By Herb Meeker
News Report Staff
Some Effingham County residents experienced the panic from the Las Vegas mass shootings Sunday night.
Bob Willenborg of J&J Ventures in Effingham recalled the “unnerving and unsettling” moments when hundreds of people were running down the Las Vegas Strip to avoid being shot. The latest death toll was 58 on Wednesday and more than 500 were shot or injured, many of whom were trampled or suffered broken bones while running away during the confusion.
The lone shooter, identified as Stephen Paddock, a 64-year-old Mesquite, Nevada, resident, shot many rifles, some converted to fire as rapidly as an automatic weapon, from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino with a clear view of the 22,000 people below gathered at a country music festival.
Willenborg and other J&J Ventures employees were in Las Vegas for the Global Gaming Expo. Willenborg and part of the group from Illinois were in the Bellagio Resort and Casino, which is more than a mile away from the concert grounds. Willenborg was with Jack Jansen at the Bellagio and meeting Craig Cohoon, who works with the J&J Ventures Springfield office.
Being a mile away from the shootings, they did not hear the gunfire, but they soon saw what it created after 10 p.m. in Vegas.
“All of a sudden there was mass hysteria. People were running off the Strip into the lobby. It was mass panic. They locked down the place and the elevators and we saw a SWAT team come through,” Willenborg said.
There was relief that everyone was out of harm’s way for the group from Illinois. But as details came out on the shooting deaths, Cohoon realized his presence that night drew his daughter away from the killing zone.
“We found out that Craig’s daughter and her friend had been at that concert most of the evening. They left it about 15 minutes before the shooting started. They left to meet Craig at the Bellagio,” Willenborg said.
There was delayed shock for some other J&J Ventures employees that night. They had been attending a Beatles show at the Mirage.
“They didn’t know what was going on until after that show ended,” Willenborg said.
On Monday, all the casino and hotel guests were talking about how some people were lucky and others died or ended up in the hospital, Willenborg said. There was also praise for the law enforcement and other emergency responders Sunday night.
“We have been hearing a lot of stories from bartenders and casino employees today. It’s amazing to me how the SWAT team got to that guy so quick. There is still a police presence on the Strip, but not overbearing. I have seen some ambulances still today. They have closed the Strip south of the Tropicana,” Willenborg said Monday afternoon during a phone interview.
Social media messages and cell phone calls were crisscrossing the country and some parts of the globe Sunday night as anxious relatives or friends feared for people they knew were visiting Vegas.
“I had 24 text messages on the phone this morning. People were checking on whether I was OK,” Willenborg said.
Hours after President Donald Trump asked for a national moment of silence, American flags at half-staff and called the shootings “an act of pure evil,” Willenborg, who has traveled to Las Vegas many times, noted he had been concerned about an act of violence striking the city with a global reputation tied to entertainment.
“I’ve always worried Las Vegas was a target. But I was thinking it was for terrorists because it could be a soft target,” Willenborg said.
The J&J Ventures group was expected to return Thursday to the Effingham area. Doubtless, they will be sharing their own experiences and those of others from the night of the worst mass shooting in American history.