A.J. McInerney wonders why not him.
The 23-year-old Web.com Tour golfer was there in the middle of it, listening to Jason Aldean kick off the last big performance of McInerney’s favorite weekend in Las Vegas, dancing with his girlfriend, Alyssa Martine, in the October darkness when all hell broke loose.
What was it – divine grace or blind luck or both – McInerney wonders that blessed him, his girlfriend and her brother when the bullets came raining down from a madman’s sniper nest in the nearby Mandalay Bay hotel?
The mass shooting Sunday night claimed nearly 60 lives and injured more than 500. Had his golf season gone better, McInerney would have been playing the Web.com Tour Championship event in Florida. Instead, he was at the Route 91 Harvest Festival, having heard Eric Church, Sam Hunt and many other country music stars over what McInerney calls a “three-day neon sleepover.”
McInerney could hear the bullets hitting people. He saw a man standing nearby go down, never to get up again. He could feel the bullets. He saw one kick up smoke when it whistled into the pavement one foot away from where he was standing.
“Jake Owen had finished his set and I was with a group of about 20 people, just taking pictures and hanging out,” McInerney recalls. “Jason Aldean is one of my favorites and he came on and played two songs as I remember.
“I was with my girlfriend dancing and all of a sudden our friends heard what sounded like firecrackers behind us. Then someone beside said those aren’t firecrackers and told everyone to get down. Her brother (Anthony) was about five feet away and he jumped toward us.
“Then the shooter unleashed. It was like da-da-da-da-da-da … It just kept going. It lasted about a minute and then it let up. I grabbed my girlfriend and said we need to go. We just started running east (away from the hotel).”
Born and raised in Las Vegas, McInerney loves his city the way only a local might, because of the people and the friendships and the sense of community that exists beyond the blackjack tables and glittering hotels. As he tells his story of the blackest night in a shiny city, McInerney is both devastated by what happened and heartened by the goodness he saw around him in chaos.
As the bullets kept coming, as the screams and the panic filled the night, McInerney saw the human spirit at work. People helping people. People protecting themselves but helping others. Lifting them over fences, pulling them into cars, leading them to shelter.
The good McInerney saw amid the madness came through the night with him.
But surviving came first.
“I saw people to the left and right of me get shot,” McInerney says. “I could hear the bullets hit people. You could see the bullets hitting the ground right beside you. I don’t know what a war zone is like but it felt like we were sitting ducks. … It was a pretty gruesome scene.
“When we hit the ground, we tried to take as much cover as we could. I grabbed my girlfriend and her brother jumped on top of us. We try to protect the people we love. Then you just tried to run. Everyone has to go.
“We were helping people get over these long walls. As I look back on it, as I reflect, there was a kind of caring together. If you saw someone down, you had to help them.
Saw a few people down and bullets hitting the ground everywhere. I'm lucky to be alive. Praying for everyone. #VegasStrong
— AJ McInerney (@AJ_McInerney) October 2, 2017
“People in pickup trucks were driving down the road pulling people into the back. It’s amazing how quickly the first responders and the police were there. If not for them, it could have been so much worse, which is terrible to think about. But it was a group effort.”
McInerney had parked his Chevy Tahoe at the MGM Grand, not far from the concert site. By his estimate, it took about 15 minutes for him, his girlfriend and her brother to get to the car. The gunfire continued until they reached the car.
In addition to the three of them, McInerney said he got two more people in the front seat, five in the backseat and four more in the third row of his SUV.
“You’re just trying to stay alive,” he said. “You can try to prepare for it I guess but once it starts happening, you just go with your instincts. You try to be safe and keep all the people you love safe. That’s everyone’s mission.”
When McInerney and his group were finally away and safe, the enormity of what happened began to settle in.
He tweeted a message “If anyone needs something, I can help in any way possible right now. #vegasstrong.”
McInerney spent the day after with his girlfriend at his house in Henderson, Nev., about 20 minutes from the Las Vegas strip. He stayed away from social media, largely out of fear of what he might hear about friends and people he knows.
“I just prayed that everyone was OK,” he said.
His girlfriend tweeted “Words don’t describe how thankful I am for @AJ_McInerney. He laid right on top of me to make a shield & made me his #1 priority (Ant did too).”
Nothing makes you appreciate life more than having bullets fly past you and hoping that your loved ones next to you stay safe. #prayforvegas
— alyssa martine (@alyssamartine) October 2, 2017
McInerney said he couldn’t count the number of calls and texts he received from people checking on his well being.
Monday evening, McInerney had dinner with his parents. They talked about what he had been through and McInerney talked about what it meant to see how the police, EMTs and others had responded in the chaos. There were long lines at blood banks, restaurants were donating food and the community he calls home had come together in a way that warmed his heart through the darkness.
“It sucks that this happened in our backyard,” McInerney says. “This is home. I love it here and I fell more in love with Las Vegas through this.”
At some point, life will edge back toward normalcy. McInerney failed to keep his card on the Web.com Tour this year, finishing 97th on the money list. He will go to the second stage of Q-School next month, playing for his job again.
McInerney will go there a different person from the one who was swaying to Jason Aldean’s music Sunday evening when true darkness arrived. McInerney is one of the lucky ones and he knows it. He will know it forever.
“I know people who weren’t as lucky as me and it kills me,” McInerney says. “Fortunately for me, there was no physical damage, just emotional damage. I was standing next to people who weren’t as lucky.
“I can’t tell you how lucky I feel that not anything happened to me. I can’t quite understand why nothing happened. A lot of people weren’t so lucky and we have to keep those people in our prayers.”