Local survivors of Las Vegas shooting are grateful

By Lois Ann Dort    

QUEENSPORT – “We were waltzing to Jason Aldean...and just finished saying this was the best vacation of our lives,” said Michelle Hendsbee, when minutes later the shooting started. A gunman on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel opened fire on thousands of people below attending the Route 91 Harvest Country Music Festival in Las Vegas on Sunday, October 1.

The attacked resulted in the loss of 58 lives and the injury of hundreds more. Michelle and Allan Hendsbee of Queensport, Guysbrough County were near the stage when the shooting started and spoke to The Journal about the incident last Friday from their home.

Travelling to Las Vegas was not something the Hendsbees had been planning but when friends Kevin and Tonya Dort invited them to come on their upcoming trip to Vegas, the couple decided it would be a fantastic 25th wedding anniversary present for themselves. They had not travelled to the city before and are not the gambling type; they were drawn to the city mainly for the music; they both declare themselves huge country music fans.

On Monday, September 25 with good friends who had visited the city several times before acting as private tour guides, they arrived in Las Vegas for a week of music and memories. Michelle said recalling the first part of their stay, “We have to say it was a beautiful week.”

Sunday night’s concert with Jason Aldean was going to be the jewel in the crown of the Hendsbees’ trip. They are big fans and had attended the Route 91 festival the two previous nights. The security at the event, said Allan, had made him feel very safe. There were electronic bracelets given to festival goers, a pat down by security at the entrance to the concert grounds and an additional once over by a metal detecting wand. “There were children there; it was a family event,” said Allan.

As the shots started to ring out, no one was certain as to what they were hearing. The music was loud and many people, including the Hendsbees, thought the noise was part of the show -- perhaps fireworks which couldn’t be seen from their current vantage point. The reality of the situation was quickly understood and Allan grabbed Michelle’s hand and said, “Run with me.”

The only place they could see to hide was in amongst the concession tents but that meant running towards the sound of the shots. It seemed to be the best option and the couple got out of the open and behind the concessions where they found a young woman screaming, “I don’t want to die.”

Bullets were flying everywhere and Allan helped both his wife Michelle and the young woman, whose name was Lily, to the ground where he laid over them to provide additional cover from the shots ringing out around them. When there was a break in the gunfire Allan saw what he hoped was a wooden pallet, it turned out to be plastic, and he grabbed it to provide more cover, “I wanted to get something between us and the shooter,” he said.

At that same time Michelle started to send text messages to their children, “Just in case we didn’t come home,” she said.

“Time, it’s so hard to describe time. It all happened so fast,” said Allan. “You could hear bullets raining down.”

After the first minutes passed, people began to spread information about the attacker(s), often false, but who was to know. One man told those huddled behind the concessions that they had to move because the shooter was coming. Another rumour alleged there was more than one shooter. Yet another that the shooter was in the crowd. With no verifiable information, everyone was a potential threat.

The Hendsbees decided to head for the road after they had calmed Lily down and assured her they wouldn’t leave her. Lily, a Las Vegas local, called her husband who said he was already on his way to the scene and to watch for him—he’d pick them up.

Out on the street the Hendsbees saw victims of the shooting. They saw a white truck moving through the crowd picking up the injured to transport them to hospital. Lily spotted her car but when they got to the vehicle, her husband had already picked up two people that had been shot and said he’d be back for them as soon as he could.

The trio took cover behind a stone wall near a church and waited for Lily’s husband to return. “He circled back for us and got us out,” said Allan with relief.

At each intersection they encountered police, emergency service providers and ambulances. After they were out of harms way; Lily and her husband dropped the Hendbees off at a street corner, where their next thoughts were to return to their hotel and find their friends the Dorts who had been at the rear of the concert grounds, not at front stage with them, when the shooting started. But the Hendbees’ hotel was the twin tower to the Mandalay Bay and there was no going back.

The couple went into a store to get some water. They had travelled far enough from the concert venue that the store clerks did not know anything out of the ordinary was happening.

Next they ran into a nearby hotel, The Hampton, and Allan said, “I think that is when the real terror started. You were jumping at every noise or sound.”

The hotel staff, like those working in the convenience store, were not aware of the mayhem just down the street but once they were, they provided the Hendsbees with a room and sent them upstairs for rest and safety. “As soon as we closed the door, I put the chairs and stuff against the door. We spent the night there but we did not sleep,” said Allan.

The next morning the Hendsbees were overwhelmed with the kindness of the hotel staff and everyone else they encountered in Las Vegas that day. “They were so good to us...There were people coming up to us and apologizing,” said Allan.

The couple found their friends the Dorts, who had spent the night at the Luxor hotel in lock-down after a bomb threat was received by that hotel, where they had fled after the shooting. During the melee of the attack Michelle had not wanted to risk opening her phone to try to contact their friends for fear of making herself a target in the light of her phone. The Dorts were relieved to finally hear from the Hendbees. Michele said, “They thought we were gone and they would be going home without us.”

The Hendsbees were allowed to return to their hotel room and collect their belongings on Monday morning. It was then that Michelle realized, “We had the same view as the shooter. We could look out over the crowd...Our hearts are broken for those that didn’t make it,” she said.

At times on Monday, people would ask the Hendsbees if they would ever come back to Vegas and Michelle’s answer was a clear and determined ‘Yes.’

“Vegas is a beautiful place,” said Michelle. “It wasn’t Vegas that did this, it was a mad man...It’s hard because you can’t live in fear. I know it’ll take some time but you have to live, you only have one life.”

Allan said, “We have a lot to be thankful for. People shouldn’t condemn the place. The people were amazing there.”

The Hendsbees said they agreed to share their story because people wanted to know what happened and they wanted to tell others how thankful they were for all the love and support they have received since the shooting. “Even strangers, total strangers, recognized us and hugged us,” said Allan about their return trip to Queensport.

“We’re so happy to be home; it’s so peaceful,” said Michelle, then nodding at Allan she said, “That’s my hero. He got us out.”

While the couple would like to know why the shooter unleashed this massacre on peaceful, concert goers, they admit it’s not likely to happen.

They have made contact with Lily, they talked on Friday morning, “and she’s doing okay. Maybe someday we’ll get together again,” said Allan.

The Hendsbees have been through a horrific event but they are focusing on the love they have been given by friends, family and strangers. And they are, surprisingly, taking on the role of goodwill ambassadors for the city of Las Vegas; a city that supported them in their darkest hours.