Live Nation Country Music President Details Backstage Chaos During Route 91 Harvest Shooting

Brian O'Connell
Lucy Hewett

Brian O'Connell photographed on July 16, 2016 at the Faster Horses Festival in Brooklyn, Mich.

Brian O’Connell, who also co-founded the festival, recounts for the first time his experiences on the night of Oct. 1.    

We were 45 minutes from being done. Jason Aldean was onstage, and when he got to his fourth or fifth song, I said to my friend Adam Burish, who had come to hang out with me, “Let’s go for a walk.”    

We were standing in front of Jason’s bus, which was parked parallel to the back of the stage -- and just a few feet away -- when I heard five or six quick pops. I thought it was an electrical surge. Then it happened again. Jason came flying down the stairs from the stage, I got word that we had a shooter, and the place was taken over by Las Vegas police and SWAT.     

It didn't get real for me until I saw the bullet hole in the window of the band bus parked behind Jason’s. At first I was walking around. I felt that I needed to show the team -- we had accounted for everybody pretty early -- that we’re OK. But I was told to take cover. I sat beneath the production trailer texting [Live Nation CEO] Michael [Rapino]: “Active shooter. Route 91. Don’t have status. Not good.”       

I was trying to keep calm, but I was seeing security people and police officers covered in blood looking for T-shirts, towels and zip ties [to help the wounded]. We unloaded our production offices and gave them everything we had. Meanwhile, misinformation was coming over the radio that there was still an active shooter out there. The reality was that people leaving the scene went to other hotels, and they were bleeding.     

There was a window when we evacuated any nonessential personnel. I remember pointing to the east and telling my buddy Adam, “Run.” A giant gush of people ran out the back gate and just kept going. We then headed to our buses; my crew on our bus, and Jason and his wife, Britney, who was six months pregnant, on another bus. We sat there in the dark, surrounded by SWAT guys, for hours. We didn’t leave until after 2 a.m.     

At that point, they had locked down [the] Mandalay Bay [hotel], so the MGM put us up. I shared a room with our security director, who had heroically been out in the middle of it. He took a shower to get all the blood off of him. I turned on the news and just fell apart. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. It's 4 a.m and they're still talking about active shooters. I'm thinking, well, maybe they know something that I don't know.  At that point, I became a civilian. I was at the mercy of what I was being told on the news.

I kind of laid down for an hour or so, and when I got up, I thought, I need to get my team back together.  We went back to the Mandalay Bay and gathered in a suite. It was really eerie because it was the same view that the shooter had. We were all looking down. And we all cried.

I told them, "I don’t have answers. I don't have anything to tell you other than, 'I love you.’" I said, "We're going to get through this somehow." We put together a plan to get people back to their families and to make sure that everybody had talked to their families because when [the shooting happened] the overwhelming majority of people just left. We had essentially been living on the festival site for a week, so computers backpacks, phones, personal belongings were just abandoned.

When Nashville woke up the next day, my phone kind of melted. I got text messages from artists, managers, agents, people on road crews, and every sector of the music community -- people that I haven't talked to in years. That's what Nashville is about though.  And the minute that I got Michael [Rapino] the phone, he said, "Anything that anybody on your team needs, you got it.” We had trauma and grief counselors immediately assigned. Sessions in the office, sessions as a group.

There's never going to be a day that goes by where I don't consciously or unconsciously think about it. I guess this is the six month anniversary. The anniversary of it for me, and for people that were there is every day.

As told to Dave Brooks.

This article originally appeared in the April 14 issue of Billboard.