It became a ride of life — not just death — because of Austin Cox, a 24-year-old U.S. Marine corporal from Piqua who turned into an “angel” Sunday night in Las Vegas.
Austin and his Marine buddy Mike Vura, both stationed at Camp Pendleton outside San Diego, were in the crowd of 22,000 at the Route 91 country music festival that had played out for three days in the a 15-acre open space near the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino on the south end of the famed Las Vegas Strip.
As Jason Aldean, the two-time Academy of Country Music Entertainer of the Year, had taken the stage, Austin and Vura had gone to a beer tent near the back of the crowd.
At about 10:15 p.m., as Aldean launched into his third song, “When She Says Baby,” there was a series of muffled pops that many in the crowd thought was some kind of fireworks with the show.
“Right away they recognized it: ‘Oh my God! That’s gunfire!’ ” Alysha Ross, Austin’s 26-year-old sister said Wednesday afternoon.
The two Marines were right, although they didn’t know at the time that the shots were coming from a 32nd-floor suite in the Mandalay Bay some 400 yards away.
That’s where 64-year-old Stephen Paddock — holed up with 23 weapons — had begun a nine-to-11-minute assault on the crowd with semi-automatic rifles he had fitted with bump stocks so he could fire hundreds of rounds a minute as though he had an automatic weapon.
By the time the shooting stopped, there were 59 casualties — 58 victims and Paddock himself who is said to have committed suicide — and over 500 people were injured.
It became the deadliest mass shooting incident in modern American history.
As the assault went on, the stage lights were shut off, pitching the area into darkness. People stumbled to get their bearings and had trouble escaping because the concert site was surrounded by barricades and had just a few exit areas.
“They noticed everybody on the right side was stuck where the barricades were,” Alysha said. “They couldn’t get out, couldn’t really go anywhere.
“So that’s when Austin and Mike ran in, they started helping people over the fence. They were picking people up and literally throwing them over it. My brother was like, ‘It’s better to have a broken arm than be dead.’ ”
As he was helping people, Austin picked up Katrina Hannah, a University of La Verne graduate from California, who just moments earlier had been laughing and dancing as part of a bachelorette party for her best friend.
“He saw she had been shot and when he picked her up, she got shot again!” Alysha said. “He carried her over and tried to take cover.”
Hannah had wounds in her neck and shoulder and was bleeding badly.
“Austin kept his finger in her (neck) wound so she wouldn’t bleed to death,” Alysha said.
And once the shooting stopped, “I picked her up and made a run for it,” Austin told Elex Michaelson, a reporter for KABC-TV in Los Angeles.
“Austin and Mike found a piece of fence and they put Katrina on it and carried her into an alleyway, where people were pulling up with their cars,” Alysha said.
But her brother wasn’t done yet, she said.
He got another severely wounded guy into the back of the car too, and while cradling Katrina he told the young woman at the wheel to get them to the hospital.
All the way to Sunrise Hospital, he tried to tend to both of his gravely wounded fellow concert goers.
“He kept his finger in Katrina’s wound and with his other hand he held onto the other guy so he wouldn’t fall out of the back hatch which was still open,” Alysha said.
She grew silent: “Unfortunately, the other guy didn’t make it. He died.”
Although Katrina could barely speak, she managed to give Austin the phone number of her mother Loreto Hannah, who had been at the concert with her until right before the shooting.
She begged Austin to call her, and he did, and Loreto won’t ever forget that call.
As she told KABC: “He said, ‘I’m staying with her. I’m not going anywhere.’ ”
When she got to the hospital, Loreto told Austin he was a hero.
“He says ‘I’m not a hero,’ ” Loreto recalled. “I said, ‘You always will be my angel. You saved my daughter.’ ”
Athlete at Piqua
Austin played football and basketball at Piqua High School, graduated in 2011 and then went to the University of Cincinnati, where he played rugby. Eventually he left college and joined the Marines.
“He felt he wanted to serve his country,” Jeff Cox, his grandfather who lives in Piqua, said. “We’re proud of him for that.”
At Camp Pendleton, where he’s been stationed throughout his two years in service, he’s a helicopter mechanic, his grandfather said.
“He’s my little brother, but he’s always been like a big brother to me,” said Alysha, who tends bar in Piqua. “I’ve always looked up to him. He’s just always been a leader. He’s always one to lend a helping hand no matter what.
“That’s why he joined the Marines. He wanted to help people, whether it be in foreign situations or domestic.”
And that’s exactly what he did Sunday night
“It’s a miracle that he was there and found her or else she wouldn’t be here with us,” Nicole Ragano, Katrina’s friend, told KABC-TV.
That’s why, as soon as she got to the hospital, Katrina’s mom took a photo of Austin, who was waiting there, still dressed in his black t-shirt and jeans, a purple rubber bracelet on his wrist and her daughter’s blood on his forearm.
“I have to take a picture of you,” she told him. “I have to show my daughter who her angel is.”
‘A tough ordeal’
The photo ended up on Facebook and then came the KABC-TV interview and suddenly Austin was in the spotlight.
“I don’t know what to say,” Austin told KABC. “I’m just thankful I was there at a time she needed me most. Any Marine in my situation would have done the exact same thing.”
And yet when he was along in the hospital he admitted the emotion finally welled up in him:
“At that moment it really hit me hard.”
“He’s doing good, but he’s overwhelmed with the attention,” said Alysha, who flew out to California with her grandmother, aunt, cousin and Austin’s mom — all of them from Piqua — to surprise him and hopefully lift his spirits.”
Angie Smith, Austin’s aunt, said they could tell he was shaken when they spoke briefly to him Monday.
“It was a tough ordeal to go through,” Jeff Cox agreed. “When they were helping it was hard for them to distinguish who needed help and who was already dead.”
All that weighed on Austin as he returned to Camp Pendleton.
“We had one of his friends tale him to lunch and then we just walked up,” Alysha said of their reunion. “He was in awe. He definitely didn’t expect us there. He hugged us tight and got choked up.
“Us coming is definitely was what he needed.”
Just as he is struggling with the attention, so is Katrina’s family, Alysha said:
“They are overwhelmed, as well. But we’re trying to stay updated on her. She has gotten some feeling back in her legs. She can’t speak very well, but at least she’s alive.”
And Loreto said when her daughter awoke, one of the first things she did was pen a message in a very shaky hand.
It read: “Who did this to me?”
Loreto told her: “I said, ‘One bad guy….But let’s not concentrate on one bad person. Everything coming out is good. I see a lot of blessings. Look at the people loving us.”
And soon after she showed her daughter the photo of Cpl. Austin Cox.
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