Learning to live with fear

Five years later, Buford mom recalls deadliest mass shooting in U.S.

It’s the otherworldly screams she remembers most about that night on Oct. 1, 2017. She tries to forget, but when she’s in a crowded place, thinks of traveling or hears of another mass shooting, they’re back — screams of raw terror, echoing in her head. That’s all it takes to return to that night five years ago, huddled in an equipment room with strangers, praying she was not about to die.

Megan Pepperdine, 36, of Buford, was excited for a trip to Las Vegas with her two sisters-in-law in the fall of 2017. The preschool teacher and her husband, Jason Pepperdine, had two little girls, Calleigh, 6, and Amelia, 3, at the time. They weren’t babies anymore, so Pepperdine had grown comfortable with the idea of leaving them for a girls’ trip.

She and her sisters-in-law, Carrie Lozynsky and Angela Goure, arrived in Las Vegas on a Friday and checked in at the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino. It was Pepperdine’s first time in Las Vegas. She was amazed by the bustle, the constant whir of people and sounds, the enormity of all the hotels. The women spent their time eating at restaurants, hanging out at the pool, shopping, and enjoying the colorful people-watching.

On Sunday evening, Pepperdine and Goure were seated in the MGM Grand casino after dinner, contemplating going back to their hotel room, where Lozynsky had already retreated, when a herd of people came running past the rows of slot machines.

“One person kind of hit my shoulder, and I thought that was rude,” said Pepperdine, “then … someone looked at us and said, ‘There’s a shooter, you need to run.’”

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Running for her life

Instinctively, the women fell in line with the crowd, running scared, with no time to think. In hindsight, they wish they’d run to their room, but they heard the shooter was in the MGM lobby, just a stone’s throw from them. They called Carrie and told her to stay put in the hotel room, and they ran full speed through the hotel, out the door and past the pool where they heard gunshots in the distance. They didn’t slow down until they were in the parking lot behind the Topgolf entertainment venue.

A security guard spotted the women and waved them inside Topgolf, locking the doors behind them. There were small pockets of people inside, maybe 100 total. People were crying, confused, making phone calls and asking questions.

“Some people had suitcases, because they just arrived from the airport, and some, we could tell by their outfits, came from the country concert,” said Pepperdine.

The Route 91 Harvest Music Festival had been underway in Las Vegas Village, a 15-acre outdoor venue a half-mile from Pepperdine’s hotel. What she did not yet know was the shooter, Stephen Paddock, a 64-year-old man from Nevada, had opened fire on festival-goers from his suite on the 32nd floor of Mandalay Bay while singer Jason Aldean performed. Firing more than 1,000 bullets into the crowd, he killed between 58-60 people, depending on the source, and injured hundreds before killing himself with a gunshot. The incident is the deadliest mass shooting committed by an individual in United States history.

“The people from the concert, some had blood on their clothes and on their faces; I couldn’t tell if it was theirs,” said Pepperdine. “Some were so dirty because they told us they had been trampled as they tried to flee. We began hearing that a shooting spree began at the concert, but that’s all we knew. My sister-in-law looked on Twitter where it sounded as though there were multiple shooters.”

Pepperdine vividly recalled a girl next to her inside Topgolf holding a phone to her ear and repeatedly saying, I’m OK, I’m OK.

“She looked at me and said she was talking to her mom, then she told me she was sorry. I have no idea why she thought she needed to apologize,” said Pepperdine, her blue eyes teary. “It makes me cry to think of it. It makes me think of my kids, that mother and child connection.”

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Misinformation fuels fear

It was late in Georgia, but Pepperdine called and texted home, so her husband and mother would be assured of her safety as soon as they woke and heard the news.

The screams and crying in Topgolf calmed after a while, and a sense of camaraderie spread through the room as people introduced themselves and shared their experiences from the night. Pepperdine and Goure met a husband and wife who attended the concert with a friend. The wife was dancing with their friend when the shooting began. The friend was shot and taken to the hospital. Pepperdine still wonders if she survived.

Speculation about the shooting was rampant across Topgolf, each circle hearing this and that, desperately trying to piece together facts as their fear mounted.

About an hour after they arrived at Topgolf, Pepperdine stepped outside onto the playing field alone for a moment of peace. She could see emergency vehicles in the distance, coming and going, then she heard her sister-in-law screaming her name.

Pepperdine turned to see Goure frantically waving her back. Inside, they joined a group of about 25 people in full panic mode pushing their way through a staff breakroom and into a small, dark storage room filled with golf clubs. Someone had heard that a shooter was in the parking lot trying to get into Topgolf.

“Some people were screaming, and some were angry, telling the screamers to shut up and not make noise,” said Pepperdine. “My sister-in-law and I sat on the floor and wrapped ourselves around one another. I was wholeheartedly convinced that I was going to die. I was waiting for bullets to come through the door.”

A couple men dragged a shelf in front of the storage room door to secure the entrance. They removed paper from a corkboard and covered the windows. About 20 minutes passed before someone got word that everything was safe, and they could all leave.

“That walk back was awful,” said Pepperdine. “It was a long walk. It was amazing to see how far we’d ran; we had no idea.

“We couldn’t get over the shoes scattered throughout our path,” she said. “Abandoned shoes everywhere, left by people who were running for their lives. We didn’t talk much, everything felt eerily quiet, as we gingerly walked with our heads on swivels. When we got back to the room, Carrie nearly broke our necks when she hugged us.”

Everything bright turned dull

Back in the safety of their hotel room, the women watched the news and were shocked to learn there was only one shooter. They had been convinced by rumors there were multiple assailants.

“There was a lot of sorting through true and false information,” said Pepperdine. “I felt almost stupid for believing everything I heard.”

Pepperdine took a Tylenol PM that night. She was exhausted, but her body was overwhelmed with adrenaline. She slept for two hours, then her phone began to buzz with calls from home.

“I was awake the rest of the next day,” said Pepperdine. “We walked across an MGM bridge that leads to the other side of the strip and we observed the scene of the shooting in daylight. There were so many police vehicles surrounding the field, tons of debris. Everything that was bright before felt dull. We had tickets for a Cirque show, but it was canceled, of course. The whole city felt sad and quiet. I just wanted to get to my family.”

Pepperdine flew home on Tuesday. She walked through her front door and immediately wrapped her arms around her husband and little girls.

“All I wanted to do was be home, slow down, appreciate my kids and husband, and all the ordinary things that make up my days,” said Pepperdine. “My mom kept calling to see if I needed her. I told her I didn’t, that I was OK, but then I realized she just wanted and needed to be with me. I told her to come.”

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Never take safety for granted

Over the next few months, Pepperdine struggled with difficulty sleeping and feelings of guilt.

“I have all this trauma even though I wasn’t at the concert, and I feel guilty for being so shaken,” said Pepperdine. “There were people there who lost friends and spouses and who have it way worse than being shoved into a storage room over something that wasn’t even true. I carried that guilt around for a long time and didn’t want to talk about it.”

Pepperdine met with pastors from her church a few times after she returned from Las Vegas, confiding all her fears and guilt to them. They listened, counseled and prayed with her, helping her navigate through the array of emotions. She has become more comfortable talking about her experience over time, but the emotions haven’t faded. She struggles the most when she hears about another mass shooting.

“I was just beginning to heal from Vegas when the high school shootings happened in Parkland, Florida,” said Pepperdine. “Thinking of how terrified we were, then imagining a high schooler or even younger children feeling that way — it’s just too much. I know there will be more shootings and thinking of that feels like a weight inside me.”

Invisible scars remain for Pepperdine and physical reactions occasionally surface.

“Anything unexpected, like a security or fire alarm, has a big effect on me,” said Pepperdine, who teaches preschool at Buford Presbyterian Weekday School. “When firefighters come to the school and put on their entire uniforms, my heart starts to beat fast, my breathing feels heavy, and it’s almost like a panic attack.”

Crowded places, like the Yellow Daisy Festival and shopping malls make her feel extra cautious.

“I’m not sure if I’ll ever go to a concert again, and I for sure will never in my life go back to Las Vegas. I have not taken a trip without my kids since 2017 and have no desire to.”

Her family, which now includes 3-year-old son Reid, visited Disney World in 2020. Pepperdine was nervous about the trip and found herself looking for escape routes in the park, something she would have never thought of before that night in Vegas. Although her radar is always up, and she sometimes avoids large, public gatherings, she refuses to prevent her family from living life to the fullest.

Recently, a family member took Pepperdine’s oldest daughter to see her first concert, Imagine Dragons. Pepperdine battled her fears while Calleigh was gone, but she’s glad she let her go. Her girl returned home safely with a smile and wonderful memories.

“I will never take safety for granted,” said Pepperdine. “Being able to live your life and feel safe doing so is everything.”