Las Vegas mass shooting survivor: ‘I had no idea if I was going to live’

Former UNR graduate Nicole Kowalewski (left) and her friend Brianna Freeman pose for a photo hours before the Route 91 shooting that left almost 60 people dead.

Former UNR graduate Nicole Kowalewski (left) and her friend Brianna Freeman pose for a photo hours before the Route 91 shooting that left almost 60 people dead.

Imagine lying on the ground waiting to die. Imagine calling your parents to possibly say goodbye forever. Imagine running for your life as bodies and blood are sprayed out on the sidewalk around you.

This is the horror one University of Nevada Reno graduate had to endure after a gunman opened fire onto the Las Vegas Route 91 country festival Sunday night.

“It sounded like fireworks 10, maybe 15 feet away from me, no one knew what was going on then less then a minute later someone was screaming ‘somebody get a medic, she’s been shot,” said Nicole Kowalewski, a former UNR graduate and former intern of the Sierra Nevada Media Group, which includes the Nevada Appeal. “Everyone was screaming and you could hear the bullets hit the ground.”

More than 22,000 people were attending the Jason Aldean concert as he performed the last concert for the three-day country music festival when Stephen Paddock, 64, started shooting into the venue. He killed at least 59 people and injured more than 500 before Las Vegas Metro Police found him on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay.

Kowalewski and a friend were standing by the fence facing the Mandalay Bay when the rounds started flying.

“I didn’t know what to do, everyone was screaming and trampling each other to get out,” Kowalewski said. “I was trying to call my parents, it was just chaos.”

At first, it seemed like someone in the crowd or surrounding area was lighting off fireworks, but when the music stopped, the flood lights on stage came on and the bullets kept firing, she knew it was much more sinister.

“At first it was one of those things like what was that, but everyone just kept going and it didn’t seem like anyone was concerned (at first) because there was no initial reaction and it wasn’t until someone started screaming and 30 seconds later the shooting started and everyone hit the floor,” Kowalewski said. “I didn’t know what was going on, this isn’t a joke and I just need to get on the ground,”

She said since no one knew initially where the shots were coming from, people thought they would be safe if they stayed low to the ground.

“I had no idea if I was going to live or die, he was so high above the venue it was hard to find a secure place.”

People would try to scramble and run during the pauses when the shooter was reloading then just drop to the ground once the spray started again, she said.

“Everyone would just drop hoping it would go over you, but unless you weren’t in the venue, you were a target,” Kowalewski said.

Kowalewski couldn’t even describe the fear the crowd felt.

“I just heard bullets ricocheting off people, off the ground and I was just waiting for my turn, for a bullet to hit my body,” Kowalewski said. “...There was an ex-military man trying to help us and he looked at us and said ‘I served two tours and I have never been more scared in my life.’ And he was just as terrified but he was trying to comfort us and trying to help ... We were trying to depend on him when everyone else is just as afraid.”

They hid next to the fence, crouched as low as they could, deciding on whether it was safer to stay where they were or to try to climb the fence and make a run for it.

“There were other men along the fence and they said this was the time to go and I took my friend’s hand and said we need to go now,” Kowalewski said.

Kowalewski and her friend were still fighting for their lives to escape. After the second spray of bullets, the two took the few seconds pause, as the shooter reloaded, to hop the fence and run out of the venue. But while the outside of the venue was a Godsend, it was also a war zone.

“As soon as we crossed the police line outside, I was still shaking and crying but it was instant relief because we were safer there than anywhere in that venue,” Kowalewski said. “...but as we walked out we passed people screaming people’s names, people lying on the ground gushing blood and people doing anything they could to help.”

She said she recalled people from an apartment complex next door throwing towels from the third story for people on the ground to use on wounds.

“But seeing and knowing that could have been you,” she said, unable to finish her sentence, “You and every single person in that venue were a target.”

“Getting out was hard, but the most horrible thing was seeing everything, I saw people that had been shot in the head, in the back, just going lifeless... I was just praying we would make it out.”

Kowalewski couldn’t describe the scene without crying.

“When we jumped the fence, that’s when it was bad, that’s when you saw everyone on the ground, blood on the ground,” Kowalewski said. “We saw strangers with people they didn’t know telling them they loved them as they bled. You (passed bodies and) didn’t know if they were hurt or dead and you are so afraid for your own life it is hard to stop and help, but there were incredibly selfless people who were stopped to help stop the bleeding.

“I was so concerned with staying alive, it didn’t even cross my mind to stop I just wanted to get out of there.”

Kowalewski and her friend had to walk more than two miles out of the venue before they could find her parents to go home and put the bloody and broken venue behind them. They were lucky, they escaped with their lives, but the road isn’t smooth from here on out. Now, the two need to work on healing to get past a night that’s being described as the worst mass shooting in modern history.

“I am thankful we aren’t injured but really, no one would understand what we went through, no video, no article, nothing can show what happened,” Kowalewski said. “This isn’t just something you sleep off and get over... you never think it will happen and you don’t realize it can happen to anyone, anywhere, anytime.”


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