N.J. and Philly police react to Las Vegas massacre

Police officers and medical personnel stand at the scene of a shooting near the Mandalay Bay resort and casino on the Las Vegas Strip

Police officers and medical personnel stand at the scene of a shooting near the Mandalay Bay resort and casino on the Las Vegas Strip, Monday, Oct. 2, 2017, in Las Vegas. Multiple victims were being transported to hospitals after a shooting late Sunday at a music festival on the Las Vegas Strip. (AP Photo/John Locher)

The president of New Jersey’s largest police union was at the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino as the shooting occurred Sunday night.

Pat Colligan, who was in Las Vegas for a law enforcement seminar, said he was returning to his room on the 29th floor after dinner when police burst through the hotel casino.

“There was a lot of alarm as the police officers were running through. Then — I saw a SWAT team, and I saw the look on their faces and the fact that they were moving through,” he said. “Then people started to, I wouldn’t call it panic, more controlled chaos, everybody was trying to get out. They were shutting down all the tables and just pointing for the employees to flee.”

He said hotel guests tried to get on the elevators, but they were shut down.

“They weren’t letting anybody up. Then the police officers started screaming about the 32nd floor, the 32nd floor,” he said.

The gunman, later identified as Stephen Craig Paddock, 64, was shooting at the crowd at a concert from the window of a room on that floor.

Colligan said it would have been nearly impossible to prevent the shooting

“Within view of that concert venue, there’s probably 2,000 hotel rooms. A high-powered rifle, you have at least a mile distance that you can shoot somebody,” he said. “And the real difficulty is this guy breaks a window on the 32nd floor, you can’t take a handgun from the ground and shoot back.”

He credited Las Vegas police for their rapid response in finding the gunman and ending the deadly assault that authorities said is the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history. At least 58 people were killed and more than 500 injured.

Colligan, who said he’s usually part of the emergency response, said it was strange to be a bystander and not know what was going on as emergency personnel responded.

“It put me in a different zone because I’m used to either knowing what’s going on and trying to help or at least having an assignment,” he said. “And I was your average citizen with a front row seat to a worldwide tragedy, unfortunately.”

A Philadelphia attorney was another average citizen, vacationing in Las Vegas, when he found himself running for his life Sunday night.

Bill Ciancaglini had just watched the Eagles beat the Chargers on TV when he headed outside to enjoy the weather and visit some casinos. As he strolled the Strip just three blocks from Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, he saw people sprinting toward him, shouting at him to run the other way.

Bill Ciancaglini of South Philadelphia
Bill Ciancaglini of South Philadelphia, was in Las Vegas, but not at the concert where 58 people killed and hundreds injured. (Photo used with permission)

“I’ve never had a day go from so good to so bad that quickly,” said Ciancaglini of South Philadelphia. “We had great weather, we ate great food, we watched the Eagles win the game. Dallas and the Giants lost. And then — terrible, terrible — I’m literally running for my life. Other than dying, I don’t ever know if I’ll have that much of a 180-degree turn in one day.”

He first thought the pop-pop-pop-pop sound of automatic gunfire was fireworks. But as more and more concert-goers ran toward him, their terror ignited his panic.

In the chaos, motorists trying to flee the violence clipped some fleeing pedestrians, while some concert-goers tried to jump into passing cars, he said.

People were doing “just anything to get out,” Ciancaglini said. “It was a mess.”

Ciancaglini ducked into the MGM Grand Las Vegas, just to get indoors, but stayed just a few minutes before heading back to the Monte Carlo Resort and Casino, where he was staying.

The tragedy drove local law enforcement agencies to reflect on their own strategies for preventing and responding to mass casualty events.

Deputy Commissioner for Special Operations Dennis Wilson reacts to the mass shooting in Las Vegas during a press conference at Philadelphia police headquarters. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“We’re continually looking at every terror event, every active shooter. Every law enforcement agency does that. We look at our policies for prevention and response and try to get better,” Philadelphia police Deputy Commissioner Dennis Wilson said.

Philly has plenty of large events that draw crowds.

But Wilson says the police aviation unit checks rooftops, and officers — both undercover and in uniform — are on the ground. Police also monitor social media for threats and hold active-shooter drills in businesses and schools.

Charles Ramsey, Philly’s former police commissioner, said the Las Vegas shooting could change hotel security like 9/11 changed airport security.

Ramsey isn’t in Vegas — he learned about the mass shooting when he woke up in his Philadelphia home. But the former chair of President Obama’s police task force has a keen sense of urban security strategies. He says the situation in Las Vegas, with a shooter on the 32nd floor of a high-rise hotel above the street concert, was nearly impossible to anticipate.

“Security was fine at the venue. (The problem) was the hotel. What does that say about hotel security? Do you really want to be in a situation where you have to walk through metal detectors or have your bag screened at a hotel? I don’t know the answer. But it has to be discussed,” Ramsey said.

The tragedy could have happened on Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway, or anywhere in America, but in Las Vegas the situation was more complicated because the city draws large crowds of people to countless events happening simultaneously.

While this mass shooting may change hotel security, “our elected officials don’t have the courage” to change gun laws, Ramsey said.

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