Running for their lives: Four Mitchell women escape deadly Las Vegas shooting
Screams of joy soon became screams of terror.
Smiling and singing along with Jason Aldean as he performed "When She Says Baby" at the Route 91 Harvest Festival, Brooke Veurink, Shawna Huls, Jenna Stroup and Amy Muth smiled and swayed with the music.
It was the four Mitchell residents' final night in Las Vegas, and they were going to make the most of their trip. The three-day festival was one of many activities they took part in while in Vegas, with their favorite artist — Aldean — ending their fun weekend.
Dancing in their brand new tennis shoes, the group was instantly grateful they made the comfort-driven shift from boots and sandals to sneakers in their final night in Vegas.
But their tennis shoes became indispensable for an entirely different reason — running for their lives.
As the first rifle shots rang, the four friends found themselves amid the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
Gunfire erupted at 10:08 p.m. Sunday during the festival on the Las Vegas Strip, killing at least 59 people and injuring more than 516 — including Stroup, whose arm was "beat up" by unknown causes.
"It sounded like on the Fourth of July when you have a pack of Black Cat (fireworks) and you light them all," said Muth, 43. "That made me think it was fireworks.'"
Upon returning to South Dakota on Monday, the four agreed to sit down with The Daily Republic and recount their life-changing experience, when the friends recalled several moments from their horrific final night in Las Vegas.
"You go into survival mode and that's all you do," said 27-year-old Stroup, who works with Veurink and Huls at Avera Queen of Peace in Mitchell. "I don't know what we were thinking, why we were thinking it or why we did the things we did, but thank God we did the things we did because we're here to tell the story."
The first round of bullets were "very loud and very distinct," the four women recalled.
Yet nobody — not even Aldean, who began his set around 9:40 p.m. — knew what was going on.
Then the second round came.
"We all got down," Huls, 42, said.
It went on for what seemed like "forever" to the four friends, and they knew it was no longer safe at the concert.
But where do they run?
The four were unsure, as they couldn't determine the location of the shooter. Speculation on the ground was that there were multiple shooters, in the crowd, high above and on the streets.
So Stroup and Muth decided to just run.
"Jen and I looked at each other and thought, 'We've got to get out of here,' " Muth said.
As more rounds of bullets pierced the crowd of country music fans, the four Mitchell women ran. But as the sounds of gunshots echoed around them, they began a rhythmic run of sprinting a short distance then dropping for cover. Running, then dropping for cover — again. The four estimated they dropped for cover at least three times.
The area they ran to was fenced in. The only way to get through it was to take it down. So they did.
Few others followed the Mitchell women to the fenced area, but with approximately 10 others around, they pushed down the fence.
And they kept running — away from Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino — before finding safety in a Travelodge approximately one mile away from the concert area.
They weren't the only concertgoers taking refuge in the motel, and staff provided water and places to wait out the mayhem.
It was then they took assessment of each other, and realized they were still all together. Amidst the chaos of more than 22,000 people fleeing the Mandalay Bay area on the Las Vegas Strip, they stuck together.
"The likelihood we could all stay together during that was slim to none," Huls said. "To get out of a place like that, and to stay together was just insane."
Speculation swarmed among the continuously growing group taking refuge in the Travelodge. The four women continued to hear of multiple shooters, so they didn't dare leave.
After an unknown amount of waiting, Huls called her family, using one of two remaining phones in possession of the group of four. The call went through at 10:31 p.m.
In an attempt to feel safer, they bought a room. The TV didn't work, and the batteries of the two cellphones among the four were dying as they tried to reach loved ones or simply check the news to hear what was transpiring.
And they still had Stroup, who potentially had a broken wrist. Her "beat up" arm had cuts and bruises. But the Emergency Medical Service in Las Vegas was so busy, it was impossible to get to her, officials told the four.
Hours later, an ambulance finally came for Stroup, and for the first time since shots were fired at 10:08 p.m., the group split up. Stroup and Huls went to the hospital, while Muth and Veurink made the journey back to their hotel, Planet Hollywood, to pack up.
"We're all really close, so when one of us hurts, we all hurt," 26-year-old Veurink said. "If someone's not OK, then the rest of us have to pick up for that. It was an all or none deal. Either we all got there together, or we all stayed where we were."
The unimaginable happens
Muth and Veurink made it to Planet Hollywood around 3 a.m.
They packed bags for all four women and made their way to the airport. At approximately 4:10 a.m., Stroup's wrist was determined to not be broken and she was discharged from the hospital. The women regrouped at the airport by 6 a.m.
Their flight, which was originally scheduled for 7:25 a.m. was delayed an hour. Luckily, by 1 p.m., they landed in South Dakota.
"Getting back to South Dakota, that was a lot for me," Veurink said. "That was a step that I never knew that it was a risk. I never know that not coming home would have been a possibility when we left."
While Muth and Huls — mothers of three and two children — have been lifelong friends, the entire group of four have only been friends for a little over a year. But between their personalities and love for country music, they clicked.
The trip was meant as a getaway from work, especially for Huls. The trip to Vegas marked the halfway point of her husband's deployment overseas for the Air National Guard.
Giddy with excitement to see Aldean and many other big country stars at the festival, the girls decided to make personalized T-shirts.
They stamped the Corn Palace on the front of the shirt, and on the back wrote, "Country girls literally from South Dakota." The goal of the T-shirts was to garner attention from performers on stage.
But nothing really went as it was supposed to, Veurink said. The shirts came in two sizes too small and tickets cost double what they expected.
It didn't stop them from going — nothing could.
Dealing with the aftermath
At one point in the night, Huls was able to get in contact with her husband, Alan, overseas. He posted on Facebook that all four women were safe.
A swarm of messages and calls from friends, family and even strangers flooded the phones of the four women, overwhelming them with support.
Families and friends were relieved and extremely thankful for their safety, but no one was more thankful than those four. Despite their lost sense of safety, they knew how lucky they were not to be struck by one of the bullets.
"We were at a country music festival, and never thought this was going to happen," Stroup said.
There were many "doors of opportunity" they took that led to their safety, Veurink explained. The first two nights of the concert the four women stood in a different spot than the final night. Looking back, had they chosen the original spot, they feared they were in direct line of fire.
But it wasn't just the location, it was also the tennis shoes. The nights before the women wore cowboy boots and sandals, but their feet hurt so badly they purchased tennis shoes for the last night. The same shoes that helped them run a mile, and climb to tear down a fence.
But along with the thankfulness comes anger and sadness. And the four women have lost plenty of sleep since Sunday night.
"Sleeping is really hard," Veurink said. "Every time I wake up, I'm on the ground and I have to redo what we did, and I'm by myself. I can't remember what decisions we made."
Live life 'to the fullest'
By Monday, the shooter was identified as 64-year-old Stephen Paddock. He was found dead with at least 10 rifles on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay, according to local authorities. He was the lone suspect in the mass shooting, and a motive is still unclear.
"That guy, he stole (at least) 58 lives and he stole 22,000 people's experience of a lifetime," Veurink said. "We had such a great trip, but the last seven and a half hours was absolutely horrific."
Wednesday night was the first time the women have been together since landing in South Dakota on Monday afternoon. Laughter, smiles and tears came, but their friendship remains as close as ever.
"After the weekend I didn't know we'd get closer, but here we are," Stroup said. "These are the only people that will ever know for sure what it was like. And that's something that will forever be with us."
It's going to take time for the four to return to normal life. And while the shooting has deterred them from wanting to attend any other large festivals or even crowded, wide-open venues, they'll still have another trip planned for the future.
"We said our next girls trip was to The Depot," Huls said, garnering loud laughter from her friends.
The trip was a memory-maker, in both good and bad ways. Instead, they're planning on remembering the good times of the trip.
"The last seven and a half hours will change our lives forever, but the three days before that will change our lives, too," Veurink said. "At the same time I need to live my life to the fullest now because I was given another chance."