It was last call early Sunday morning at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla. Josh McGill and his roommate were with hundreds of patrons milling toward the bar when they heard a loud bang.
Pop! Pop! Pop! The sound ripped through the music.
McGill thought someone had shot off fireworks — a cruel prank? He ducked slightly and jerked to the side, just in case, but then another club-goer pulled his roommate’s arm.
“That wasn’t a joke,” the man said. “That was a gunshot.”
Before it was over, at least 50 people were killed and 53 were wounded in the worst mass shooting in U.S. history. The gunman, 29-year-old Omar Mateen, was killed by a SWAT team after taking hostages, investigators said.
“Is this really happening?” McGill, 26, remembers thinking.
The night had started like any other Saturday at the Pulse, a regular haunt for those who, like him, work at its sister bar, Southern Nights Orlando. They had arrived shortly before midnight, ready to drink Vodka Red Bulls and unwind.
Two hours later, the trouble started.
“Oh my God! There’s gunshots!” McGill heard people yell as they tried to escape.
Once he and his friends made it out to the parking lot, they ran toward the police perimeter a few hundred feet away. But before they could make it, more shots cracked through the screams.
McGill jumped out of the way, in case there was crossfire. He huddled behind a car, and eventually crawled underneath it. His friends kept going.
“I heard shots consistently firing left and right and they were getting more faint, so I thought he was going farther inside,” he said of the shooter.
“Can you help me?” the man pleaded.
McGill grabbed the stranger and pulled him behind the car.
“I think I got shot,” the man said.
McGill searched the man’s body and quickly found two bullet wounds — one in each arm.
“Don’t worry, I got you,” McGill said.
He knew he needed to stop the bleeding. He pulled off his lavender V-neck shirt and wrapped it around the arm of the weakening man slouched against him.
Blood poured onto McGill’s jeans. He grabbed the wounded man’s shirt and tied it around the other arm.
“We just need to make it to the perimeter,” McGill said, trying to encourage the stranger to move. But the man’s back was hurting and he couldn’t walk alone; that’s when McGill saw the man’s back, covered in blood from yet another gunshot wound.
“Give me your shirt!” he called out. The man took it off without a word, and McGill pressed it to the stranger’s bleeding back.
When they finally managed to reach an officer at the perimeter, they were assured that a police car was coming to take them to the emergency room.
McGill’s job, the officer told him, was to lay down in the back of the car.
“We will lay him on top of you, and you bear hug him,” the officer said.
Keep him conscious, no matter what, McGill was told as they rushed off down the road.
“Hey, man, my name is Josh,” he said, his arms covered in the blood of a man he’d just met. “What do you do?”
“My name is Rodney. I’m from Jacksonville,” the man replied quietly.
“I don’t know if you’re religious or not, but I’ll say a prayer with you,” McGill said. Rodney mumbled something inaudible.
McGill made promises he didn’t know he could keep. He swore the man would be OK, that everything was turning out fine. He held him as tightly as he could.
When they got to the hospital, doctors wheeled Rodney inside.
“Words cannot and will not describe the feeling of that. Being covered in blood,” McGill said. “Trying to save a guy’s life that I don’t even know.”
Hours later, McGill tracked down Rodney’s family to find out how he had fared. He was recovering, they said.
Sunday afternoon, McGill returned to the hospital, needing, he said, to visit the man whose life he’d held in his arms in the back of a car. But the doctors turned him away.