RED DEER - Three firefighters from Penhold, and one of their wives, are sharing their story of being caught up in the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
Sean Pendergast, Danielle Meeres, Mackenzie Johnston and Laura Johnston were in the crowd at the Route 91 Music Festival in Las Vegas when a gunman opened fire, killing 59 and injuring hundreds more.
On Wednesday, the four from Penhold released a joint statement sharing their account of what went down that fateful night…
On Sunday October 1st in Las Vegas: My fiancé (Danielle Meeres) and I had just met up with our friends Mackenzie (Max) and Laura Johnston to attend the final act at Route 91 Harvest Festival.
Jason Aldean had taken the stage and began performing to a packed house. Route 91 is an open air country music festival similar to Alberta favorite Big Valley Jamboree. We were standing between the seating area and the main stage when it started.
Gunshots in rapid succession. I had recognized the sound quickly but had dismissed it. My initial thought was that it was gunfire but on the other side of Mandalay Bay, maybe in the casino.
After a few seconds we started making comments that it must be fireworks, the concert was still playing. After 10-20 seconds and three or so bursts of gunfire, the concert stopped, the lights came on, and a massive wall of people were heading towards us.
There was panic – people running in all directions. Dani took my hand and we started running, we had plowed over what used to be a bar and were quickly behind the bleacher area with dozens of other patrons running between fences and stands.
A girl had fallen over and people were beginning to fall on top of her, she was being trampled. We weren’t sure if she was shot or concussed from the fall but she was dazed for sure. Dani and I started yelling stop stop stop, we got the crowd to stop pushing forward, Dani was focused on the girl, she kept telling her we have to get up, come on get up! Finally she responded and we helped her up and started running again.
After opening two gates by pushing them over we made it to an exit on the strip across the street from the Luxor.
The last time I saw Max and Laura was before the initial gunshots. We ran down the strip into the Tropicana north east parking lot. Here we slowed down to walk, I thought how many shots was that? I guessed at well over 200.
As we were walking we heard the shooting start again, and again we started running this time across Tropicana Ave to the MGM. We stopped behind a trailer to catch our breath, assess and decide further action.
At this point we have no idea what has happened, we are worried that it has been a mass shooting, how many gunmen? They could come into a casino at any moment and start shooting. This was the last time we heard gunfire.
We entered the MGM to see if there were any people needing help. We crossed the strip into New York, New York and again across Tropicana Ave. to Excalibur. There was a tent set up in the intersection with dozens of ambulances, police and fire. This was twenty minutes after it started – an amazing response from Police, Fire and EMS.
We tried to talk to some police to offer assistance. They only wanted people evacuating. Ok, we can’t help here, let’s evacuate, but where are Max and Laura? [We] missed phone calls and texts from them saying they are on the roof of the Tropicana. We will come get you I said.
Back to New York, New York and then to MGM and across to Tropicana. The hotel was all locked up; security said we could not go in. I said my friends are on the roof of your casino, we are going in to get them. He assured us there was no way to get onto the roof of the casino, “but they ARE on the roof” I said. He let us pass and told us of a way they may have got onto the roof somewhere near the second floor bathroom.
We ran up the stairs to find a man on an office chair with a bullet wound in his knee being helped by two others. Dani presented herself as an Intensive Care Nurse, she took control of his leg and they started to lift him down the escalator.
“This isn’t going to work, call the elevator” one man said. I ran over to the elevator on the other side of the mezzanine, hit the call button. Dani got in the elevator with the man, I said to her “Are you ok? You have this? Do you have your phone? I’m going to get Max and Laura!” She replied “yup”. I ran to the bathroom area, found an open unmarked door that led to the roof of the casino. Max had said they were up some scaffolding. I found it, climbed up and called their names. They came over right away.
We descended the scaffolding and all of the sudden people started running in from the casino. We all ran into a rooftop storage area to hide. In here Max took a phone call from Dani, we started to make a game plan. We were going to get off the roof, find Dani and get as far away from the strip as we could.
One guy in the room with us starting yelling and panicking. I tried to calm him down, said there are dozens of ambulances and an operations tent outside the hotel and they wouldn’t be staging in a danger area.
“How the f*** would you know?” he yelled. “We are firefighters” I said back.
The room calmed and two girls came up to us to ask if they could come with us far enough to get into their hotel room that was in the same casino we were on the roof of. I said sure, and told everyone else that shelter in place is a good idea right now, let someone know where you are and stay put, the only reason we are leaving is to find my Fiancé.
Some people wanted to exit the storage area through a second door, an employee sheltered with us told them not to, saying they would fall through the roof of the casino. Great, I thought. As if we don’t have enough stuff to deal. Someone might breach that door and fall through the roof.
Max and I had to take control of the situation, assuring people to stay away from the second door. We left sneaking through the doorways and into the casino. We carefully walked towards the elevators that the girls needed. There were paramedics being escorted by highly armed police, they told us to get out. We dropped the girls at their elevator and went the opposite way of the police, looking for Dani.
When we found Dani on the casino floor she had a straggler with her. Debbie was her name. Her sister was in the Tropicana in a room somewhere. We started to head down a conference room hallway, the four of us finally reunited, plus Debbie.
As we inched closer to the exit Debbie started crying and saying she couldn’t exit the hotel, her sister was inside. We all took turns calming her down and eventually we got her out the door where we found two security guards who were sheltering in place in a restaurant kitchen. We left Debbie with them and made our way east.
We then came to the Hooters hotel. There was crime scene tape and a dead body out front. We walked towards the casino and were given water by an employee. We stopped here for a bathroom break. Deciding that there were too many people here, we went east again. We made a stop at a beer store to buy two jugs of water and a pile of granola bars. Travelling east we found the Grand Canyon Helicopter Tours building where there was a concrete alcove behind some bushes. We set up camp here for a few hours to text our families, drink some water and rest a bit.
Three hours after the initial gunshots we flagged down a cop outside of the building. The cop said we could start making our way back to our hotel and that it was under control. We started walking, ran into a police check stop, they diverted us first to the north side of Tropicana Ave, then told us we couldn’t go down Tropicana at all. They were confused and unsure. We went north weaving around all the road blocks and swat crews until we finally made it back to the strip at the Monte Carlo. This was as far south as they would let us. We went inside to find the refuge area. It was full, no towels, and no blankets left, three apples and no water. We left there, going north again. Once we got to Aria we could get a taxi. The taxi driver took us to the Marriott where we bought a room and tried to get some sleep.
In the morning we woke up, were able to return to the Excalibur to collect our things, and went to the airport to fly home.
All of the General admission concert goers wore a purple fabric bracelet. Without scissors or a knife it is impossible to take off. Everyone who saw us wearing these bracelets for the next 12 hours would say “Oh my god, you were there, I’m so sorry.”
Don’t feel sorry for me, feel sorry for the victims.
Cutting that bracelet off was like lifting a weight off my shoulder.
DANIELLE MEERES (recounting the split up at the Tropicana)
We went down the elevator, tried to exit the front door with the victim. Police immediately started yelling at us to go back in and that we could not exit.
We hid behind the front desk, I found some towels to wrap around the gunshot victim. His name was Bobby. We went to the other side of the casino, pushing Bobby on an office chair to a side exit where a paramedic took him to an ambulance. The two other guys helping Bobby were an off-duty firefighter and an EMT.
I went up top to help another girl who had a gunshot wound to the chest. She had already been helped down the stairs and to the medics. I then called Sean but the phones would not connect, I tried Max and got through. We all met up a few seconds later.
MAX AND LAURA JOHNSTON
MAX - Our account of what happened starts the same as Sean and Dani's account.
We were separated from them very shortly after we realized that it was in fact gun fire. We could hear bullets hitting the ground and at one point I yelled to Laura "get down" and she dropped in place. There was a lull in shots and I yelled to her to get back up and we took off through a gap in the food trucks. This is when we had lost Sean and Dani.
As this was happening, we saw a young woman with a gunshot wound in her chest area. The rushing crowd would not allow us to get over to help her and she was already being assisted so we moved on towards the exit.
The shooting didn't stop until we made it to the back doors of the Tropicana hotel. We both felt relieved to be inside and away from the shooting so we stopped and caught our breath.
Then suddenly everyone started screaming and running back the other way because it was rumoured that a shooter had entered the front of the casino. Laura and I were separated from each other at this point because she got stuck in the crowd of moving people.
LAURA - I could hear him screaming my name but could not make it to him and continued to run out a back door as I knew he would come for me when he could.
MAX - Once it was safe to move I ran towards where I had last seen her and we reunited just inside the pool doors at the back of the resort. We then proceeded to move through the Tropicana, we had stayed here before so Laura suggested we get to an area where there weren't as many people but we were denied access.
We were then corralled through a door near the bathrooms and told it was an emergency exit. Unfortunately we ended up on the casino floor roof with about 200 people. We were not comfortable being in such a large group and were trying to find a way off the roof. We found an unlocked door that led to the kitchen and proceeded in but that did not feel right either as we talked with others who saw us open this door and so we exited to find another way off the roof.
We could not get off at this point so we split off from the group and found a secure area on another level of the roof. At this point we called and texted Sean to make sure they made it out and were ok. He replied that they were ok and at the MGM.
We decided to stay and wait for them to get to the Tropicana before moving as to not lose them again and once Sean made the roof we started heading down.
This is where Sean covers what happened on the roof and from here on out we were together and worked as a team to keep each other focused and comforted, as well as the people that we helped to get to safely.
Sean Pendergast is a Captain on the Penhold Fire Department. He is a specialist with Weatherford Canada.
Danielle Meeres is a Firefighter on the Penhold Fire Department. She is a Nurse in ICU at the Red Deer Hospital.
Mackenzie (Max) Johnston is a Senior Firefighter on the Penhold Fire Department. He is a Heavy Duty Technician with Rocky Mountain Phoenix.
Laura Johnston is a caseworker with the Alberta Governm
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