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‘What could have happened to me?’ Survivors recall terror of UNLV shooting

After three faculty members were killed, UNLV grapples with how to finish the semester and whether students will ever feel normal about the campus again.
Jacob Solis
Jacob Solis
Naoka Foreman
Naoka Foreman
Jannelle Calderon
Jannelle Calderon
CommunityHigher Education
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UNLV student Hunter Cain guarded the door of room 208, inside UNLV’s student union, after emergency alerts from university police lit up thousands of students’ phones across campus, telling them shots were fired and to “RUN-HIDE-FIGHT.”  

Eight minutes later, a second message reported an active shooter. At 12:20 p.m., another message reported shots fired in the student union.

Cain, 42, a combat veteran, said that by the time the third alert came through, about 60 students who had been attending a political organizing training leaned against one side of the room while he and another person prepared for the worst.

“We literally got on one side of the door each, in kind of an unspoken — ‘we’re the ones,’” he said. “We just kind of knew if something was going to happen, we would be there the best that we could.” 

Cain and others interviewed by The Nevada Independent on Thursday said that the shooting was an all-too-familiar tragedy, but one that stirred their pride in a rapid and expansive community response. 

That response has in large part been shaped by the 1 October shooting, the country’s deadliest  mass shooting in modern history and one that UNLV officials, university police and the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department have pointed to as a key lesson for Wednesday’s shooting. 

Though the shooter was killed by university police within minutes of the first reported shots, the process of clearing UNLV’s 332-acre campus building-by-building, room-by-room, took hours. In many cases, students and faculty were escorted out by SWAT teams, their hands up. 

Laura Perkins, a higher education regent, said she was on her way to the political training session as an invited speaker when she received a message from UNLV police advising people to leave campus if they could. 

She said she came eager to speak with “freshmen minds.” She left the day in confusion and a swirl of SWAT members in full gear. 

“I was crying in my sleep last night,” she said. “So I didn't think it affected me. But actually, obviously it did. Way more than I thought.”

Cain, a political science major, said the fact that his 22-year-old son was on campus and traumatized by the experience made the situation different from combat in the military. 

“I was … asking my 22-year old son if he was able to help us put stuff in the car and collect stuff [that students left behind],” he said. “He said, ‘Dad, absolutely not.’ He says, ‘As an atheist, last night was the first time I've prayed to God in a very long time.’”

Many students are now wondering what next week might look like. Finals were scheduled to begin, and UNLV President Keith Whitfield wrote in a public letter Thursday that any determination on scheduling would likely not be made until Friday. 

In the meantime, the campus will remain closed and classes suspended through at least Sunday. 

All the while, Nicole Thomas, a Ph.D. student and the president of UNLV’s Graduate and Professional Student Association (GPSA), told The Nevada Independent that she’s seen a petition and “multiple” emails from students pushing for optional, online or altogether canceled finals in the wake of the shooting. 

“I think that not a lot of people are in a headspace to be able to process something like that, and then concentrate on something that will eventually determine their grades for the year,” Thomas said. 

It’s an experience that’s personal to her, too. Thomas had just arrived to class when the first shots were reported, though she was several buildings away from Beam Hall, where three faculty members were killed and a fourth was seriously wounded. 

As she sheltered in place for roughly three hour, she said the worst part was the mix of verified and unverified information bubbling up among students — “people were like, ‘I picked this up from a police scanner.’” 

She said the unverified reports were “messing up a lot of students mentally.” 

“We’re evacuating, but there was a second or a third shooter, what are we doing?” Thomas said. “Then they sent us an alert when the shooter had been contained … but still, there’s that little ping of anxiety in the back of my head. ‘OK, what if these students are correct?’”

Evacuated students and faculty stand in a cordoned off parking lot near the UNLV campus after reports of an active shooter on Wednesday, December 6, 2023. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

Hans Rawhouser, an associate professor of business whose office is inside Beam Hall, where the shooting took place, told The Nevada Independent on Wednesday that, after evacuated the building, he was close enough to see the police who engaged in the final shootout with the suspect. 

In a follow-up interview on Thursday, Rawhouser said only afterward did he realize how close he was. 

“It’s kind of an odd thing,” he said. “I guess we’re all focused on ‘what could have happened to me?’”

And as authorities confirmed that all of the shooting victims were faculty members, UNLV Faculty Senate Chair Bill Robinson said that “everybody’s heartbroken.” 

“We lost colleagues,” Robinson said. “The idea of faculty trying to take care of their students in the classroom when there’s an active shooter outside … Every email I get, people are just not believing what’s going on, just heartbroken over what’s going on.” 

But now comes the “after” — though few students or faculty know exactly when or what that will be. 

In the short term, Robinson suggested that there ought to be no on campus finals, that “nobody should be on campus next week.” 

“The human being part of this is 100 percent the part we need to be worrying about and not the school part,” Robinson said. 

For those who were nearest, there are concerns that trauma could linger. Though his office within the Beam building is relatively distant from where the shooting took place, Rawhouser said that for the faculty going back to the third and fourth floors, where victims were killed — “it’s gonna be hard” with “little reminders of what happened there.”  

“Those reminders may or may not … become triggers,” Rawhouser said. 

Thomas said that, now, she’s still a “little afraid” to look at the quad. 

“Normal, to me, means ‘are you comfortable being in this building, where you saw your colleagues running, where you heard gunshots?’” Thomas said. “I think we’re an incredibly traumatized community already, and this does not make it better. I’m hoping that a return to normalcy means that people feel safe.” 

Andres Carrasco, a marketing student who was on the fourth floor of Beam Hall at the time of the shooting, said he hasn’t yet fully processed what happened. After spending Wednesday afternoon hiding in an office occupied by the UNLV student chapter of the American Marketing Association, of which he’s a part, he is considering taking next semester online or simply staying away from the floor and office. 

“Realistically, this could take place anywhere if you're in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he told The Nevada Independent. “I know I do have to return to campus and finish off my degree. 

I’ll probably be in the library, using a space surrounded by many other people.” 

He has been an involved student up until this point. But he said he’ll probably step back from being on campus as much, and focus his last semester on building his career.

Elisa Martinez, 18, and a couple of her friends started running away from the communal space in front of the student union after seeing students rush out of Beam Hall. 

Martinez is in her first semester of college and said she doesn't feel safe returning to campus. She wants the university campus to be closed to those who are not students or faculty despite UNLV President Keith Whitfield stating he leans against that approach. 

“My trauma and … the pain that has been inflicted onto our UNLV community just feels like another statistic,” Martinez said. “[Whitfield said he] would not be making the decision to make the campus a closed campus, which hurts me and enrages me, because was yesterday's tragedy not enough?”

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