A day after the worst shooting massacre in U.S. history, it was eerily quiet on the always busy Las Vegas Strip.
Police had closed off a large portion of Las Vegas Boulevard to traffic as officers continued to pore over the site of the Route 91 Harvest Festival, a country music gathering promoted by Live Nation and held on an adjacent festival site owned by MGM Resorts International. Survivors, still wearing their purple general-admission wristbands from the show, gathered around pools of blood that had caked into the sidewalk under the hot desert sun. They talked about their experiences and tried to make sense of the deafening barrage of bullets that seemed to come out of nowhere, turning the site — surrounded by a chain-link fence — into a killing field, leaving at least 59 dead and 527 injured.
“I just laid there and thought I could hear [the shooter] getting closer and closer. I knew I was going to die,” recalls Lori Fenner of Grand Junction, Colo., who fell on top of another attendee as they both tried to scale a wall and escape. When a third person fell on them, she described feeling hundreds, maybe thousands, of people climbing over their bodies in a mad scurry to get out.
Because the gunman was located above the crowd — in a hotel room beyond the control of festival organizers, security and police — the live-music industry is scrambling for lessons it can learn from the tragedy.
“It’s a nightmarish, sum-of-all-fears, worst-case scenario type of attack,” says Chris Robinette, CEO of Prevent Advisors, which is a security arm of the Oak View Group. He doubts much could have been done to stop the shooter, who had slipped under law enforcement’s radar, snuck a cache of weapons and ammunition into his hotel room and fired on the event from the 32nd floor of the hotel across the street from the festival site.
But Robert C. Smith, a former San Diego police officer who has trained more than 10,000 bouncers through his Nightclub Security Consultants firm, says that defining the Mandalay Bay shootings as a “hotel security problem is a false narrative,” and tells Billboard that the industry needs “out-of-the-box ideas” to prevent a tragedy on this scale from happening again. Smith says strategically placed, hydraulically raised observation towers — like the ones that the New York Police Department uses in Times Square and other high-traffic areas — manned with SWAT special-reaction team sharpshooters could help promoters secure large outdoor festivals, and would greatly reduce bloodshed from a similar attack, while curbing attempts to ram a vehicle into crowds at entry gates.
“It took three clip magazine changes before a lot of people realized they were being shot at,” says Smith. “Trained sharpshooters would have recognized the sound of gunfire within seconds, located the source and sent precise rounds to take out the shooter.”
Smith also suggests the creation of “safety zones,” railings or barriers that concertgoers could hide behind or use to shield themselves when under attack, and proposes installing emergency “[exit] walls that collapse outward” to facilitate the rapid escape of large crowds.
But the biggest fix, he says, “is something I’ve been talking about for the last 10 years: education. From kindergarten through high school, we need to be teaching kids where the exit is, how to make an improvised weapon, how to recognize gunfire and when to run so they don’t wait around while their attacker is reloading a 50-round magazine.”
The concert industry typically thinks of active shooters as individuals on foot, like the attacks on Paris’ Le Bataclan nightclub in 2015 or the Orlando, Fla., Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016. While there is some precedent for securing nearby facilities when a head of state or the U.S. president visits a location through the deployment of counter-snipers, reconnaissance squads and forward-assessment teams, those same resources and protocols “are simply not available for concerts,” says Robinette.
Moving festivals away from high-rise hotels isn’t the answer: Cities often provide far more safety resources for festivals than remote, rural environments, says the International Association of Venue Managers president/CEO Brad Mayne.
Rural sites “might not have sufficient hospitals and life-safety professionals available if something does happen, and that can put them at greater risk,” says Mayne, adding that the only surefire way to avoid such attacks is to “stop hosting events.”
To cater to nervous fans, the Austin City Limits festival, taking place Oct. 6-8 and Oct. 13-15, is issuing refunds to fans who are having second thoughts about attending the event in the wake of the Las Vegas attack. The Lost Lake Festival (Oct. 20-22) hasn’t offered refunds, but said in a statement to fans that it would “work closely with Phoenix law enforcement officials to assess our safety and security protocols to ensure we host the safest event possible.” If history is any guide, concert ticket sales won’t soften. Sales remained robust after the previous three concert attacks: the Bataclan, the Pulse nightclub and the bombing outside Ariana Grande’s show at the Manchester Arena in England in May.
“There are people at the event who are traumatized for life, and for the rest of us, it’s the new norm,” says AGI booking agent Dennis Arfa. “I’m going to the Yankees game tonight; it never entered my mind to miss it.”
Steve Adelman, vice president of the Event Safety Alliance, describes the event as a “black swan” that’s not likely to be repeated.
“The danger is that this distracts us from everyday threats that pose far more danger,” such as active shooters on foot and severe weather, says Adelman. “No security provision with the festival perimeter would have changed the security dynamic.”
BY THE NUMBERS:
58 People killed at Route 91 Harvest Festival
527 People injured in the attack
23 Number of guns found in shooter’s hotel suite