The panic during the massacre at Sunday’s country music festival in Las Vegas was not limited to the audience. Shots also reached the backstage area, although injuries there seemed to be less severe, according to saxophone player Carlos Sosa, who was hanging out with other musicians when chaos broke out.
Variety spoke with Sosa, the touring sax player for the Josh Abbott Band, as he waited to board a plane Monday after spending most of the day on a tour bus on the festival grounds, having been disallowed from ever returning to his room at the Mandalay Bay resort.
“I think the gunshots lasted for 15 or 20 minutes,” said Sosa, who is not an official member of the Josh Abbott Band. He didn’t see the carnage, but what he heard was unnerving enough. “The scariest part was, there was a large fence between the backstage area and general admission, and (on the other side) we heard thousands of people screaming at the top of their lungs. Just hearing that was pretty nightmarish.”
He did see less severe bloodshed in the artists’ compound area, where, before Jason Aldean’s closing set, he’d been enjoying an idyllic day as the newest member of Abbott’s band, having joined up just two months ago after four years with the Zac Brown Band and a stint before that with Jason Mraz.
“It was a really beautiful day for the artists’ lounge, with couches and hacky sacks and hanging out and talking with old and new friends,” Sosa said. “I would say there were probably 80 to 100 of us, between artists and guests. We were all together with some guests and friends, and heard some high-pitched pops. Somebody said, ‘Oh, there’s fireworks.’ I turned around to look toward the sky and didn’t see any, so I disregarded it, and everybody went about their business. Somebody said, ‘Oh, it’s an electrical problem.’ But then three of us felt something hit us, like shrapnel — debris of some sort. And there was a rapid succession of pops, the kind where each pop was identical, so I knew it wasn’t fireworks. A security guy started yelling ‘Get down,’ and we all did, just like in a movie. It never occurred to me that someone was shooting from above. I heard it from three different directions, sounding like it was getting closer, and I felt like there were three shooters coming closer to get us, execution-style.”
Then the musicians and guests were told to run between the tour buses on the side of the stage nearest the Mandalay Bay skyscraper… with no one yet realizing they were moving closer to the line of fire. He saw headliner Jason Aldean running from the stage toward one of the buses. It was there that the refugees from the artists’ compound caught their first sight of a few people who’d been wounded, apparently in a different backstage area, and possibly just grazed. “One guy was lying there and some women were helping him. I don’t think he noticed he’d been shot.”
Soon the authorities realized where the shots were coming from and, while the shooter had his sights trained on the audience, a police officer yelled at everyone hiding between the buses at stage left to make a run for the less vulnerable congregation of buses at stage right. “Probably a hundred people just ran as fast as we could. And there were people on the way that were shot and needed assistance. I helped this one lady get put on a stretcher, and then we kept running and put people on tour buses. There were probably 70 people on one of the buses.”
Others were hiding in a freezer. The trickle of information was slow, wherever backstagers found their refuge. The initial word being passed around was that only two people had been killed, which left Sosa hoping that all that screaming was more about panic than actual carnage. Later in the night, talking to the people who were running Aldean’s video, he learned the extent of it. “The people doing Jason’s video said they were (watching the crowd through the monitors) and it was the most horrible thing they’d ever seen — people running and dropping like flies.”
After the sun came up, Sosa was able to look up at the Mandalay Bay hotel and easily spot the shattered window from which the shooter had sprayed the grounds with hundreds of rounds of automatic sniper fire. And “all of the big fences were knocked down, because there had been mobs of people breaking down the barriers. And during the day today there were a lot of funeral home vans constantly coming where I was” in the tour bus parking area.
As the day proceeded, there was little order or direction, with many of the musicians still holed up on the tour buses. “I couldn’t catch a taxi or Uber, and they wouldn’t let anybody back in the hotel.” A policeman he approached near the stage had no idea to give him about how to leave the well-secured grounds, which were filled with law enforcement gathering evidence. Finally he spotted a Fox News van near one corner of an empty, fenced-in parking lot and figured there must be an opening nearby to get out. “I just started walking down the road with all my stuff. It still felt like a dream. It still does.”
Eventually “this taxi driver saw me walking with my sax toward the airport and slammed on the brakes.” Sosa had gotten disconnected from the Abbott Band, although by the time he got to the airport someone had emailed him the posts that longtime guitarist Caleb Keeter had put on social media, about how the trauma had forced him to change his position on gun control overnight.
The Abbott Band’s new sax guy is actually looking forward to the tour reconvening. “We’re playing this weekend coming up. I spoke to management pretty regularly today. They said they had some counselors for us to speak with, but understood if we didn’t want to talk to anybody. I heard some of the guys in the band are kind of taking it pretty hard.”
Sosa’s still not sure yet how he’s taking it. “It’s a weird feeling, with my friends and family telling me how bad it really is. Hopefully the processing doesn’t go too bad. I’ve definitely had different emotions since I finally left the compound. I thought I was fine until I got to the airport. The American Airlines lady saw me with my saxophone and came out from behind the desk to give me a hug.”