This is not happening. This is not happening right now.
The thoughts repeated over and over in Michelle Cole’s mind. She had heard a series of pops that sounded like fireworks. But when the second volley erupted she knew it was gunfire. Could this really be happening?
It was just after 10pm, the night of October 1, 2017. Cole had travelled to Las Vegas with friends and family to attend the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival. She was enjoying the concert when a gunman opened fire on the crowd. Between 10:05 and 10:15pm, the shooter would fire more than 1,100 rounds into the crowd, killing 58 people. 851 others were injured from gunfire and the panic that resulted.
In the ensuing chaos, as Cole was attempting to move her wheelchair-bound adult son down a ramp, a man grabbed her arm and said, “you’ve got to hide.” People were scrambling under tables, and at the time, she didn’t realize that the shooter was firing from above, from the 32nd floor of the nearby Mandalay Bay Hotel. She thought of the Orlando Pulse shooting. She remembered her training. When you hide you die. If you can leave first, you are to run.
Cole is a registered nurse and Trauma Program Manager, with a long history as a first responder. Being the head of trauma, she had felt she needed training for mass casualty incidents to understand what to do. After the Pulse incident on June 12, 2016, Cole traveled to Orlando and met with physicians and the head trauma nurse who had been involved in treating victims, and she also treated injured patients herself. After hearing the stories of those who survived when they ran, and those who were killed when they hid in the nightclub bathroom, she knew she needed to get active shooter training.
Cole signed up for the eight-hour Safariland Emergency Response to an Armed Intruder Course, which is designed to maximize the efforts between the general public, law enforcement and on-scene security forces, to afford the best chance of survival and minimizing casualties.
The course has four blocks which include: medical, a big part of which is hemorrhage control; run, which covers active movement drills; lock, in which students learn how to barricade themselves inside a structure or room with whatever materials are available; and fight, where individuals learn how to fight back if it gets to that point. Participants have options on the blocks, and once they choose they are thrown into scenarios that are a practical application test of the skills they have learned throughout the day.
“I think that’s the biggest thing, to recognize this could happen. It could really happen, and when it does you have to respond in a different way than just to freeze,” says Cole. “And I felt like (the) class taught me to run. It taught me to save myself.” During one of the in-class practical scenarios, when she was escaping a mock shooter (firing blanks which are just as loud as real bullets), she ran down a hallway. She felt somebody fall behind her. Cole glanced back, and saw the mock shooter come around the corner. She left the fallen man and ran into a room and barricaded the door.
It was a defining moment. “And it made me think about who I am,” she says. She had always thought of herself as a helper, a fighter. Cole later apologized to her classmate, saying she was sorry she had left him. But the instructor told her she had done the right thing, “You can’t help people if you’re dead. But because you ran and hid, you’re not dead.”
In Las Vegas, Cole ran. “I didn’t stop to look at people who were falling. I didn’t look at them. And that was part of my guilt. Of being able to handle…” says Cole, her voice trailing off. She still grapples with survivor’s guilt. Of running. Of living.
If you can’t run, there is a second option. Lock. Cole describes how she learned to barricade and lock down during the Armed Intruder Course, how to judge angles of sight and how to hide behind walls to see and listen where the shooter is moving. She learned how to barricade a door, and practiced lying on the ground with her feet against the door. In such a situation, the action could be just enough to deter a shooter from trying to fight to get in. “They couldn’t get in, and just moved on.”
If running and hiding are not possible, there is a third option. You fight. In the course Cole discovered how to rise up with a group of people to fight back. She now knows how to instruct people to get on either side of a door, and how to disarm a shooter. The training teaches participants that the three options—run, lock down and fight—can change depending on the situation, but you have to own that moment for yourself and stick to your plan.
When Cole, her son and her husband made it to the Tropicana Hotel and she felt safe, she assessed the situation. It was then that she saw the first person bleeding from a bullet hole. They had also received a call from a friend, a US Marshal who had stayed inside and had told them people were dead. At that moment, Cole knew the situation was extremely serious. “Then we knew, and that’s when I had this huge change, when I saw the blood and I saw the bullet hole and that people couldn’t do anything and there was only me, and my husband who’s a nurse—and he was actually still in shock and was (saying), ‘Is this really happening?'” Cole told her husband they had to go back. “People don’t know what to do. And that’s when I had the change, to go back and help.”