He was running, lungs burning, across the casino floor of the Luxor — leaving his friends behind in a mad, desperate sprint toward the massacre.
It’s happening again, he thought.
J.C. Monticone had just gotten a text message from his fiancee Sunday night. It was the same two words he’d heard from her on Dec. 2, 2015, when Melissa Castruita was working in San Bernardino at the Inland Regional Center.
“Active shooter,” the text read.
He ran past people gambling and drinking as if the world were normal. It contradicted everything he knew in his head at that moment. Life and death were happening outside. How could these two worlds exist simultaneously?
Castruita was crouched down in the VIP area near the stage across the street from Luxor when she texted Monticone. She, her aunt and her cousin had been singing along with country star Jason Aldean when bullets came pouring down from the 32nd flood of Mandalay Bay some 500 yards away.
“I’m so scared!! Do you hear that? They took jason Aldean’s off stage,” she texted to Monticone.
Castruita used to tell her family that after her work site was shot up by two people in the San Bernardino attack nearly two years ago, she was the safest person to be around because, well, nobody encounters a second mass shooting.
Her phone rang. It was Monticone. Over the phone he heard more gunshots. Screaming. He reached the doors of the Luxor and realized he could hear gunfire on his own.
“I’m coming to you,” he told her.
“No, go up to the room and barricade yourself in,” she said.
Monticone saw the tinted glass door open and a man and woman came toward him as he spoke to Castruita.
“They’re just rubber bullets,” the man told Monticone in a rote, dazed voice.
Blood stained the young man’s shirt and pants. Monticone thought some shrapnel had hit him, but wasn’t sure. The woman said that he was her son and that his friend had been shot next to him. The friend was probably dead.
He told Castruita that he was helping someone and that he would find her. Don’t lose your phone, he told her. I will find you.
Then he went to work.
Castruita had been celebrating her 34th birthday, and this was the second Route 91 Harvest festival she attended. She’d seen her favorite country act, Sam Hunt, Saturday night and was excited to see Aldean’s set.
The tickets were VIP, but after a late night of partying Saturday, they had arrived later than planned and missed out on nabbing seats in the outdoor arena. Her aunt and cousin moved off to the left of the stage and even considered going to the pit area.
It was crowded, though, and ever since her experience with the San Bernardino shooting, Castruita had been skittish in large crowds.
That day in 2015 hung over her and haunted her. She remembered driving to the Inland Regional Center on Dec. 2 after the gunfire had started. She remembered the terror of knowing people had been shot and killed at the site where she worked. Helicopters buzzed overhead. Police in tactical gear were everywhere.
A week after that shooting, nobody could go back into the building, so Castruita and Monticone decided to go to Disneyland. The crowds spooked her, however, and they left.
She was a runner and liked to hit the streets early in the morning, but Castruita remembered that not long after the San Bernardino shooting she was out running and saw a man with a hand in his pocket. Did he have a gun? She panicked.
But for this year’s Route 91 Harvest festival, she felt OK and had settled into feeling more at ease. Then came the shots. The police in tactical gear. The helicopters.
She had confidence that Monticone would stay safe. But she knew he would be worried about her — just like he was on Dec. 2 when he drove 95 mph on the freeway from Santa Clarita to get her in San Bernardino after she told him there had been a shooting and the killers were still on the loose.
Castruita wondered whether the killers were still on the loose in Las Vegas.
The casino area in Luxor had gotten quiet, and the young man in shock was trembling.
“Shooter!” someone yelled.
Monticone looked up and saw a few hundred people streaming through the doors. The woman helped her son up and started to run and fell. Monticone thought she might get trampled and helped her up. Her phone flew, and he saw the caller ID on it said “Husband.” He grabbed it for her and then they took off.
Monticone rushed out the Luxor and called her again.
Along with her aunt and cousin, Castruita had helped other concertgoers rip down an aluminum wall of the VIP section to escape toward the Tropicana.
Her phone rang. Monticone was still OK. So was she, she said. He was near the Tropicana, too. They could try to meet at the MGM Grand.
She heard him say he had to go. Another person needed help. They hung up.
Castruita kept moving toward the MGM.
Monticone helped carry a woman with a gunshot wound in her leg to a triage center already set up on Las Vegas Boulevard. He was a paramedic, Monticone said, and got her an IV before seeing ambulances arriving one after the other.
“I needed to get to Melissa,” he recalled saying as he left the woman with paramedics.
He rushed past some police, into the MGM and started down an escalator. He wondered how hard it would be to find her. He called her again. She said she was near an escalator at the MGM.
Then she saw him coming down the escalator. They hugged just like they had when he raced from his parents’ home in Santa Clarita in 2015.
Monticone’s clothes, arms and hands were covered with blood. He ducked into the restroom to quickly wash it off when he heard what he thought were gunshots. Castruita had heard them too and instinctively began to run with her aunt and cousin. But then she stopped and looked for Monticone.
He bolted out of the restroom and saw her. And they escaped.