I Survived The Las Vegas Shooting. One Year Later, Here’s What I’ve Learned.

“What is that? Do you think some idiot has fireworks?” That’s the last thing I said to my husband before ripping him to the ground after watching a nearby concertgoer get shot in the face at last year’s Route 91 Harvest Festival.

Gun violence. You never think it’s going to happen to you. It’s just one of those sad things you see on television. Until it’s not.

I’ve thought a lot about this day – what I would feel and how I would commemorate it. This is where I’m at. As you read this, I’ll be getting a tattoo that I feel personally reflects the gift of life I was given that night. Because that’s something to celebrate.

As you read this, realize of the 22,000 people there that night, only 21,942 and their families share my version of survival.

Ashley at the concert before the shooting.Ashley Hoff

My husband and I were in the fourth row that night. We’d gone to the festival multiple times before. In fact, it’s how we always celebrated our anniversary. I like to be up close at shows and this was no exception. I love me some Jason Aldean. I certainly would have chosen my location differently if I knew what would happen during the first lines of one of my favorite songs.

It took four rounds of shooting before we got up to run. We lay on the ground in a human quilt that happened very quickly after folks realized what was going on. A woman was laying on my head, my legs were over my husband, his legs over another in an attempt to cover vital body parts. I called out to God, but could only seem to remember the first few lines to prayers I’d been praying since I was a toddler.

After realizing the shooting was coming from above and feeling like fish in a barrel, my husband suggested we run. I was initially hesitant until he reminded me there were only two possible outcomes in the situation. Live or die.

I would proceed to fall three times during that run. The first over a body — a moment among many I’ll never forget. We got up with all of our momenta, my husband’s hand tightly clasping mine.

During each round, thoughts swirled through my mind. I thought about what I would miss. I thought about how this would break my family, which broke me. I thought about all the dreams I had that would never become a reality. And I realized that I was not equipped to handle watching someone I love being shot to death. I wasn’t ready for our story to be over. I’m forever grateful to him for his tenacity that night and for always making that run about us both. It was selfless at a time when it would be easy to be selfish. It was brave. It was strong. And it was a true partnership.

Ashley and her husbandAshley Hoff

We made it through round five and got up to go again. I fell twice more on the hard pavement. As it turns out, cowboy boots aren’t running shoes and were no match for the slippery ground full of 20,000 spilled drinks. During one of those falls I broke my arm – something I wouldn’t realize until hours later. It’s truly incredible how our bodies perform in a crisis.

After eventually hitting the other end of the strip – we realized most people had no idea of the chaos that was happening only a few miles away. A group of girls drove by, honked, and screamed out the window, “WOOO, VEGAS!!!!!” as we ran through traffic. I realize now that they couldn’t see my bloody legs in the dark – just a girl in bare feet stumbling everywhere. Not an un-typical site on Las Vegas Boulevard.

Your head and heart will play tricks on you that you never knew possible. But no matter how dark it gets – remember the light.

We passed by the Planet Hollywood complex where a man saw us and asked if we needed medical attention. The sound of safety in his voice mixed with our desperation to be out of the madness led us to accept his invitation to go into the lobby area. I had dropped my phone when we hit the ground and begged my husband to try and reach my family. I knew if they woke up and called what I was sure was a broken device, it would send them down the dark path of assumption. As he spoke with my dad, I comforted and assisted two girls who had lost a friend during their escape.

As I sat in a state somewhere between shock and prayer – I felt a tug on my arm. I was startled and looked down to see a young girl. Concerned that she was alone, I asked where her parents were, and she pointed to check in. I told her it was dangerous and that she needed to go back to them immediately. What happened next shook me to my core. The young girl stared into my eyes, her gaze ripping through my soul and breaking me momentarily free of distress. I will never forget her words as she pointed at the television. As I read the headlines of the news story I was currently a part of, she said, “I just wanted to tell you I am so sorry someone did something so bad to you. I’m going to pray for you.” It was simple. And brave. And beautiful

The little girl ran back to her parents and as she met them, someone screamed into the lobby, “SHOOTER, SHOOTER!” The rumors were running rampant. Multiple shooters. Multiple hotels. Terrorist attack. A bomb outside of the Excalibur. We took the screams for truth and began to run again.

As we moved towards the exit, we saw a couple go upstairs into the parking garage which meant only one thing…they had a car. We followed them, and we pounded on their windows and begged them to take us with them. By the grace of God, these two strangers allowed us into their vehicle and we drove away from the strip. As we tried to figure out our next move, we discovered that their home was only an hour from our home in Los Angeles. We made the decision to continue driving and get away from what we thought would be the leveling of Las Vegas.

I can never tell you how grateful I am to Ben and Jackie, a couple checking into their hotel only to be met by two dirty, bloody strangers begging for a ride. Or to Laura at the Hyatt in Ontario, CA, for her kindness while we waited for our Uber. Or to the sisters who returned my phone the next day and had helped shield us and others that night. Or the Cedar Sinai staff who helped with my arm and were so gentle with my pain – both physically and emotionally. Or my work family for immediately donating $10,000 to the victim’s fund. Or my family, friends, church, colleagues, and strangers who reached out and were there with us as we dealt with the aftermath. Or the Excalibur hotel staff who made sure all of our left belongings were shipped back to us. Or Debbie, the amazing FBI agent that returned my lost boots (the boots that caused me to fall and break my arm BUT were absolutely a part of my lifesaving timing) to me just a month ago. There aren’t words that accurately depict what I want to say to all of you – so I’ll simply say that I hope that your kindness is returned to you tenfold.

It has been one year to the day that I spent an evening running for my life. A year that has taken me on so many emotional rollercoasters. I wanted to write this note to the world because gun violence touched my life not once, but twice this year – the second being in the school district where my sister teaches. You saw it reported as a 12-year-old who brought a loaded gun to school. I’d like to personally report it as a hero teacher who had the gun trigger pulled (thank goodness the safety was on) in her face, swiftly removed the gun from a child’s hand, and in return saved a room full of students. I’m so glad everyone’s safe but I’m so angry this happened. I’m tired of these headlines. I watch the news and shiver. I read the stats and I feel bile in the back of my throat. I’m terrified for future generations and what this trajectory says they will have to face.

There’s no guide on how to deal with the residual effects of being involved in an event like this. Your head and heart will play tricks on you that you never knew possible. But no matter how dark it gets – remember the light. We have a bad habit of focusing on the negative sides of humanity, but let me tell you, there was so much good that night. Everyday humans became heroes. People made choices that risked their lives for others. Hearts opened and continued to open for those who became victims of this tragedy. It was beautiful.

I believe I was the recipient of a miracle that night and I plan to use every moment I have moving forward to pay back that gift. I have a long road before I fully forgive the man who shot more than 1,100 rounds of ammunition into an audience of happy concertgoers and forever shifted my existence, but I have found a way to be grateful for what it has taught me. We all throw around phrases like “YOLO” and “live each day as if it’s your last,” but you don’t truly know what that means until you are in a moment that might be. Each day truly is a gift, not a given. Be kind. Do good. And don’t settle for an average life. Strive for a great one.

I get asked often, “How do we make these acts stop? What can we do?” The truth is that a lot needs to change — gun laws, background checks, mental health awareness. But as we continue to push for change, the one thing we can adjust immediately is the way we treat others.

If you feel an ounce of what I feel – like you are just itching for the universe to shift and the violence to cease – I encourage you to do the following. Talk to the person sitting alone. Hug a crying child. Say hello to a stranger. Call a friend having a hard time. Take a moment to do something for someone else. Love each other better. Kindness can cause a ripple effect. And small gestures can create very big change. I’m living proof.

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