Along with thousands of others, Dean McAuley found himself running for his life Sunday night during the mass shooting in Las Vegas.
“It still feels like a bad dream at this point,” he said Wednesday.
McAuley, a firefighter/EMT for Valley Regional Fire Authority in Auburn, saved at least one life and helped many others in the tragedy, which left 58 dead and more than 500 injured.
The 46-year-old Tacoma resident recounted Sunday’s events at a press conference Wednesday at the fire department’s headquarters.
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McAuley attends the Route 91 Harvest Festival every year.
At sundown Sunday, he and friends Brad Harper and Thomas Jones headed to the festival’s main stage to see country star Jason Aldean.
“The crowd was just having a good time,” McAuley said.
Then, he heard what he thought were fireworks and then quickly realized they were gunshots.
“I put my arms around Brad and Thomas and said, ‘We’ve got to get down,’ ” McAuley said.
Soon, people were screaming.
“As soon as (Aldean) pulled his guitar off and was scrambling off stage you could see some of the sparks (from bullets) hitting the stage as well,” McAuley said.
The men couldn’t tell where the shooter was or if there was more than one.
“You could see people dropping, you could hear people screaming,” McAuley said.
He called Eric Robertson, Valley Regional Fire Authority’s administrator. Robertson is a close friend, former U.S. Marshall and graduate of the FBI National Academy.
“(Robertson) said, ‘I need you to stay down, I need you to seek shelter. There’s going to be a break (in shooting),’ ” McAuley recalled.
That break came, but it didn’t last long.
Investigators now believe shooter Stephen Paddock discarded a weapon as it jammed or ran out of ammunition and then grabbed another of the 23 found in his hotel room.
At the next break, and following Robertson’s advice, McAuley and his friends turned away from the crowd, which was running from the stage toward fences.
The three men sought shelter near a semi-truck parked near the stage. They could hear rounds striking the trailer.
“Kids were climbing up on these fences and they were … getting picked off by bullets,” McAuley said.
With bullets still ripping through the site, McAuley had an urge to leave his shelter and start doing what firefighters do: help people.
“I wanted to apply pressure (to wounds), I wanted to get tourniquets, I wanted to go to work,” he said.
Robertson calmly told McAuley to fight that instinct and stay where he was.
“That was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever experienced,” he said. “We’re designed to help, immediately.”
Eventually, someone made an opening in a fence. During another break in the gunfire, McAuley and his friends made a run for it.
McAuley told Harper and Jones, neither of whom are first responders, to go with the Las Vegas police officers.
“Brad looked back at me and said, ‘You gotta come with us,’ and I said I had to go to work,” McAuley said.
“There’s not a first responder there — police officer, firefighter, nurse — that didn’t want to go to work,” he said.
McAuley quickly found the EMS tent, where he teamed up with another off-duty firefighter. The pair began retrieving victims from the scene.
“One of the tactical officers, who was in his gear, was very clear with us,” McAuley said. He told them: “If you go back out there, there are multiple shooters, we are not secure.”
McAuley locked eyes with the other firefighter.
“We both looked at each other and said, ‘Let’s go,’ ” he said.
They soon found another victim, who they loaded into a wheeled container.
“We had a pulse, so we felt she was savable,” McAuley said. “We raced her back to the tent.”
The tent looked like a scene from a war movie, he said.
“There was lots of blood and lots of bodies and lots of people,” he said.
A medic shouted that she needed help starting an IV line. McAuley went to help. He found an entry wound on the teenage girl’s shoulder, but no exit wound.
“That really worried me,” he said. “She started to have a hard time breathing. As calm as she was, I knew she was in shock.”
That girl, 17-year-old Natalia Baca, needed to be in a hospital. And soon.
McAuley was told about an area where ambulances were waiting.
Baca said she could walk. First, they would have to cross an area exposed to the gunman.
“We got across that parking lot and there was not a single ambulance,” McAuley said. Instead he found a group of young people sheltering behind a police vehicle.
McAuley sat Baca down. She wanted to talk to her parents. McAuley dialed the number on his phone.
“Her dad answered and she was so calm and cool and collected,” McAuley said. “She just said, ‘I’ve been shot and I’m with a firefighter and I’m going to be OK.’ ”
McAuley told Baca’s father he would be in touch when they got to a hospital.
At that moment a man was running toward an Audi — the only car in the parking lot. The driver agreed to take them to a hospital.
“I asked him to find an ambulance and follow it,” he said.
With the local trauma hospital full, the ambulance and the Audi were diverted to Sunrise Hospital, six miles away.
“Natalia started saying she was getting real tired and she was going numb and her IV was coming out,” McAuley said.
To keep her focused, McAuley started discussing their common admiration for Jason Alden and other country artists. He showed her photos of his family and dog.
“She lit up when she saw pictures of my dog and my son,” he said. “We developed a really remarkable bond in the back of that car. I didn’t want to lose her.”
They were not the first to arrive at Sunrise.
“The best way I can describe it, it was like a blood bath … all the way in,” he said. “They were overwhelmed. There was not enough people there, obviously.”
McAuley told Baca he would see her again and then handed her off to a nurse.
Then, he went to work again.
“We had taxi cabs, we had Ubers, we had people in private vehicles,” McAuley said of the rides arriving with victims. “We had pickup trucks showing up with bodies, a lot of bodies.”
He began triaging — separating trauma patients into different categories of treatment.
“There were a lot of patients coming to us now who didn’t make it en route,” he said.
“A husband handed me his wife saying ‘She’s fine, she’s fine. You just got to get her in there.’ ”
McAuley and others would first check pulses of unconscious victims. They didn’t want to fill the hospital with bodies.
“She didn’t have a pulse,” he said of the man’s wife. “To have to tell a husband …that was really tough.”
Along with other off-duty first responders and the hospital staff, McAuley worked triage for a couple of hours.
Back in Washington, “My wife got me into counseling right away yesterday morning and I’ll be in counseling for a long time for this,” McAuley said Wednesday.
On Monday, he turned to a firefighter friend who survived the 9/11 terror attack at the World Trade Center in New York for advice.
“He said, ‘I’m sorry you were there, but you’ve got to talk about this,’ ” McAuley said.
When he got home McAuley “squeezed the heck” out of his wife, who he says is a better person than he is.
“She is the reason I can do this job,” he said.
A short time later he got a text from Baca’s father.
“The text said, ‘You saved my daughter’s life. Can you please call me.’ ”
“In that moment…”
At this point in the retelling McAuley struggled to stay composed.
“In that moment … there was a bright spot for me,” he said. “To hear that she was alive and had made it meant everything to me.”
From her hospital bed, Baca went on “Good Morning America” on Tuesday to tell her story and thank McAuley.
“Dean was an amazing guy,” she said. “He stuck with me the whole night and I just give him full props for actually saving my life.”
McAuley had not seen the interview. He was told about it at the press conference.
“He is a very strong man and his family should be very proud of what he’s doing,” Baca said.
“My family is proud of me,” McAuley said.
But McAuley is plagued with the fear he didn’t do enough on Sunday night.
“We lost a lot of people … but there’s people that made it,” he said.
Despite the horror and death, McAuley is trying to focus on the good.
“There was one bad person and 30,000 amazing, incredible people,” he said. “I got to see and witness humanity at its best, helping people, taking care of each other.”