LAS VEGAS (AP) — As bullets began flying into a crowd of country music fans, a pack of 300-plus people ran about a mile to the Las Vegas airport, where they kicked down chain-link fences, hobbled over razor wire and were briefly mistaken by security officials for being attackers instead of shooting victims.
Once they pushed past the fence at McCarran International Airport, some of them ran onto the tarmac as helicopters beamed searchlights toward people they assumed were intruders.
Airport authorities found people who were shot, bloodied and hysterical. Officials immediately halted air traffic, diverted two dozen flights to Phoenix and other cities and shut off some runway lights.
“I’m thinking to myself, I don’t know if the airport police know what’s going on yet,” said Mark Gay, who was near the front of the crowd as it ran to the airport. “We were running, running out of the dark. If the cops were on that side, they don’t know who we are. So it was: ‘Put your arms out when you’re coming in.'”
The large-scale airport breach highlighted the chaos that ensued after gunman Stephen Paddock opened fire on Oct. 1 from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay casino-hotel on a country music festival down below, killing 58 people and wounding hundreds. The breach also raised questions about the security of the McCarran International’s perimeter as people were able to barge their way through the fences of one of the nation’s busiest airports.
“I don’t know that we ran across any breach that was comparable to this,” said Jenny Grover of the Government Accountability Office, which audits the Transportation Security Administration and reviews the agency’s security data. “Because of the uniqueness of the situation, I’m not really sure when it changed from a breach to a relief effort.”
McCarran has had a large number of perimeter breaches in recent years. An Associated Press investigation found that McCarran had 30 known perimeter security breaches between 2004 and 2016, making it the second-most breached major airport in the country by AP’s count.
Unlike other cities where the airport is on the outskirts, McCarran is located in the heart of Las Vegas. It’s only a few hundred feet from Las Vegas Strip properties like the Mandalay Bay and Luxor.
In the chaos of the massacre, some panicked concert-goers headed to the airport in the belief that it provided the best opportunity for safety, even if they had to force their way through the perimeter. At the time of the shooting, rumors were flying around about active shooters and bomb threats at a number of Las Vegas casinos, so they chose to get to the airport.
“We were making the decision — we’re headed to the airport. The airport seems like the most secure, safe place,” said Fred Rowbotham, an off-duty police officer from the San Diego area who was in the crowd that went to McCarran.
As it became clear that the crowd on the McCarran tarmac was fleeing gunfire, the airport repositioned workers to help with the evacuation and shepherded hundreds of the victims into secure facilities. For hours, they tended to the wounded and offered food, water, blankets, phone chargers and reassurance. Airport shuttle buses later took them to a central evacuation center.
Allegiant Airlines said it sheltered more than 30 people who found themselves at the airline’s 24-hour maintenance facility.
“A lot of them had torn clothing, cuts and bruises,” airline spokeswoman Hilarie Grey said. “We were able to provide plug-ins to charge their phones, help them contact their families and just provide a safe space for a group of people who were really frightened.”
Signature Flight Support, which caters to private planes, sheltered more than 130 people that night, some of them with gunshot wounds.
“A lot of them didn’t know if they were still safe. They didn’t know where they were going to go, and a lot of them were visitors who didn’t know how to get to their hotels,” said Rita Carrillo, the company’s area general manager.
As concert-goers fled to McCarran and other locations on the Las Vegas Strip, controllers continued to warn pilots that the confusion on the runways caused by the shooting may affect arriving and departing flights.
“There is some personnel on one of the upper levels of the Mandalay Bay, so departing might be a bit dangerous,” a controller told pilots, according to a recording posted by LiveATC.net. “We may not be landing any more here for the next few hours.”
Reflecting how quickly the situation was changing, a WestJet flight that had been given permission to land was later ordered not to touch down.
“Actually, you know what? Continue the approach, but I don’t want you landing. There’s a situation on the runway,” the controller said.
McCarran officials insist there wasn’t a problem with security on Oct. 1 because in the end, the fleeing concert-goers were helped and the airport was never in danger.
“At the end of it, the security plan worked. Security is multiple layers, with one layer being breached, the next layers kicked in. For our purposes, the airport was secure,” said Christine Crews, an airport spokeswoman.
As for Gay, the 53-year-old Anaheim, California, man somehow managed to keep his cowboy hat and flip-flops on during the race to the airport with the others, including his girlfriend and a pregnant woman.
“We’re still trying to remember how many fences we actually knocked down,” he said.