photo courtesy of Andy McMeans
LAS VEGAS — Atascadero resident Andy McMeans goes to any and every country concert he can manage. He’s been listening to country since the 50s.
“My occupation right now is going to country music festivals,” the 74-year-old said. “Nobody my age wants to do this kind of stuff. They all think I’m crazy.”
McMeans is retired from his computer programming job at Cal Poly, where he worked for 34 years. He drove to the Las Vegas strip on his own to go to the Route 91 Country Music Festival because he’s loved that country festival. In fact, this was McMeans’ fourth time going to Route 91.
To go with his cowboy hat, he wore a pink, button down shirt for Breast Cancer Awareness Month on Oct. 1, the day of one of the deadliest mass shootings in American history.
He met up with a friend who also wore her pink shirt for the event, and the friends had their photo snapped on McMean’s iPhone just 20 minutes before the first shots were heard.
It was an unbelievable night, he described, a night he guessed might be his last. But he was one of the fortunate ones who made it back home to San Luis Obispo County. According to the New York Times, one of the 59 killed was 39-year-old Cal Poly alumnus Brian Fraser. Hundreds were injured.
But the bullets were close, so close that when McMeans unpacked his bag and went to wash his button down pink shirt, he noticed the blood stains of those who weren’t so lucky.
McMeans was kind enough to recall what happened:
“I go [to country concerts] by myself. I don’t do airplanes or boats so I drive,” McMeans said. He booked a room at the Excalibur Hotel & Casino, close to the Mandalay Bay Hotel on South Las Vegas Boulevard.
Because of a fall that broke his hip one year ago, McMeans uses a wheel walker with a seat to help him get through the physical demands of country festivals. The concert staff wouldn’t allow him to go all the way up to the stage because of the walker, so his position in the crowd was about 50 feet from the stage.
“The first couple of shots sounded like fireworks,” recalled McMeans, “like Garth Brooks did at the [Mid-County] Fair...so that’s what it initially sounded like. But once the automatic weapons started, there was no doubt about it, and that’s when people started hittin’ the ground. So I was not right up front where everybody was getting shot, but there was people right next to me that got hit.”
McMeans said he “flunked the draft” due to his medical issues, so he had never experienced a combat situation. He had no idea what a round of fire should sound like.
“This sounded like nothin’ I’ve ever heard,” he said. “It was an ‘Errr.’ Like that. Real crisp-sounding. I think because of the high buildings and stuff, echoes and whatever.”
“Yeah, I got ready to do my laundry today and saw little blood spots on my one sleeve. I figured for sure I was not gonna make it out of there. I think part of what saved me was there was three ATM machines there. And I layed down next to them because they’re loaded with money and stuff — they’re fairly substantial — and I could hear bullets and stuff bouncing off of them.”
There were breaks in the shooting, when McMeans guesses the gunman stopped to reload or change guns. McMeans’ plan was to lay by the ATM machines, and if worse came to worst, he would “play dead.”
But an unknown man who “seemed to know what he was doing” told McMeans to use the lulls in shooting to get across the field. He remembered seeing flashing coming from the window at the Mandalay Bay Hotel, and he wasn’t sure if it was photographic flashes or not, but he said he wasn’t about to stick around to figure it out. At the time, he felt pretty sure the shots were coming from shooters on the ground, and in the chaos, many people were saying that was the case.
“I headed across the field on my walker, dragged people to their feet as I went,” he said.
McMeans remembered seeing “young kids” who were able-bodied, tripping over each other, and falling down as they tried to escape the concert venue.
“There was a place on the other side of the field where they had some concessions and they had a little building there for storing all their supplies and someone yelled, ‘Get in here! Get in here!,’” he said, “so a bunch of us charged in there and we said, ‘Okay, we’re somewhat safe’ and he started firing. And there was bullets bouncing off inside of that, so they said, ‘Well, we gotta get out the back,’ so we went out the back door and crouched down until they started firing again.”
McMeans had survival skills under his belt. He used to be on a Search and Rescue team many years ago, so he had experience with the challenge of being trapped in confined spaces during emergencies. Thinking swiftly, he noticed an ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) gate in the back. He and some other people headed out that gate, which was less crowded.
“Whenever I get in an enclosed situation or whatever, I sort of know where all the exits are. All of the entrances we’d gone in on, on Las Vegas Boulevard, were right below Mandalay and Luxor [Resort & Casino], and I said, ‘I’m not running through one of those gates.’ I was one of the lucky ones that went the opposite direction.”
McMeans later heard on the news many people had run onto the airport runway to find a safe haven, which had been closed.
But McMeans and some others kept going.
“We had no idea where we were running and I just kept on following the group. I didn’t even know I could run without my walker, but I managed to keep up pretty good,” he said. McMeans has had three major heart surgeries. “Fortunately I opted to take my medication with me. I had already taken my heart meds. I had my blood pressure monitor with me so after I got running I put that on. Things were rather high but they came down fairly fast.”
The situation was nothing less than surreal.
“Basically, we went through a bunch of parking lots and we got into a big parking structure, which was concrete, and I figured, that ought to be safe and then somebody opened the door and said, ‘Get in here! Get in here!’ so we all went charging in there. It turned out to be the Hooters Casino. I was cracking up. I told the guy I was too shy to come in and check it out and I didn’t want to do it this way.”
McMeans said inside Hooters tables were already overturned and people were hiding behind them.
People were still hearing news from their cell phones that there were two shooters on the ground, speculating the shooters were coming their way.
“It wasn’t until we got into Hooters, and they had every screen in the place lit up with the news, and a lot of what they were showing on the news was the videos that the people with the cell phones had taken… Why anybody would take the time to be taking videos while they’re being shot at, I don’t know, but when we got in there they locked down half of the strip and I was there until 7 the next morning, when they let us out of the building.”
The staff brought McMeans and the others blankets, towels and coffee. Unbelievably, and to the concert goers’ dismay, some of the original Hooters guests still tried to continue gambling. “Those of us who had been through the ordeal said, ‘Hey, we don’t want to have to listen to that stuff. Can’t you wait?’” McMeans remembered.
Meanwhile the survivors tried to figure out what on Earth was happening. His cell phone battery had almost run out, but being the prepared Search and Rescue guy he was, he had his cell phone charger in his pocket. He charged his phone on an outlet and phoned his sister, Sue Olson of Los Osos, and let her know he was safe but he didn’t know what was going on. She was texting back to tell McMeans what she was seeing on the news.
“Then I called my daughter and ended up leaving a voice message for her.” McMeans also left text messages for his two grandsons, Billy Fair and Jaligh Patterson, who live with him in Atascadero. One of them called until they woke up their mom, Laura Vance, McMeans’ daughter of Atascadero. He felt like his chances of surviving weren’t very good. “I told my family, I’m not gonna die in a rocker on the front porch. I’m going out with my boots on. My attitude was: Hey, if it’s gotta be, I’d rather be here than be in on I-15 on my way back home.”
Though McMeans tries not to worry about what happened at the festival, he hasn’t left the situation without some trauma.
“That sound will be something I will never forget,” said McMeans, who has been helping himself get over escaping a mass shooting with a smartphone app that helps him work through the stress of the memory, recommended to him by a psychologist. The other day he heard a sound on the radio that reminded him of the terrifying sound of the gunfire from that fateful night at the festival. His blood pressure went up and he was left shaking.
McMeans doesn’t want to follow the news on the gunman, but his family, especially his daughter, Laura, is worried about him. He leaves the news following to her. “I don’t need to know,” he said. “I’m alive. I’m safe. And I don’t want to keep hearing all that stuff. That is just speculation anyway.”
McMeans, true to his name, means what he says. “I’m just an average guy who likes country music. I go to everything I can.”
And he’s unstoppable. The Saturday after the shooting, he took himself to the Lee Brice concert at Vina Robles, despite his family urging him to stay home. The biggest country fan in the west told them, “I’m not gonna let that guy take that away from me.”
You may reach Reporter Beth Giuffre at [email protected] for questions and/or feedback.