Route 91 Survivor Nick Champion Details How the Tragedy Led Him to Pursue His Dream of Becoming a Firefighter

Route 91
Courtesy of Nick Champion

Champion (left) and friend Brendan Kelly during their return to Las Vegas six weeks after the shooting.

Nick Champion attended Route 91 with a large group of friends he line dances with at Borderline Bar & Grill in Southern California. A trainer and exercise specialist, the 26-year-old had always dreamed of becoming a firefighter, and his experience at Route 91 motivated him to take that leap. 

There were probably 70 or 80 of us total [at Route 91], scattered all over the event. I was with six ladies [from the group], near center stage, when we heard a crackling sound during Jason Aldean’s fifth or sixth song. As soon as we saw the band running off the stage, we knew what was going on and that it was not a drill. When the shots started to hit our side of the audience, everybody hit the deck, and I kind of snapped into thinking that I had to get our group out. 

I told the girls to get up and don’t stop running. I lost track of three of them in the mayhem but decided against attempting to look for them in a crowd of 20,000. The three women who were still with me -- we went over fences and walls to get as far away from the grounds as possible. We got out pretty fast, but it was extremely chaotic. 

Nobody I knew who was at the festival got hurt, which is pretty insane. Right after [the shooting], some people [I knew who were there] were drinking a lot or doing certain things to cope. Everybody deals with it differently. Me, I had to drink a ton of caffeine. I was tired all the time. There were times where [I’d] wake up, and I would feel really sad. Other times, whether it was my dreams or something someone said, I'd be brought right back to it. 

I went back to work right away. I was kind of on autopilot. That was tough, having to, in some ways, force myself to do everything I normally do. I work in the customer service industry, and I did the best I could, but my clients, they knew what I’d been through. Within a couple of hours after the shooting and for the next 36 hours, they were calling and texting to see if I [was OK]. Everybody was very supportive, but I wasn’t myself -- and I knew it.

There were times when I felt really weird; really disconnected. One of my mentors from college was in the Army – he was deployed in the Middle East during the late 2000’s and early '10s, and witnessed the death of fellow soldiers from gunshot wounds, RPGs and IEDs. I talk to him a lot about it because of the stuff that he went through, and the word he uses is "disassociation." He told me to use my experience as a source of strength and to know that it will make it easier to push forward during difficult situations and hard times.

The biggest thing for me was letting things feel how they feel -- to not suppress my emotions. If I feel bad one day, if I feel sad, upset or angry, I’m just going to let it be.

There was actually a concert at Borderline on that Friday [after the shooting]. The band was LOCASH. That was rough. That was when it really sank in -- you have that realization that even when you do normal things, it’s not necessarily going to feel or be normal. Probably 30 or 40 of us that were at [Route 91] were there, and it was just different. A big group of us were hanging out by one of the exits, where you go through the kitchen and you can get out if you need to.

I realized then that things are never going to be 100 percent like they were. You know when you go to a music festival, and you’re able to kind of just let everything go? That’s never going to be the same [for me]. There will always be that 1 percent of my thoughts that are remembering what’s possible. 

Six weeks after, my friend Brendan [Kelly, who was at Route 91] and I went back to Vegas. We were actually near each other at the time of the shooting, but we didn’t realize it until after we had met up and exchanged stories about that night. We got to process, but it really brought a lot of stuff back. I thought about it all the time for at least week after that.

When I look at pictures from that weekend, it’s like I left a piece of myself in Vegas; almost like a piece of my innocence. I fully realized how happy and fortunate I am to be alive. I think that’s what the city of Vegas is always going to feel like for me. When I’m there, I’m going to feel so grateful for everything -- the good things and the bad things.

Firefighting has been something I’ve been interested and wanted to do for a long time. It’s something I had been setting myself up for, and then after the event, it really went into overdrive. What I saw and experienced at Route 91 reaffirmed that I want to be a firefighter. We also had the Thomas Fire last year [the largest wildfire in modern California history] and that was another thing that reaffirmed what I want to do.

Courtesy of Nick Champion
Champion as a child wearing an Los Angeles Fire Department helmet from Station 96 in Southern California.

It’s hard everywhere [to get a firefighter job], but in Southern California, it is extremely competitive. You might have 5,000 applicants for 20 spots. So I’m doing everything I possibly can. Whether it’s talking to some of my mentors, riding along, being at the stations, in classes or at EMT training, I’m doing something every single day to get better and prepare myself for the job. 

I’m going for an associate's degree in fire science. Hopefully this time next year, I’ll be in a Firefighter 1 Academy. When you're a Firefighter 1, you’re not a firefighter, but you can get hired for certain jobs. I've also done Hazmat training.

Paramedic school is actually something I’m looking into doing right after EMT [training]. You have to work a certain amount of months or a certain amount of hours as an EMT, and then you can go to paramedic school. That’s the thing I’m focused on right now terms of priorities right after EMT is over.

I know that when I do make it in the fire service, I’m willingly going to be putting myself in harm’s way and be in situations where I’m going to get hurt. But it’s going to be worth it. You can’t let fear govern the way you act and think.

My job the night of the shooting wasn’t about me, it was about the girls [I helped get out]. They all said to me -- and their friends, boyfriends, and family -- said "Thank you for being there, because we don’t know what would have happened if you weren’t with us." That helped me a lot, knowing that I made a difference. I’m completely willing to put myself right back into that situation if I can make even more of an impact and help more than I did that night.

This sounds odd, but [the Route 91 tragedy] helped me grow as a person. The group of friends that was there is very, very tight now. We’re all looking at life like it’s something that you have to attack. Take it by the horns and live it as well as we can live it, because we don’t know what’s going to happen and we never know when it might be our time. 

A lot of us are going to Stagecoach. I know there’s going to be times that I’m going to be thinking about what happened, but that’s just life for us now. 

Courtesy of Nick Champion
Champion (center) with a group of survivors attending a Route 91 6 month anniversary event at Borderline Bar & Grill.