"A lot of people were frozen in time...like, it wasn't registering to a lot of folks," says witness Brian Claypool
Bryan Claypool knew something was amiss when he looked to the night sky above the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas Sunday evening and saw no exploding bursts of color.
“There were these little pops right behind me, so we thought it was fireworks,” Claypool tells PEOPLE. “I looked up in the air and I didn’t see anything and thought, ‘This is not good.'”
It wasn’t until he saw country star Jason Aldean leave his microphone, drop his guitar, and sprint from the festival’s stage that Claypool realized a gunman was spraying the crowd and his life was on the line.
“I was trying to run out of the VIP section and I just laid flat on the aluminum part of the stairwell and I was pulling people down,” Claypool explains. “A lot of people were frozen in time…like, it wasn’t registering to a lot of folks. They must have been in so much shock. I ran by four people in the front row and they were still sitting there. I was running out and they were still sitting there.”
According to police, Stephen Paddock, 64, was holed-up in a 32nd-floor room in the Mandalay Bay Hotel on Sunday night when he opened fire on the crowd of 22,000 at the Route 91 Harvest festival, about 1,200 feet away.
Investigators have said he was found dead in his room of a suspected suicide, with more than 10 rifles.
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At least 59 people were killed in the shooting, and 527 were wounded, officials have said.
Claypool tells PEOPLE he attended the weekend festival and was staying at the Mandalay Bay just a few floors below the shooter.
“When I heard the bullets, it felt like they were right on us — like, you could feel the power of the bullets,” he says. “I didn’t get hit but you could feel it in the air, you know? It felt so close. It felt so close, where I was sitting, to the bullets. Every shot that goes by, I’m waiting to get hit in the side of the head.”
The pandemonium was intensifying.
“Everybody’s screaming, running for their lives,” Claypool says. “I see flip flops, tennis shoes, T-shirts strewn all over the floor. People were just dropping stuff left and right.”
Claypool says he started running from the sounds of the shots but was ushered into a production room behind the stage by a “brave” man.
“He was worried that if we ran north to get out of the venue, we would be wide-open targets,” he says. “When I got in there, I saw five or six ladies — probably 20 or 21. They were all on their knees crawled in together, hiding in the corner crying. I just tried to calm them down and prayed.”
“Everybody, everybody was waiting for a bullet to hit them,” he continues. “It was like a war zone. I saw two people shot — one of them in the abdomen area and one above the left shoulder. They were hobbling to get out of the venue. They were able to still walk but they did not look good. And then I found out after the fact a girl was killed right in front of us, a teacher from California. That’s a young girl, in her early 20s. My body has been in shock mode.”
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He says he’s glad he got away safely, and that Sunday’s massacre won’t prevent him from returning to Las Vegas.
“It just felt like we were never going to get out of there,” he says. “It was endless; it was like being tormented. It was a mind game. It was torture. It was absolute torment. There was no winning. There’s no winning in that game.”
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.
• Reporting by HARRIET SOKMENSUER