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Courage under fire: Hawaii Marine’s reaction during Las Vegas shooting

By Lance Cpl. Luke Kuennen, Marine Corps Base Hawaii

Following the Las Vegas concert shooting Oct. 1, 2017 that left 58 dead and 546 injured, stories of quick-minded courage and heroism continue to surface. Capt. Derek Apitz, a pilot with Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 367, spoke about his own experience and how he handled the tragic event during an interview Oct. 18, 2017, at Marine Corps Base Hawaii.

MARINE CORPS BASE HAWAII, HI. --
“I went to Las Vegas with my girlfriend for the Route 91 country music festival,” Apitz said. “Jason Aldean was playing, and we heard two pops. Someone next to us made a joke, but in my head I thought ‘that actually sounded like gunfire.’”


Several bursts of gunfire followed, one of them striking Apitz’s girlfriend, while the couple was trying to escape.


“She was hit right above the knee,” Apitz said. “It went through the upper portion of her thigh, so she was still able to move.”


In the ensuing panic, most of the crowd rushed to the main entrance.


“I grabbed my girlfriend, and I told her we’re going right.” said Apitz. “She asked me why, and I told her ‘because everyone else is going left.’ My thought process was to get away from the crowd at that point.”


Apitz and his girlfriend came to a small, secondary exit and were able to leave the venue. Along the way, they encountered a woman who had been separated from her group of friends.


“At the first fence we cleared, we ran into a girl who was hysterical,” Apitz said. “She was screaming that she had lost her friends, so we grabbed her and brought her with us.”


Apitz and the two women climbed another fence in an attempt to escape the shooting, but ran into a locked warehouse property that stopped their progress.
“At that point, we had crossed two pretty significant fences and covered a lot of ground,” Apitz said. “So I was thinking we would probably be okay to go back the way we came. At that time, bullets cracked over the top of my head.”


Unable to breach the locked door and under fire, Apitz broke the glass panel with his shoulder, sustaining a deep cut on his forearm that would require stitches. They entered the building, and barricaded themselves in an interior room.


“I put the girls in the corner of the room, and I pushed the table up against the door,” Apitz said.
“The girl we found at the fence was starting to calm down, which was very helpful because she was talking to my girlfriend and helping her calm down as well.”


The woman they met at the fence also happened to be a nurse, and she used her shirt as a makeshift bandage for Apitz’s bleeding arm. Apitz waited in the room with the women for ten minutes, then went into the street to see if he could gather more information.


“First responders were already coming on scene,” Apitz said. “The city buses started running back and forth from the hospital for the less critically wounded victims like my girlfriend, so we loaded up on a city transit bus with 20 or 30 other people.”


Apitz described the surreal experience of riding to the hospital with the other victims and viewing their reactions to the traumatic event.


“It was kind of a weird dynamic,” Apitz said. “Everyone handles stress a little differently. Some people were kind of freaking out, some people were laughing and joking and some were just sitting quietly. It was pretty chaotic.”


Apitz’s composure and quick thinking was owed to his overwhelming goal of getting his girlfriend to safety, he said.
“My whole focus was to get my girlfriend out of there,” Apitz said. “That was my whole mission at that point. I would describe it as hyper-focused – I was very calm. I knew exactly where I wanted to go, and I kept an open dialogue with her to keep her engaged. I was actually very surprised with how focused I was.”


Apitz humbly cited luck as the main reason for them escaping the situation, but his bearing, courage under fire, and decisiveness, strengthened by his role as a pilot and Marine Corps officer, carried a much more significant impact.


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