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updated: 10/5/2017 3:52 PM

'It was almost automatic': Off-duty cops saved Vegas victims

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  • Chula Vista police officer Fred Rowbotham stands next to his motorcycle Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017, in Chula Vista, Calif. Rowbotham was injured at the Las Vegas shooting while attending the concert with his wife and friends. The Sunday night crowd of about 20,000 country music fans happened to include many off-duty police and firefighters like Rowbotham, who sprang into the role of first responders when tragedy struck and played an important role in saving lives.

    Chula Vista police officer Fred Rowbotham stands next to his motorcycle Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017, in Chula Vista, Calif. Rowbotham was injured at the Las Vegas shooting while attending the concert with his wife and friends. The Sunday night crowd of about 20,000 country music fans happened to include many off-duty police and firefighters like Rowbotham, who sprang into the role of first responders when tragedy struck and played an important role in saving lives.
    Associated Press

  • FILE - In this Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017, file photo, San Diego Police officers Tom McGrath, left, and Max Verduzco, speak with the news media about their experience at Sunday's Las Vegas shooting, in San Diego, Calif. Both officers were off duty at the time and attending the concert with family and friends when they found themselves in situation where they aided wounded and helped other flee from the area. The Sunday night crowd of about 20,000 country music fans happened to include many off-duty police and firefighters, who sprang into the role of first responders when tragedy struck and played an important role in saving lives. (Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune via AP)

    FILE - In this Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017, file photo, San Diego Police officers Tom McGrath, left, and Max Verduzco, speak with the news media about their experience at Sunday's Las Vegas shooting, in San Diego, Calif. Both officers were off duty at the time and attending the concert with family and friends when they found themselves in situation where they aided wounded and helped other flee from the area. The Sunday night crowd of about 20,000 country music fans happened to include many off-duty police and firefighters, who sprang into the role of first responders when tragedy struck and played an important role in saving lives. (Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune via AP)
    Associated Press

  • FILE - In this June 20, 2017, file photo, Seguin, Tex., Deputy Police Chief Bruce Ure shows off a cat room at the city's new animal shelter in San Antonio, Texas. Ure was off duty and attending the music festival in Las Vegas when a gunman opened fire on Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017. The Sunday night crowd of 20,000 country music fans happened to include many off-duty police and firefighters, who sprang into the role of first responders when tragedy struck and played an important role in saving lives. (Zeke MacCormack/The San Antonio Express-News via AP, File)

    FILE - In this June 20, 2017, file photo, Seguin, Tex., Deputy Police Chief Bruce Ure shows off a cat room at the city's new animal shelter in San Antonio, Texas. Ure was off duty and attending the music festival in Las Vegas when a gunman opened fire on Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017. The Sunday night crowd of 20,000 country music fans happened to include many off-duty police and firefighters, who sprang into the role of first responders when tragedy struck and played an important role in saving lives. (Zeke MacCormack/The San Antonio Express-News via AP, File)
    Associated Press

  • In this Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017, photo, Santa Ana police Sgt. Michael Gonzalez poses for a photograph in Santa Ana, Calif. Sgt. Gonzalez happened to be at the Las Vegas concert when the shooting occurred and helped assist the victims. The Sunday night crowd of about 20,000 country music fans happened to include many off-duty police and firefighters, who sprang into the role of first responders when tragedy struck and played an important role in saving lives.

    In this Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017, photo, Santa Ana police Sgt. Michael Gonzalez poses for a photograph in Santa Ana, Calif. Sgt. Gonzalez happened to be at the Las Vegas concert when the shooting occurred and helped assist the victims. The Sunday night crowd of about 20,000 country music fans happened to include many off-duty police and firefighters, who sprang into the role of first responders when tragedy struck and played an important role in saving lives.
    Associated Press

  • FILE - In this Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017, file photo, Mike Kordich, a firefighter from Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., answers questions from his hospital bed at Sunrise Hospital in Las Vegas. Kordich was giving a severely injured person CPR when he was hit by a bullet after a gunman opened fire on an outdoor music concert on Sunday.

    FILE - In this Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017, file photo, Mike Kordich, a firefighter from Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., answers questions from his hospital bed at Sunrise Hospital in Las Vegas. Kordich was giving a severely injured person CPR when he was hit by a bullet after a gunman opened fire on an outdoor music concert on Sunday.
    Associated Press

  • FILE - In this Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017, file photo, Jesse Gomez of the Clark County Fire Department describes his off-duty experience as a concertgoer at the country music festival that was attacked by a gunman on Sunday night, killing scores of people on in Las Vegas, Nev. The Sunday night crowd of about 20,000 country music fans happened to include many off-duty police and firefighters, who sprang into the role of first responders when tragedy struck and played an important role in saving lives.

    FILE - In this Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017, file photo, Jesse Gomez of the Clark County Fire Department describes his off-duty experience as a concertgoer at the country music festival that was attacked by a gunman on Sunday night, killing scores of people on in Las Vegas, Nev. The Sunday night crowd of about 20,000 country music fans happened to include many off-duty police and firefighters, who sprang into the role of first responders when tragedy struck and played an important role in saving lives.
    Associated Press

  • Chula Vista police officer Fred Rowbotham stands next to his motorcycle Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017 in Chula Vista, Calif. Rowbotham was injured at the Las Vegas shooting while attending the concert with his wife and friends. The Sunday night crowd of about 20,000 country music fans happened to include many off-duty police and firefighters, who sprang into the role of first responders when tragedy struck and played an important role in saving lives.

    Chula Vista police officer Fred Rowbotham stands next to his motorcycle Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017 in Chula Vista, Calif. Rowbotham was injured at the Las Vegas shooting while attending the concert with his wife and friends. The Sunday night crowd of about 20,000 country music fans happened to include many off-duty police and firefighters, who sprang into the role of first responders when tragedy struck and played an important role in saving lives.
    Associated Press

 
 

SANTA ANA, Calif. -- Fred Rowbotham's plan was to leave job stress behind with a trip to Las Vegas to celebrate his 45th birthday at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival.

But when the rat-a-tat-tat of gunfire rained down, the police officer from Chula Vista, California, sprang into action as if he were in uniform. Joining him were many other off-duty police and firefighters in the terrified crowd of 20,000.

"Cops and firefighters like country music. They like a good time. They like to go to Vegas and cut loose," Rowbotham said. After rushing his wife to safety, he turned to help others. "You have to just act sometimes."

The rampage by a heavily armed gunman perched in the nearby Mandalay Bay casino hotel killed 58 people and left nearly 500 injured, but it could have been deadlier without the quick thinking and tactical skills of officers who took charge, treated the wounded and directed paramedics to the most urgent victims.

Without their expertise, more people could have died, said Dr. Douglas Fraser, vice chief of trauma at University Medical Center of Southern Nevada, where many of the wounded were treated.

"It was very helpful to have people who were off-duty or medically trained there," said Fraser, noting that a victim with a major injury to an artery can die in minutes. "It's invaluable to be able to apply direct pressure to a wound or be able to place a tourniquet instead of watching someone bleed to death."

Rowbotham said his instincts took over. He got pelted by shrapnel and was bleeding but unfazed as he directed dozens of people to safety.

Several other officers and firefighters were also hit, including Mike Kordich, a firefighter from Rancho Cucamonga, California. He was giving CPR to a badly wounded person when he was struck in the arm by a bullet.

"I kept doing chest compressions with one arm until I noticed I was starting to bleed a lot," Kordich recalled. He ran for cover, jumping fences, and said he could hear the bullets whizzing by.

San Diego police officer Tom McGrath said he threw himself on top of strangers to shield them. He treated the wounded, taking his shirt off to apply pressure to a woman's bleeding chest. For another gunshot victim, he made a tourniquet from a scarf and tree branch.

"It was almost automatic to go from enjoying the concert to that person needs help," McGrath told reporters Wednesday at San Diego police headquarters. "I think it's something that just kind of gets ingrained in you. The switch flipped at that point."

President Donald Trump visited Las Vegas on Wednesday and paid tribute to the first responders and doctors who rushed to save lives.

"While everyone else was crouching, police officers were standing up as targets just trying to direct people and tell them where to go," Trump said. "Words cannot describe the bravery the whole world witnessed Sunday night."

Bruce Ure, a deputy police chief from Seguin, Texas, shrugged off kudos and said he was just doing his job.

"I was ready to go. I knew it needed to be done because I had been trained in that," said Ure, who spotted a man bleeding from a leg wound and dragged him to safety, then used the man's belt to make a tourniquet.

Bullets were still raining down when he helped two other women, one shot in the back and one shot in the chest, by commandeering a vehicle and directing the driver to a nearby trauma center.

That night, Ure said, he saw America "at its finest and at its worst."

Nearly four days after the shooting, many of the off-duty officers were back on the job and processing what they went through.

"I have been in combat, but I have never seen this type of mass casualty," said police Sgt. Michael Gonzalez, who works in Santa Ana, California. He went to Las Vegas to teach a course on workplace violence but decided to check out the country music festival before going home.

One officer with him used a stethoscope as a tourniquet for a wounded woman, tightening it with a pen and tape, he said. Another cut strips of a first aid tent to use as tourniquets for other victims, he said.

"We go out into the street and start flagging down cars. Citizens are stopping. We put three, four, five in a truck, hit the truck - go!" he said. "And we go right back into the hot zone, (to) load two or three more."

Gonzalez is back at work as a patrol sergeant but said he knows other officers so traumatized by the massacre they cannot return to duty yet.

Ure is one of them.

"I don't know that you ever get over it," he said by telephone. "I think you just try to figure out how to cope with it."

___

Hoffner reported from Phoenix. Associated Press writers Jocelyn Gecker in San Francisco; Anita Snow, Amanda Lee Myers and Michelle Price in Las Vegas; and Elliot Spagat in San Diego also contributed to this report.

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