It had all the makings of a dream vacation — a first-ever trip to Las Vegas and three days of sightseeing to places including the Grand Canyon, capped off with the Route 91 Harvest music festival Sunday night.
But that’s when the dream turned into a nightmare for a local couple who survived their visit to that outdoor event on the Las Vegas Strip, where a lone sniper randomly murdered 58 people before turning a gun on himself.
“Just after 10 o’clock we heard some noises,” Travis Sizemore recalled Thursday of what he and girlfriend Melissa Wall experienced Sunday night after country artist Jason Aldean had performed several songs. Sizemore remembers about 15 “pow-pow-pow” sounds in succession.
“I know a lot of people say it sounded like fireworks, but that’s what it did sound like,” he said of what turned out to be gunshots, which Wall recognized before he did.
“All of a sudden, people started running and we took off,” added Sizemore, 42, who grew up in Mount Airy and moved about a year and a half ago to Ararat, Virginia, where he and Wall live.
The frenzy continued on the streets outside the music festival.
“The whole town was just in chaos,” Sizemore said. “The whole town was just running everywhere.”
No inkling of attack
Before gunfire began raining into the crowd for about 11 minutes straight, the local couple were having the time of their lives, described Sizemore. He is a longtime member of the area grocery industry, whose career has included managing Food Lion on West Lebanon Street for about 15 years.
“I didn’t have a care in the world,” he said, and “felt as far away from an attack as you could be.”
As it is, the two local residents endured a terrifying event they will never forget — a massacre that included nearly 500 people being wounded in addition to those killed.
But had it not been for a series of unlikely events, Sizemore and Wall wouldn’t have attended the concert at all. Their visit to Las Vegas was paved by twists of fate that ended with them being in the thick of the deadliest mass shooting by a lone gunman in U.S. history.
The two are big fans of Eric Church, another country music artist, and as most such followers do, they checked his schedule for upcoming appearances.
Sizemore and Wall learned that Church was going to be among those performing during the Route 91 Harvest festival. It was a three-day event last weekend, ending with Sunday night’s tragedy.
“We’d planned this trip back in February,” Sizemore said, explaining that he has three children (ages 13, 14 and 17) and Wall has two (5 and 7). They wanted to have a getaway to themselves with the music festival as a possible part of it, although they were turned off at first by the cost of tickets.
When tickets first went on sale the price was $200 each, and eventually ballooned to $600.
So Sizemore and Wall decided to take the trip anyway, thinking they might be able to score cheaper tickets once they arrived.
“She said, ‘Let’s just go to Vegas — we’ve never been.’”
After their arrival last Friday, the pair rented a Harley-Davidson for three days and visited nearby sites such as Hoover Dam, Death Valley and the Grand Canyon. “We probably put 600 miles on it,” Sizemore said of the motorcycle.
He and Wall also toured Las Vegas and enjoyed some of its restaurants and other attractions. “I’m not a big gambler,” Sizemore said in noting that he probably spent only about $5 on that aspect for which the Nevada city is best known.
Free ticket a catalyst
One key twist of fate occurred after dinner last Saturday night when the couple, who had opted to possibly attend the music festival on just one of its three days, were on a monorail system used for public transportation in Las Vegas. They struck up a conversation with some other folks there who were wearing wristbands from the festival, which included mentioning their difficulty in obtaining tickets.
A woman on board who is a surgeon in Utah told them that she just happened to have a ticket for the Sunday show and would give it to the couple because she had to return home.
Sizemore later bought a second ticket outside the gate before the event after about a 20-minute search.
While he was glad about the free ticket and was enjoying the trip overall, an ominous undercurrent was engulfing the local man, which he could not pinpoint. “I just had this feeling something bad was going to happen.”
Sizemore said the festival was taking place in a corner area of a street with was fenced in, providing a perfect target for shooter Stephen Paddock as he waited in a nearby hotel room that overlooked the gathering.
The country music duo Big & Rich was the first act to perform, and Sizemore says an uplifting show unfolded which had everyone in a good mood. He and Wall eventually took a break to grab a snack and buy cowboy hats about 30 minutes before the shooting started.
Once they realized fireworks were not involved, many in the panicked crowd fled, including Sizemore and Wall.
“I passed people on the ground,” he said of concert-goers who had been wounded, or fell while trying to escape, admitting that this prompted concern on his part.
“But my instinct was to run,” Sizemore said of his reaction in the heat of the moment, when no one knew if a full-scale terrorist attack was under way by multiple individuals or a single gunman as would later be determined.
Sizemore said he regrets not stopping to check on victims as some others did — but in retrospect doesn’t know how he could have helped in terms of providing emergency aid.
“I about fell twice,” he said of the frantic situation, which included running to catch up to Wall. “I grabbed her and said, ‘I’m not letting go of you.’”
At one point, Wall used her cell phone to call her mother back home. “She said, ‘There’s a shooting at this concert — we’re running for our lives,’” Sizemore related. “’Please tell my kids I love them, and take care of them if I don’t make it back home.’”
Even after escaping the festival venue, no one felt safe, due to uncertainty that additional killers might be involved.
“We didn’t know when we were running around a corner if somebody would jump out and start shooting at us again,” the local man said.
The two subsequently found themselves at the MGM Grand, where the lobby of that hotel was in total chaos. They entered an elevator with a bunch of other people, who all ended up the hotel room of one of the parties there.
Everyone learned what had happened about 15 minutes later from a television report, but the group of strangers remained under lockdown in the room until about 5 a.m. Monday.
“It was a scary time,” Sizemore said.
Would go again
Sizemore and Wall boarded a plane Monday night for their return home, arriving in Charlotte around 5 a.m. Tuesday.
One of the first things both wanted to do was spend time with their children.
Now that he has had a few days to reflect on the ordeal, Sizemore said something that has stuck with him is the bravery of police officers who responded to the scene.
Plenty of concert-goers were running away. “But the police officers I saw were running toward the shooting,” Sizemore said. They were putting their lives on the line to protect the public, the local resident pointed out, adding that the great respect he already had for the law enforcement profession has grown even more.
Sizemore also is philosophical about what has happened and how it will affect his future behavior.
“I try to live my life under a philosophy that has always been today could be my last day,” he said, while also remarking that the Las Vegas experience has reinforced his belief in showing love and support for one’s family members.
“Just be there for people.”
Sizemore says he and Wall like to travel and what happened in Las Vegas won’t affect their excursions from now on — including a second trip if the opportunity presents itself.
However, he did find himself a little uncomfortable while attending a football game of one of his sons Wednesday evening.
“Being outside in an open space has become an unnatural feeling,” said Sizemore, who compares feelings of vulnerability brought on by the shooting to those he had immediately after the 9/11 attacks.
Yet that’s no justification for living one’s life in constant fear, in Sizemore’s view.
“I believe that when it’s our time to go … that’s what’s going to happen,” he said.
“We can’t go outside worried about if we’re going to be killed,” the shooting survivor reasoned.
“You can‘t quit living.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.