UNLV students build makeshift barricades as gunman opens fire

University of Nevada, Las Vegas, students observe police activity after a shooting reported on campus, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Lucas Peltier)
University of Nevada, Las Vegas, students observe police activity after a shooting was reported on campus Wednesday. (Lucas Peltier / Associated Press)

When the unthinkable happened, UNLV students were grabbing free food for "study week," at cheerleading practice and hurrying to class with their focus on final exams.

“It’s one of those things," said law student Carlos Eduardo Espina, "that you want to think, it’s not gonna happen.” Then it does.

Three people were killed, one person was critically injured, and the gunman was dead after a mass shooting Wednesday at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Cesar Marquez, 33, was in the student union, helping to train student political organizers when the notification came in.

Read more: 3 killed, 1 injured in UNLV mass shooting; shooter was an academic in his 60s, sources say

"We locked the front doors, turned off the lights," he said, "and then everybody just kinda barricaded behind some tables.

"Everybody stayed quiet, stayed down," he said. "I got my phone and went on Twitter."

Half an hour in, he said, the students and instructors "got the update that the shooter was in the student union."

"At some point after that, we heard somebody trying to open the door," he said, and those in the room were not sure if it was the police or the shooter. "Everybody on that side of the room rushed to the other side."

Several people in the room stood "ready to rush someone" if the door opened, Marquez said. Outside, they heard instructions and screaming from an officer, then a SWAT team "came and in asked us to raise our hands." Some students told Marquez that, amid the chaos of evacuation, they saw a body that "appeared to have been shot in the head" — the bloodied body of a larger, older man.

Not long before, Brandon Sanchez, 20, had just gotten out of class and headed over to Frank and Estella Beam Hall for free food, a perk for students cramming for their final exams. The fall semester at the university ends Dec. 16. There were dozens of other people in the plaza. Nearby, he heard about six loud bangs.

“We assumed it was construction," the broadcast journalism major said, "because there’s always construction going on."

But the bangs continued, and a police car pulled up — and students began to run.

Sanchez raced across the street to a store, with other students also crowding inside, calling their friends and family. Rapidly, more police flooded onto the campus, he said. It felt as though, within seconds of the last gunshot, there were multiple police cars at the scene, he said.

Las Vegas Metro Police respond to a shooting reported on the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, campus,
Las Vegas Metro Police respond to Wednesday's shooting at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, campus. (Lucas Peltier / Associated Press)

The junior said that his classes had been canceled but that some instructors had notified students about plans to resume studies and exams once campus was deemed safe.

But Sanchez said he didn't feel safe. “I’m not going back at least until more security measures are being taken,” he said.

Jason Whipple Kelly, a second-year law student, was heading to class to take a final exam when the text alert popped up on his phone. It was 11:51 a.m.

“University Police responding to report of shots fire in BEH evacuate to safe area, RUN-HIDE-FIGHT,” the text read. BEH is an abbreviation for Beam Hall.

As soon as he read the text, sirens began blaring and he saw police running on campus.

“I was walking to the law school, got the text and turned around and ran back to the car,” the 27-year-old said.

The William S. Boyd School of Law building is not far from Beam Hall, where shots were believed to have been fired, and the student union, where gunfire was also reported. He praised the response from the university’s administration, saying it sent out updates and instructions every couple of minutes.: “They [are] doing everything they can."

Jordyn Johnson was at practice with fellow UNLV cheerleaders when a teammate looked at her Apple watch and saw a notification of an active shooter on campus.

Her coach ran to lock the door to the gym. Then, together, the team moved eight or nine gym mats to erect a makeshift wall. The 21-year-old and her teammates spent the next two hours in the dark, waiting for police to arrive.

Johnson texted to send her love to her family in a group chat.

Meanwhile, her mother was reliving a nightmare. Phyllice Johnson-Cooper said her son was in elementary school near Columbine High School in 1999, when 13 were killed in a shooting massacre.

Upon being reunited with her daughter, she sobbed.

“You are not OK," she said, "until you can get your hands on your child."

Las Vegas native Olivia Stabile, 22, was at home when she received the text from UNLV about the shooting. Her younger sister, Bella, 20, is also a UNLV student and was on campus.

Stabile texted Bella to hide and asked where she was.

Read more: 'We all almost died': Survivors of Las Vegas sniper find support in each other

“She said, ‘I’m in the student union at the second floor. And I’m with a bunch of people. We’re hiding right now,’” Stabile said. “I said, ‘OK, stay there. You’re gonna be OK.’ And she’s like, 'I love you. I’m so sorry. If anything happens to me, I love you so much.'”

Seconds after the exchange, UNLV sent another text warning students of shots reportedly fired at the student union.

“I immediately start screaming, ’No, please. No,’” Stabile recounted through tears. “I’m texting my sister. I’m like, ‘Bella, Bella, are you OK?’ She’s not responding.”

Stabile’s mother eventually got in contact with Bella, who is now safe at home and “very in shock and numb.”

“This is Route 91 all over again,” Stabile said, referencing the 2017 Las Vegas shooting at a music festival in which 59 died. “Why Vegas again, out of all places, and then in one of the most defenseless places and two weeks before the semester is supposed to end?”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.