After the first round of gunshots rattled above the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas, Taylor Gempler fled for her life.
Gempler, 19, a Summerville High School graduate and a student at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, was just 10 feet to the right of country music performer Jason Aldean when she thought she saw confetti in the sky.
Shots rang through the music, and Aldean fled from the stage. The confusion mounted, and many of the attendees stood frozen.
There was no time to think, Gempler said. She grabbed her UNLV schoolmate Gianna Abeita, 18, and bolted for the exit.
“I just wanted to make it out. I honestly didn't know what to do. I just knew I needed to run and try to stay alive and get to the closest safe area possible,” she said. “I had a lot of adrenaline in me when I was running, but I was super scared because I wasn't sure if the shots were going to come for me or my friend.”
Sprinting toward the exit, Gempler saw other guests barrelling into one another. Behind her, she heard frantic wails of pain and cries howling through the chaos.
“The noise was very loud. The gunshots kept going and going and did not stop,” she said.
Of the more than 20,000 in attendance at the Oct. 1 festival, at least 58 people were killed and about 500 wounded by a shooter perched on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Hotel.
Gempler was was able to reach safety without injuries. She didn’t break her pace until she reached the Hooters Casino Hotel, over a mile away off the Las Vegas Strip on East Tropicana Avenue.
Gempler credited her safe flight to watching Luke Combs, who performed the night before at the Unruly Brew and Cue Festival in Sonora, on another stage just before Aldean’s performance began. If she hadn’t, she said, she might have been one of the concert goers at the front of the stage, and directly in the line of fire.
Gempler was still running when she called her mother, Sherri Gempler, 46, at exactly 10:12 p.m., Sherri Gempler recalled.
“I answered it and I heard her screaming, ‘Mom there was a shooter! There was a shooter!’ ” she said, through the sounds of yelling and auditory bedlam. Her husband grabbed the phone and instructed Taylor to call them back when she was in a safe place, but Sherri Gempler was already “hysterical” and wanting “to jump in the car and go get her.”
“I couldn't talk anymore. I was just devastated. It's hard being a mom and not being able to help your daughter. I felt very helpless,” she said.
Taylor Gempler exchanged phone calls with her mom at regular intervals as hundreds of other shaken and disoriented festival-goers congregated in the lobby of the Hooters Casino Hotel.
Rumors rebounded. No one seemed to know where the shots had been coming from, or if there were shooters still out there, hunting them down.
“She was still very hysterical, I could hear it in her voice,” Sherri Gempler said. It wasn’t until Taylor took a clandestine maid’s elevator up to a room where other festival-goers had huddled for safety that she told her mom that she wanted to come home, and right away.
Sherri Gempler was still inconsolable throughout the night, watching the news reports that were broadcast live about an hour after receiving her daughter’s first phone call.
“I couldn't sleep the whole day. I didn't sleep until the next morning until she came home. I was probably up for 36 hours,” she said.
She needed to see her daughter with her own eyes, she said. And the moment she did, she burst into tears.
“I was trying to hold it together but as soon as I saw her, yeah,” she said, her voice trailing off.
They rushed from the news cameras and mobs of concerned families at the Stockton Metropolitan Airport and held close to one another, crying.
The fear could now make way for healing. They were headed home for Tuolumne County.
“It was very scary to think that I could have been one of the ones killed in the incident. It was very uplifting to be safe and back at home. I’m glad to be alive with them,” Taylor said.
The next full week Taylor spent at home was centered on her emotional rehabilitation.
“She needed to come home. She needed to be with her family,” Sherri Gempler said. “I didn't want to push because of the stuff she was telling me on the phone before. She didn't seem to remember it all. I was thinking she forgot it for a reason, some of the details.”
“I was very scared. I didn't want to be in Vegas the day after it happened. I just didn't feel safe anywhere, so I thought it would be best to come home and relieve stress, hang out with family and talk to them,” Taylor said.
In the hours and days following the shooting, Taylor was supported by many friends.
“A lot of people were texting her and making sure she was OK,” Sherri Gempler said, even her former grade school and Summerville High School teachers.
Taylor was born in Stockton, attended the Connections Academy and then Summerville High School. Before her graduation in 2016, she had been involved with the Associated Student Body and often participated in events and community service projects throughout the county.
Taylor received college credits through Columbia College in her junior and senior years of high school, and moved to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, to study communications and minor in pilates.
“I thought it would be good to get out of town for a little bit and experience something else.”
She is a sophomore, she said, but now, following the shooting, she plans to transfer to a new college next fall.
“I was thinking about moving, but as soon as this happened I kind of felt that was my cue to get out of Vegas and go somewhere else for college,” Taylor said.
Taylor boarded onto her return flight to Las Vegas Monday afternoon, but is still processing her narrow escape, her mother said.
“People that know Taylor. She is just a nice sweet girl. I don't want this to change who she is,” Sherri Gempler said. “It's not fair to any other people to have to change their life because of someone else's senseless act.”
Taylor has been reconsidering her participation in the Miss Nevada pageant in January, her mother said. She’s not sure she is ready to face large crowds yet.
Though her trauma is still fresh, she added, she believes that Taylor will have the wherewithal and emotional fortitude to overcome what she experienced.
“It really makes you realize what's important in life,” she said. “It was a tragedy, but she's safe, and I need to keep reminding myself of that. She needs to realize it, too, and make the best of her life.”