When the loud popping noises began, Karina Gerger thought it may just be a blown speaker or fireworks in the distance.
But, as the lights on the stage went black and the music stopped, it became apparent to the elementary school principal that those sounds cutting through the darkness weren’t benign.
“I realized what it was...the bullets were going and I said get down and we all laid on the ground,” Gerger said.
“Then I just thought there’s going to be a pause and we have to run. So, as soon as the sound stopped, I screamed ‘run!’”
Country to chaos
Gerger, the principal at Pennekamp Elementary, and Kim Linz, former Manhattan Beach Middle School principal, had been enjoying the final set of the weekend with a group of some 10 Manhattan Beach natives at the Route 91 music festival in Las Vegas, Nev., on Oct. 1, 2017.
But, as country music star Jason Aldean began his second song, the night descended into terror.
In what has since been designated the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, a single gunman opened fire from a high-rise suite at the Mandalay Bay Hotel on a crowd of 22,000 concert-goers, killing 58 people and wounding hundreds more.
Gerger and Linz remember running for their lives hand-in-hand with their group, most of whom were staff from the Manhattan Beach Unified School District.
“It was hard to know where (the shooting) was coming from,” recalls Linz. “It felt like it was coming from multiple directions, so we didn’t know that we were running in the right direction...we were lucky…”
As the group fled, each of the women became separated at some point.
“As it turns out, I was alone for maybe five minutes, but it felt like an eternity,” said Linz, who called her husband. “I was worried that I was going to get shot and that I’d be alone.”
Gerger called her mother and sister.
"Immediately, you think 'I need to call home and let them know I'm okay,'" Gerger said as she started to tear up.
Their group ultimately reunited and sought refuge at the Hooters Casino.
There, they began to cope in the midst of chaos.
“We got inside and there were people walking around with bullet wounds,” said Linz.
“There were different states that people were in," Gerger added. "Some were just sitting there looking shocked or reflecting. Others were trying to crawl into the ceiling panels to hide even further...there were some people that you couldn’t rationalize with because they were just extremely scared.”
For the school administrators with ample disaster-training, "work mode" kicked in as they began to triage the wounded and pair them with medically-experienced people in the building.
“I don’t know what triggered work, like we just have to make sure everyone is okay,” Gerger explained. “...it definitely came through that night that we could handle a situation. ”
“The best way to say it is, we were working so we couldn’t break down, we couldn’t cry, we couldn’t let emotion come in,” Linz continued. “All my training kicked in...all the emergency drills we do, everything I’ve been told to do for all these years, both as a teacher and a principal just kicked in.”
That also meant accounting for those in their group—all of whom were unharmed—and other associates they knew were in attendance at the festival, including Manhattan Beach Middle School teacher Sandy Casey and her fiance Christopher Willemse, who was instructional assistant at Mira Costa High School at the time.
It was then that Linz received news that Casey, 35, was one of the victims.
Linz, who was principal at MBMS where Casey had worked, thought she should be the one to tell her staff about the tragic loss.
So she hopped on a 5 a.m. flight the next morning back to the South Bay and took a ride sharing service from the airport to the school.
“We had members of our staff that had just gone through a major trauma, including the principal, at a time when the staff was really grieving because we had lost a much loved teacher very suddenly and unexpectedly,” Linz said.
Manhattan Beach also suffered the loss of Rachael Parker, a 33-year-old records technician with the local police department.
"This was an unbelievably horrible event, so senseless and so unnecessary," said then-Police Chief Eve Irvine during a press conference that month. "We are never going to forget her.”
But, in spite of the unspeakable, tragic loss of life, the Manhattan Beach community did not give in to tendencies towards blame or paranoia, as can happen after such an event, according to Linz.
“Communities can respond in a way where you "other" or you can come together and embrace one another,” she said. “I’m really thankful for the community because they really rallied around us and have been very supportive...they had us. They really had us.”
Both she and Gerger also say their reflexes in the dire situation reaffirmed to them that disaster training key in preparing for events such as these, as is strengthening connections among the local community as a whole.
“To an extent, you want everyone to know what to do, to have practiced it, so that the muscle memory kicks in,” Linz said. “Fences and cameras do what they do can do, but I think it’s more about the community that you create that goes a long way.”
It’s been almost two years since the horrific events of Oct. 1, 2017, and the road to healing during that time has certainly not been linear for Linz and Gerger.
“Honestly, the next morning it was a feeling of...I’ll never feel safe again. Like I’m going to feel this way for the rest of my life,” said Linz, who is now the chief business official for the El Segundo Unified School District.
That emotion, Linz added, stirs whenever she hears of another mass shooting incident.
“I have that moment of just anguish...you know that all those people they’re showing on the news, they’re having the same feeling.”
The pair say they have drawn strength from their group of fellow survivors with whom they ran hand-in-hand that night.
“It’s a safe place to talk...because they understand and because they were there too,” said Gerger, who is still principal at Pennekamp. “Being able to do that with a core group of people who were also there is a huge piece of the healing process.”
The group of friends—many of whom are still part of the Manhattan Beach school district and community—even traveled to Las Vegas in Oct. 2018 to walk the site, where trees are now planted for all 58 victims.
“We did go back to Vegas, exactly a year later after the event happened...to get a feel, just to try to wrap your mind around where we were, how far did we run and that’s part of the healing process too—to understand,” Gerger explained. “To go back and retrace the steps we took that night was a huge part of coming to grips with the event itself.”
They have also ventured to another country music festival and a Jason Aldean concert in San Bernardino to "finish what they started," Linz added, noting the group gets together regularly and will do so on Oct. 1 this year.
“It was a mix of emotions that night but it felt important to be there with him...come back and finish that show,” she said, choking up as she talked about the group that has since become like family. “To me, it had a healing effect...it seemed to close a loop.”
But, in spite of making strides in processing the trauma, Linz and Gerger were clear to say its impact remains, noting that night forever changed them as people.
“It never goes away but you’re able to reflect on your life and see things in a different light,” Gerger said. “You have a different perspective on how you approach things and more compassion.”
“I’m able to put it where I need it to be in my mind,” Linz continued. “I still think about it...but I don’t perseverate on it...it finds a place in your mind to reside that you can live with.”