a press conference, "an act of pure evil." He ordered flags be flown at half-staff, and the White House observed a moment of silence in the afternoon. Other vigils sprouted up -- several in Las Vegas, and another announced by the Country Music Association at the Ascend Amphitheater in Nashville. The CMA delayed the final round of awards -balloting, originally set for Oct. 2, for a day as the industry grappled with the tragedy.
In addition to Aldean, a number of artists were present when the shots rang out, including Owen, Chris Young and Luke Combs, who said in an interview on NBC's Today that he was adamant the offensive would not stop him from pursuing his dream.
"It's obviously disturbing to know that he was up there waiting for his opportunity," said Combs of the killer. "At the same time, I don't want to be scared or put any shows of mine on hold. I feel like that's what this person wants to happen."
Aldean's record label, BBR Music Group, indirectly echoed that sentiment, noting in an official statement the tacit agreement made between an artist and the public. The performer puts his body in front of thousands of strangers, expecting they're there to enjoy themselves. The public anticipates a communal experience. Few genres have a thinner wall between artist and fan than country.
"The country music community is a family, and our listeners are a part of that family," said BBR executive vp Jon Loba in the statement. "They put food on our tables and allow our artists and staff to live our dreams by going to events like last night. While our artists and staff are safe, our hearts are broken for those listeners in our extended family who just wanted to share a night of great music and the camaraderie that is the hallmark of country music."
Warren saw that camaraderie in action when the shooting subsided. Before the first responders arrived en masse, concertgoers still on the grounds were doing what they could for the hundreds of fellow fans that were wounded or injured.
"There was humanity that really stuck up for one another and really helped," he said. "There were veterans running around going, ‘I'm trained. I can help. Is anybody hurt?' "
He adds, "You always just trust people to be good. Why would you step -onstage believing someone that was out there was being bad? You would never do your job. Why would you even think that?"
It's another form of the question everyone is asking: Why?