Ron Lopino, a La Palma police officer, had never been to a country music concert.
His girlfriend, Lauren, decided to treat him to the three-day Harvest 91 Country Music Festival Sept. 29-Oct.1 in Las Vegas.
They got a room at the Mandalay Bay and met up with Lopino’s buddy, an LAPD officer, and his girlfriend.
Friday, Saturday and most of Sunday, it was all about good times and good music, with good friends.
The headliner, Jason Aldean, took the stage to close out the concert.
Then … the unthinkable.
“I remember hearing a burst and it sounded like fireworks,” said Lopino, on the job in La Palma for more than two years. “Me and my buddy … We’ve heard that sound before. We looked at each other. We knew it was time to go.”
Within seconds, the singing, the echoing guitar riffs and the revelry dissolved into horror.
“I’m in the safest place I could possibly be, and just like that, I’m running for my life,” said Lopino, recounting the tragedy from a briefing room at police headquarters.
The two couples quickly headed east toward the exit and away from the Mandalay Bay.
They witnessed a man, practically close enough to them to touch, get shot.
“Just fell flat on his back,” Lopino said.
As they were running, gunfire shot past his girlfriend and struck another concertgoer.
His girlfriend watched his shirt turn red … and then he went down.
“Every stride I was taking, I was getting ready to feel that fiery sting, not knowing if that was going to be the last time I ever walked again, not knowing if I was going to be alive on this Earth,” Lopino said. “We were a shooting gallery for this guy.”
Lopino and his girlfriend found temporary cover behind a Las Vegas Metro patrol car, still not sure of the number of shooters and where they were.
“The only inclination that the shooter was up high was the way the bodies were falling,” he said. “They weren’t falling in waves as if it was someone in the crowd. It was random. A person would fall. A person would fall. A person would fall.
“As I’m looking around, I’m waiting for it. As sad as it is to say, I was waiting for it.”
They left the cover of the patrol unit and took refuge behind a tanker-sized water delivery truck.
The rat-tat-tat-tat-tat sound of gunfire continued.
“It was chaos, pandemonium, terror and I knew that someone needed to take charge of the situation … take some kind of control of the chaos.”
Lopino was that someone.
He announced himself as a police officer and shouted for the 20 or so people within earshot to get down.
The shooter is at an elevated position, he shouted.
Those around him looked up at him, waiting for more directions.
Lopino looked back to the area they’d fled from when he noticed a woman lying on her back.
She’d obviously been hit, he said.
“I saw that and I couldn’t just stand there,” he said. “I needed to go help her.”
There was a pause in gunfire, and Lopino took off toward the woman.
“I didn’t know if I was going to come back,” he said.
She was young, maybe in her 20s, and unresponsive.
When other concertgoers tended to the wounded woman and carried her away, Lopino ran back to the water truck.
But bullets also were hitting the water truck, which was close to two large fuel tanks.
It was discovered later that the shooter was trying to hit the fuel tanks.
At one point, Lopino had the wherewithal to call La Palma PD dispatch.
He wanted his department to know he was in an active-shooter situation.
“I didn’t know what was going to happen to us,” Lopino said. “I didn’t know if we would make it home.”
They waited a few more minutes, and ran east.
They noticed a white pickup truck smeared with blood, traveling back and forth from the venue, each time with groups of injured concertgoers.
They found out later it was Taylor Winston, a 29-year old Marine veteran, who’d taken a pickup truck and transported injured victims to the hospital.
Lopino and his girlfriend hooked back up with his friend and wound up spending the night at a hotel in Henderson, rather than try to get back to their room at the Mandalay Bay.
“Every loud noise or door slamming woke us up immediately,” the officer said.
Monday morning, the couple went back to the Mandalay Bay, grabbed their stuff and headed back home.
Lopino has been experiencing a full spectrum of feelings ever since that weekend, and even a twinge of Monday-morning quarterbacking.
“Looking back, I wouldn’t have changed a single thing I did,” he said. “I tried to take control to the best of my ability. I tried to get as many people to safety as I could.”
He also realizes he and his girlfriend were among those who were fortunate enough to come out unscathed, knowing that one swift movement in another direction may have resulted in a different outcome.
And even in the wake of evil, Lopino feels proud to have been in a venue full of first responders.
“(There were) veterans, police officers and patriotic people who were not afraid to run in there and be victims and render aid … not afraid to be victims to bring the victim count down.
“It was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever experienced but one of the most patriotic things I’ve ever experienced. It made me proud to be an American to see people run toward the gunfire to try to save other Americans.”