J.D. Heyman
October 02, 2017 12:57 PM

A few short hours ago, PEOPLE contributor Mark Gray was enjoying an annual tradition —the Route 91 Harvest festival at the Mandalay Bay Casino in Las Vegas. He’s still struggling to process the horror that came next.

“I was there with friends. We’ve gone every year for the past four years,” says Gray, who was in an outdoor area outside a ground level suite on the left side of the stage when singer Jason Aldean took the stage at around 9:45 pm on Sunday.

“It was just as normal as can be. He was on his fourth song and really just kind of starting, and I was talking two my friends when I started to hear ‘pop, pop, pop.’ It sounded like a firecracker, and one of the girls I was with said, ‘That just hit me. My leg stings.’ And then the girl next to her said, ‘It hit me too.’ ”

Gray now thinks the women were hit by tiny bits of shrapnel — “Whatever it was, it wasn’t strong enough to break the denim of their jeans.” But by then, he saw that another woman, in the suite next door, was being dragged onto a couch.

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“I couldn’t see if she was bleeding, but she was pretty hysterical. Right at that moment we heard ‘pop pop pop’ again. We realized they were gun shots.”

Gray and his companions crushed into the shelter of the suite with some other terrified concertgoers. “People ran for cover, and we ran into the suite and shut the door. There were about 30 people down on the ground of that little room.

“People were stacked on top of one another. The shots just went on forever. It was relentless. It just kept getting louder and louder. … The windows started getting shot out, and you felt glass and shrapnel hitting your back.”

In those terrifying seconds, Gray and other victims had no idea where the attack was coming from.

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They feared the shooter or shooters was somewhere on the concert grounds and coming closer to them. And they struggled to come to grips with the magnitude of their ordeal.

“You hear the pops and the windows shattering, and some part of you thinks, ‘This is a joke, or this must be a prank. Someone is going to come out and tell you it isn’t real,’ ” Gray says.

“When you go to a concert, you don’t think anything like this could possibly be happening. We all knew it, but we were kind of trying to process it. It’s hard to know what to think or do.”

Then long seconds later, there was a lull in the shooting. “We were all crushed into that space, and we kind of realized at the same time, ‘We’ve got to get out of here,’ ” says Gray. “Someone said, ‘Go. Go now. And we ran.’ ”

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At least 58 people were killed and 515 others were hospitalized in the mass shooting, according to authorities. The shooter has been identified as 64-year-old Stephen Paddock, of Mesquite, Nevada, whom authorities say was found dead from a likely suicide following the shooting.

According to Las Vegas police, Paddock fired on the crowd of more than 22,000 from his 32nd-floor at the Mandalay Bay Hotel, where he had been staying since Thursday.

‘I Saw Human Beings, Covered in Blood’

Gray and others fled through a back door of the suite, running towards a concert gate about 25 yards from their makeshift refuge. Only a handful stayed behind. “We all hauled ass out the backdoor of that suite. It felt like we’d been there for an eternity,” he says.

Once he was out in a crowd of panicked concert goers, Gray noticed the wounded. “I’m seeing girls and guys with blood all over them. I didn’t see anyone get hit, but I saw human beings, covered in blood.”

Within seconds, the shots had resumed, and still, no one in the flood of terrified people knew where they were coming from. Gray made his way across a narrow street to a parking area — a group of men had kicked down a chain link fence to escape, and he stepped over it and headed towards the shelter of some nearby parked trucks.

“I headed straight for the semis,” Gray recalls. “I thought the guy doing the shooting was on the festival grounds.”

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From behind the truck, Gray tried to get a handle on what he calls “pandemonium.” He looked up at the distant Mandalay Hotel from his redoubt. “I saw something flickering in a window like a candle. I didn’t know if it was the gun. There was a bunch of people hiding behind the truck, another guy and I helped a girl on crutches get to her feet. Then I decided, I’m just going to run. I’m going to run as far as I can get.”

“I got to Las Vegas Boulevard, and five or six people asked me what was going on. I said I didn’t know if it was a terrorist attack, but it was some kind of mass shooting.” They told him they had been evacuated from the hotel. By then the sound had stopped.”

‘I Still Don’t Have the Right Words’

Gray believes that entire ordeal spanned about 15 minutes. By then he had made contact with friends who had been at the concert. They checked in by call and text, counting heads, making sure people he knew were okay.

“I had a mophie [power station], so I was able to make contact with everyone,” he tells PEOPLE. He also reached his sister, who works at Mandalay Bay. She told him there was a SWAT team in the hotel and they were on lockdown. She was still unable to leave the hotel Monday morning.

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He wandered into the night with other dazed survivors, finding his way onto the city’s Russell Road. A friend called to say he was driving around, picking the stragglers up. “He picked me and other people up,” says Gray. “One of them was a girl who saw someone get shot in the head. She was really traumatized. Another friend of mine thinks he may have broken his heels from jumping over fences, because he couldn’t really walk. Two of my other friends ended up hiding in an airplane hangar.” (The city’s McCarren Airport is next to the Mandalay Bay.)

In the wee hours, Gray and friends gathered in his home, still trying to understand what they had just gone through.

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“It’s hard to know what to say or do,” he says now. “I have friends who got shot. One girl got shot multiple times. I believe the shoulder is where the worst damage is. She went on to Facebook to say she was fine, that she is awaiting surgery in the ER.” He is grateful that his sister is okay: “It put my mind at ease a bit.”

But he remains badly shaken, still unable to believe the nightmare he has lived through.

“I still don’t have the right words,” says Gray. “It’s 10 hours later and and it almost feels like it didn’t happen in a weird way. Because it’s just so shocking.”

How to Help and Learn About Loved Ones

Friends and family are asked to report missing people believed to be connected to the shooting using the hotline 1-800-536-9488.

Anyone with photo or video evidence of the shooting is asked to call 1-800-CALL-FBI.

The city of Las Vegas has established a Family Reunification Center to help connect relatives with the more than 500 people who were injured.

In addition, city officials urged those locally who wish to donate blood to visit one of two donation centers operated by United Blood Services, either at 6930 W. Charleston in Las Vegas or at 601 Whitney Ranch Drive in Henderson, Nevada.

A victims’ fund has been started on GoFundMe by Steve Sisolak the Clark County, Nevada, commission chair. Other groups providing relief include the local chapter of the American Red Cross and the National Compassion Fund.

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