Sunday, February 18, 2018
Public safety

'The barrage of bullets was maddening': Tarpon Springs couple recounts horror of Las Vegas shooting

Johnny Stamper and Denise Decker dove to the ground.

Within seconds, a young woman behind them was shot in the chest.

They didn't stick around long enough at the Route 91 Harvest festival in Las Vegas to find out what happened to her. But Stamper said there was little chance she lived.

They had witnessed the beginning of a massacre that left at least 59 dead and hundreds wounded when 64-year-old Stephen Paddock unleashed a high-powered barrage on festivalgoers from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino. Stamper, a 58-year-old Tarpon Springs resident and owner of Johnny's Taphouse & Grill downtown, and Decker, his girlfriend, made it out physically unscathed. But days later, they were still grappling with the experience.

"I'm so happy we got out quick," said Decker, who also lives in Tarpon Springs, "but it just breaks my heart."

The couple, both concert lovers, went to the festival to celebrate Decker's 51st birthday. The first days were lively and fun in the way only Las Vegas can be. They drank, they gambled, they shopped in the markets connecting resorts. Sunday got even better when all the NFL teams Stamper had bet on won their games. His winnings totaled close to $10,000. At the festival later, they enjoyed perfect weather as they watched the show from the VIP tent.

"Then Jason Aldean came on," he said, "and everything went south."

They thought it was firecrackers at first, but then the lights flickered, and Aldean dropped his guitar and ran off the stage. As soon as the shooting paused, they sprinted for safety.

Stamper and Decker made it to a wall about 8 feet high. Stamper helped Decker onto a handrail to jump over, and he followed close behind. On the other side, police officers were just arriving. Stamper could hear them yelling, "Where is he shooting from? Where is the shooter?"

They couldn't have known the bullets were coming from above. Neither could Stamper and Decker, who were headed straight for their suite in the same resort, 17 floors below the shooter.

They crossed the strip, sprinting toward the Luxor Resort & Casino. They ducked behind a knee-high wall as the bullets continued, even more than before.

"The barrage of bullets was maddening," Stamper said. "There were so many gunshots."

When the gunman paused again, they dashed into the resort. Inside, the lights and sounds of the casino danced on, business as usual. They sprinted through the hall of shops and restaurants connecting the Luxor to Mandalay Bay. In the lobby, Decker couldn't catch her breath. The tears flowed. A woman, unaware of the chaos outside, stopped to ask if she was okay.

Finally inside their room, they called their kids. They both couldn't get the young faces in the crowd out of their heads. Girls in sun dresses and cowboy boots, boys with fresh faces. Decker remembered all the concerts she'd been to with her four kids, ages 15 to 23. The youths in the crowd weren't her children, but they were someone's.

In Orlando, where it was 1:30 a.m. local time, Justin Stamper's phone lit up with a voice mail from his dad. The 28-year-old thought he was calling to brag about the concert, but the voice mail had a much bleaker message: There was an attack, thousands of shots, bullets flying all around us.

He immediately called his dad back, then jumped on Twitter to find out more, he said. He found a video stream of a man monitoring the Las Vegas police scanner and listened as the narrative jerked around. More shooters, a bomb in the audience, a bomb threat at another hotel. It felt all too similar to a year before, when the Pulse nightclub massacre ravaged his own city.

He stayed up until 5 a.m. texting and calling his dad. The last thing he wanted was for him to have made it out safely, only to fall prey to another attack.

Back in their suite, Stamper popped a bottle of champagne and turned on TV news. He was taken aback to learn the shooter had been firing from their hotel, and even more when he found out the man had checked in with more than 10 suitcases.

Stamper said he thinks the shooting will lead to luggage X-rays in hotels, similar to the creation of the Transportation Security Administration after Sept. 11. He hopes it will also spark change for concert security. If snipers had been stationed around the venue, they could have identified where the shooter was and stopped the carnage sooner, he said.

When it comes to guns, Stamper said he hadn't touched one since he accidentally set off his brother's police gun, the bullet barely missing his son, 10 at the time. While he's okay with firearms for hunting, he doesn't think anyone needs an automatic weapon.

But it's not like anything is going to change anyway, he said. This is America.

"We are all about God, guns and glory," he said.

The next day, he and Decker walked through the closed casino and past the closed shops. They found a buffet at the Four Seasons, free for the day after the shooting.

The city felt dead for a place so full of life.

They left Vegas on Tuesday to fly to Denver to see Stamper's daughter and attend another concert: Incubus at the Red Rocks Amphitheater, scheduled for that night.

Both Stamper and Decker said their experience won't stop them from going to concerts. But Decker said she wasn't ready for another one yet. Having fun seemed so far away.

They gave away the tickets.

Contact Kathryn Varn at (727) 893-8913 or [email protected] Follow @kathrynvarn.

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