Route 91 was Nick Champion’s fifth festival with a group of like-minded country fans that the 25-year-old met through line dancing at Borderline Bar & Grill, a country bar near his hometown of Thousand Oaks, California. His second year at the fest, Champion was joined by about 70 or 80 of his Borderline friends — but as the weekend of fun and music climaxed with Jason Aldean’s set Sunday night (Oct 1), a gunman began opening fire on the crowd, partway through Aldean’s set.
The attack ended up killing at least 58 and leaving more than 527 injured — though miraculously, no one in Champion’s large group was even harmed. But that doesn’t erase the horrors they all witnessed. For some members, the experience has made them swear off music festivals altogether.
That’s not the case for Champion, though, and after making it back to Thousand Oaks safely, he talked with Billboard about the night of the shooting from his and his friends’ perspective – and about why he’s decided he “won’t let fear change the way I live.” Take a look at an edited transcript of what he said below.
I started going to Borderline in 2013. That’s pretty much how it all started. I have a huge group, hundreds of people and friends, we all line dance and stuff together in Southern California. We go to Stagecoach and Route 91 every year, it’s a big thing for us. I think at this one, there was probably 70 or 80 of us total, just scattered all over the event.
[Sunday, before the shooting] was pretty much perfect. After Big & Rich, I went over to the smaller Nashville stage and then met up with a group of girls that I ended up being with [the rest of the night]. We went over to main stage for Jake Owen, and then after Jake Owen some people left, so we kind of moved closer and more to the right where we ended up being for Jason Aldean. Everything was just going pretty much perfect.
Probably around five songs in, if I remember correctly — it was during “When She Says Baby” — it sounded almost like a cross between fireworks and a crackle type of sound. We all looked toward the west because that’s where it sounded like it came from, and then kind of looked at each other like, “Well, that was weird. Not quite sure what that was.” And then after a second or two, just kind of went, “OK, whatever,” and started looking back at the stage. A couple seconds after that was when more gunshots started. The first — that little burst — sounded like maybe around 10 shots. That was more like the barrages that you hear on video.
But even when the first real one started, we all kind of looked around like, “What exactly is going on?” People started backing away a little bit, but because I was with a group of six girls, really, I was thinking, “Chill out, everyone” because I don’t want everyone to start running, and then have the girls I’m with start getting run over. And then, I remember looking back over my shoulder toward the stage and seeing the band start running off stage, and that was when I snapped into sober mode. At the start of the day, I said, “I’m going hard. It’s the last day.” But I went from drunk to snap-sober as soon as I saw the band moving off the stage. It was pretty much just a complete snap. What I was hearing, and the sound I was hearing, was the worst thing it could be.
You could see people dropping. You could hear shots hitting. But a lot of people were dropping, and you couldn’t tell who was dropping because they were getting shot and who was dropping because they’re dropping. On our side, we started moving because everybody realized what was going on. We started moving to the northeast and got 20 or 30 feet, and then you could feel the shots shift closer to our side. You could just feel it — you could hear it, you could feel it. I guess he was just kind of spraying around, because the crowd was so big.
Because I was with that group of girls, I kind of snapped into, “My job is now just to get them out.” Everybody on the entire side for the most part just seemed to drop to the floor when we could hear the shots shift over to our side for a couple seconds. Feeling everybody in the area drop to the floor, it was the weirdest feeling. And seeing people dropping, and knowing that some of them are dropping not voluntarily.
I’ll never forget the sound. Hearing the difference between shots hitting pavement and hitting the Astroturf, hitting stage equipment and railing and metal, stuff like that, and the difference between those three and it hitting people. I could hear that people were getting hit.
Whoever it was [shooting], it seemed like it was more than one [shooter], because the shots were so rapid, and that they were inside, because it was a lot louder than you’d think it would be for how far away he ended up being. So I looked back over my shoulder to the west to see if they were on top of us or if they were next to us, to see how close they were so I knew what direction to go. The girls were on the floor, and I said, “Get up and don’t stop.”
I was trying to look around as we were running to see still where it was coming from and to try and make sure we went the right direction, and also to see if there was anyone else around me. There was six girls [with me], and once we got up again and started running, there were only three. I was looking around trying to see where the other three went because they just weren’t right in front of me anymore and they were before. I didn’t know which direction they went, so I just decided I was going to stay with the three that were right around me.
And then we ran out the makeshift gate, in the middle of the festival if you’re going from the stage to the Nashville stage, halfway-ish. I remember running past it and looking, and there was at least 10 people just hiding right behind it. There was obviously hundreds of us running out. And I remember looking back, seeing a lot of people that were just laying on the ground not moving, and I remember thinking, “This is not good.”
A lot of people just froze. They laid on the ground and just kind of sat there and didn’t know what to do. In general, there’s two responses: You’re either going to act quickly, or you’re going to freeze up. It was really frustrating for me to see how many people couldn’t make a decision, and it kind of broke my heart knowing that people didn’t know what to do. But obviously they didn’t know where it was coming from, there’s no way people in the first couple minutes knew that he was that high and that laying down wasn’t going to help them at all. But in my mind it was, “Are they on top of us? No? We’re getting out.”
[We kept] running east — there was a ton of us — we went through a couple properties over some fences and walls, stuff like that. And then eventually got to Tropicana Avenue a little farther down. The stream of emergency vehicles coming down Tropicana was constant, it was nonstop, and it was just insane.
People were running through the street, and there were cars pulling over and asking, “What the hell is going on?” and people were just yelling. The girls I was with were calling their parents, they were having a really hard time. A cab pulled over and asked the girls if they wanted to get in, and so that’s pretty much what we did. We got in the cab and it took us to their Airbnb, which was just east of the airport. We were pretty far away within 10 or 15 minutes.
Once I got into the cab, I started calling people I knew from the group that were there and trying to see where everybody’s at and if they’re alive. Once we got to the Airbnb, that’s when the main effort of everybody connecting and trying to fill in the gaps of who saw who, who knows who’s okay, who talked to this person, who’s missing, who have we not heard from, all that. It was a nonstop frenzy of the entire group, all trying to coordinate and figure out if everyone’s accounted for or not. I was kind of waiting the whole time to see who it was going to be that we weren’t going to hear from.
Then a couple hours later, the other girls showed up — they had been at the airport. They were on the runway, hearing about that was pretty crazy. I know a truck had knocked down the fences, somebody in a truck broke down one of the fences along the side of the airport so people could run through.
I wanted to go back [to the grounds], because I knew a lot of my friends were first responders back here or military or ex-military, and I knew that they were going to be trying to help, and I wanted to do the same thing. The only reason I didn’t was because I was with the girls, and they were not in a good spot. If I had ran out on my own and gotten a quarter, half-mile away, I probably would’ve stopped, thought about it and then gone back.
My friend Sarah said she was really glad I was with them, and they don’t know if they would’ve done the same thing if they were by themselves. That kind of makes me feel like I had a bigger impact — obviously I would’ve wanted to help more people, but at least knowing that things might not have gone the same for them if I wasn’t around made me feel better about that. We both kind of felt guilty that we didn’t go back in… I guess that’s normal though. But out of pretty much everybody that I personally know and talk to, nobody got hurt at all, which is pretty insane. We got really lucky.
My truck, the whole time, was in the Luxor parking lot, and I knew my best friend was in Luxor — that’s where she ran to — so I knew that’s where I was going, I just didn’t know when I was going to be able to get over there. So I got an Uber back towards the Strip — we couldn’t get in, so I had him drop me off on the freeway and then I hopped over the concrete barrier on the side and the fence to Frank Sinatra Drive and I went in the back of Luxor to meet up with my best friend. That was around 5:00 a.m.
She was in the lobby, and we kind of sighed and looked at each other. It’s just so many different emotions and thoughts all at the same time. I think once the sun came up is when you really started playing stuff in your head. Yesterday, at work, it was just a never-ending, three-minute movie trailer just running over and over [in my head]. I was telling my friend, it’s almost like I keep replaying it like I’m going to see something new, or some new detail I’m going to notice that I didn’t before. But, it’s always the exact same.
I think, overall, what I kind of have taken from this is that we need people that make good decisions, and that think clearly in situations like this — people that are going to make quick decisions and make the right ones. I think about those videos they make you watch at school or work about active shooters. If I’m ever in the room with one of those [playing] again, I’m probably going to say something like, “I would like everyone to pay attention and take it seriously, what we’re watching, and think about what you would do in a situation so that you’re prepared when it happens. Because it could happen to you.”
I’ve thought about it — I think every guy, at least, for the most part, has thought about what they would do. Because as kids we grow up playing with toy guns and acting out war scenes, so in your head you kind of imagine what you might do in a certain situation. But when it’s real, it’s not the same thing.
I hesitate to say that [it was like war], because in my head I keep trying to downplay it – like, “Oh, I didn’t get any blood on me, I didn’t see anyone’s face shot off.” Because I know a lot of people who have been in that situation, and I don’t want to equate it to the same thing. But in some ways, it was exactly… people were just getting torn up. In my head, the only movie I can think of that I would compare it to would be the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan. That’s probably the worst thing I’ll ever see in my life. You don’t want to say that for sure, because you don’t want to jinx it — but for it to get worse than that, I don’t want to know. I don’t want to have to find out.
One thing that’s really weird — I’ve been to at least 10 concerts, festivals, whatever, and I’ve never bought one piece of merchandise, ever. And on Friday when I walked in the gate, I took five steps in, looked at the merchandise tent, and decided I’ll go check it out. I ended up buying the lineup poster and a 4×6-foot Route 91 flag. I remember thinking, “I feel like this weekend is going to be one for the books, and I’m going to want to remember it.”
We’re going to be hanging the Route 91 flag up at our college night tonight at Borderline. We’re going to be doing a little moment of silence. The poster [I bought], I’ll probably frame it with my wristbands and keep it somewhere. I think when I go to Stagecoach in April, I have a truck, so I’m going to probably put an American flag and the Route 91 flag up in the bed and keep that up while I’m in Indio.
A lot of people [from my group of friends] have already said they’re never going to anything again. It sucks, because having the atmosphere we have, it’s something that’s allowed us to have a better time than other people. We have a better time than 98 percent of people that go to these, just because we have such a big group. And thinking about the fact that that’s going to change is kind of heartbreaking.
If they have [Route 91] again next year — I don’t think they will, or I think it’ll be somewhere else or under a different name — but I’m still gonna go. And I’m still gonna go to Stagecoach. Even though I’ll never be as comfortable again in that kind of setting, whether it’s concerts, clubs, bars, anything where there’s a big group of people in any kind of confined space, I’m never going to be as comfortable again. But it’s not going to stop me, and I don’t want to let fear change the way I live.
Obviously, we’re not going to have everybody [at the next festival], but I think I’m going to try to get people to kind of change and think of it in a different way if I can. Because I think it’s something — it’ll stick with you in a deeper way and for a longer amount of time if you don’t at least try to force yourself, even if you are truly forcing yourself in the beginning, to try to get past it and not let it affect you in a way that’s profound. The bottom line is we’re never going to forget it, so I think you don’t have to try to forget it.
I’m sure the first few, it’s gonna be a lot more difficult to have the same amount of fun. I think over time, if you just kind of force yourself to keep putting yourself in those positions, eventually it’ll get easier. It’ll get better.
Hopefully tonight (Oct. 4), I’m going to see as many of them as possible, and that’s going to probably help a lot. I’m really anxious to see everybody and as many people that were there, especially, as possible. A big thing is, until I see someone in person, I don’t know if my brain really completely believes that they’re fine. I just feel like I need to see them in person to know 100 percent that everything’s fine with them — physically, at least.
I don’t know how I’m going to react once we all are there, doing our moment that we’re going to do. We’ll see. But people who were there, you just kind of look at each other and you’re like, “We kind of have this thing now.” You know what I mean? Just, “You were there — you know.” That feeling.