Garry Gates: One of the Lucky Ones
Six months ago today, a gunman opened fire on a music festival in Las Vegas, ending the lives of 58 innocent people, irrevocably changing the lives of thousands of others and forever altering the soul of a city. Garry Gates, Senior Consultant of Player Affairs at PokerStars, was at that concert and made it out alive.
The Sunday started much like the Friday and Saturday had for Garry Gates. Just over a week into the fall, when Las Vegas still produces 90-degree days and 75-degree evenings, Gates and some friends had spent the previous two days at the Route 91 Harvest Festival, a country music festival, on the Strip. They arrived a few minutes before the gates opened on Sunday, excited for the day ahead.
“We had already gone Friday and Saturday and this was the final day, the culminating day. The headliner, Jason Aldean, was scheduled to perform late that night and there was build-up and hype and it’s the final day. We were all excited and looking forward to a nice day.”
The hype and excitement soon gave way to chaos, panic, and tragedy as a gunman killed 58 people, injured 851 more, in what became the single worst mass-shooting in American history.
Something is not normal. Something’s not right.
Gates and his good friend Brian Cunning were close enough to the front of the stage that they could have reached out and high-fived Jason Aldean. It wasn’t just the two of them though, they had put together a cobblestone group of friends and were just getting into Aldean’s set when Cunning wanted to move.
“Brian turned to me and he had this sort of bizarre spidey sense that something was not right in that moment. He said to me, ‘Let’s get out of the crowd for a bit. I have a feeling there might be a stampede or something.’ It was really bizarre,” said Gates.
Nobody around them was moving, but the shots had just started coming. Considering where they were at the time, Garry and Brian just assumed it was part of the show or somebody setting off some firecrackers. Nobody assumed gunfire.
“When you’re at a festival, you think that’s normal. To me, it sounded like fireworks or some kind of pyrotechnic component of the concert. People noticed, but they didn’t react. I don’t want to say if it weren’t for Brian, we could have been in a worse situation, but in hindsight, it was good that he had us move a little bit out of the way,” said Gates.
To the left of the stage, just feet from where Garry and Brian were standing, were some food vendors. They decided to head towards the pizza stand they’d frequented over the last couple of days. As soon as they got there, they turned and noticed that the noise hadn’t stopped. People began realizing this wasn’t part of the show. This was serious.
“In that moment you know, ‘Okay. Something is not normal. Something’s not right.’ The music stopped, and that’s when you started to see people running and ducking and doing everything they could to get out of there,” said Gates.
As the panic of the crowd took over, Garry and Brian became separated. Brian followed the stampede out through a fence that had been kicked down while Garry ducked beside the pizza stand looking for a place to go. That’s when he noticed a corridor between the stage and that pizza stand and instinctively ran toward it.
“I was by myself, keeping my head low, staying alert and I found a big white tent that I later found out was some kind of VIP access tent for performers, their families and guests,” said Gates. “I found a group of maybe six or seven total strangers already huddled down in the back of this tent, hiding behind the table that they had turned on its side. That’s where I sat and remained for the duration of the shooting.”
While the tent provided some cover from whatever was happening outside of it, the panic continued as the people inside the tent began scouring social media and calling friends or family to find out what was happening. Garry tried to call his family but wasn’t able to reach his mom or dad or any of his siblings because the system was overwhelmed by others trying to do the same thing. He finally made a connection with Mike Ziemba, a poker player friend in Las Vegas.
“I was surprisingly calm the whole time. I just asked him, ‘I think something’s going on here. Any chance you can Google or investigate what this could be?’ He had me stay on the line for two or three minutes and sure enough, he found a report that there was an active shooter on top of Mandalay Bay, the 32nd floor. He was digging a little bit more and now he’s finding reports of active shooters in all of the casinos.”
Hearing that bit of information, which later turned out to be false, only caused more panic and left the group paralyzed inside the tent. Some began wondering out loud if gunmen were still walking through the concert grounds, continuing to shoot.
“The sound was like nothing I’d ever heard in my life. You’ve seen war movies and movies with guns but this was just … it was loud, it was frequent, and it almost sounded like being underneath a helicopter, standing directly underneath that constant, repetitive chopper sound,” said Gates.
About 10 minutes after the shooting started, a man walked into the tent and told them it was safe to come out. The gunfire had slowed and then eventually stopped entirely.
“I was reluctant to oblige and everyone else in that little group left and took his word for it except one girl who said, ‘Is it okay if I stay here with you? I don’t want to go out there yet either.’ I said, ‘Sure,’ and we started talking and kept each other company,” said Gates.
After waiting four or five more minutes without gunfire, Gates and the girl exited the tent and were met with a scene that they’ll have a hard time forgetting.
It became very real to me in that moment
“I hate to use this word, but it was carnage,” said Gates. “There were those metal fences that barricade groups of people, people were turning them on their sides and using those as stretchers. I saw people using wheelbarrows, and now I’m seeing wounded people, wounded concertgoers, and it became very real to me in that moment.”
Watching all of this unfold around him, Garry realized he had no idea where Brian was and wanted to reconnect so they could get home. A couple of attempts to connect via phone were unsuccessful so Gates was left with no way home. The girl from the white tent had been luckier and offered to help Gates out.
“She said that she had a group of friends circling back in a car to pick her up and she volunteered to let me go with them,” said Gates. A few minutes later Garry got a call through to Brian.
“He was halfway home. He was already somehow in his car, almost at the airport connector. We live in Henderson, so it’s about a 15-minute total drive. He was about seven minutes away by car at this point,” said Gates.
Brian told him he was circling back and tried to coordinate a rendezvous point and told him to start running towards Tropicana Boulevard. A few minutes into his run, his phone rang and it was his sister, Beth, calling from Pittsburgh, where it was now 1 AM.
“As best I could I said, ‘Look, I’m safe for now, but something serious is happening in Las Vegas. I’m meeting a friend, he’s taking me home, but could please just call mom, call dad, let everyone know I’m okay?’” She agreed and they hung up. A second or two later, Gates’ phone rang again. It was Brian.
“He had contacted his brother-in-law, who was a police officer and was listening to the police scanner. When I let (Brian) know I was in front of the Motel 6, he starts screaming, ‘Get the f*** out of there. My brother-in-law just told me there’s an active shooter there!’ So I’m thinking, ‘Okay, I’ve got to just run’. I had one mission and that was just to get as far as I could and reunite with Brian.”
Gates ran all the way to the private jet terminal at McCarran International Airport where Brian picked him up.
“It wasn’t until I was in that car, driving through the airport tunnel that I finally felt I was out of harm’s way officially, just based on all the reports we were hearing and I’m getting tons of texts and calls from friends and family,” said Gates.
The pair arrived home and took a few minutes to try and decompress before they started getting back to family and friends who had reached out. While the shooting was over and Gates was now safe and sound, miles away from the Strip, the next 12 hours were full of emotions and a different type of chaos.
“I just wanted people to know I was okay more than anything else. We started with that,” said Gates. “We turned on the news, which we later turned off because it was almost like a vicious cycle of hearing the same sounds. People were already sharing footage with the news stations and it was hard to watch, just knowing what was actually happening.”
Brian started to grow concerned after being unable to get ahold of the girl he was dating, who had also been at the concert, but with a different group of friends. It took some time, but they eventually found out she’d fallen while climbing over a fence and had hurt herself. She was taken to an emergency room but was going to be okay.
As the night continued, a couple of friends came over to Brian’s (apartment) to see if there was anything they could do. Garry got in touch with his roommate and asked her to take care of his dog, Wiley, so that he could stay at Brian’s that night. Sleeping wasn’t really possible though.
“We were just very in shock. It was hard to process something like that was happening in my city at a concert that I attended,” said Gates. “The gamut of emotions made it hard to sleep. We talked for a while. We sat as a group and just comforted each other, continued to answer texts and calls and I think I fell asleep at maybe 5 in the morning but woke up two hours later. It was a very long day and a very long night.”
Good Seems to Prevail Over Bad or Evil
Gates isn’t a Las Vegas native. He grew up in Titusville, Pennsylvania, a small town in the northern part of the state. He moved to Las Vegas in 2004 to chase the dream of being a professional poker player. While that didn’t quite work out how he envisioned, Gates eventually found himself working for PokerNews and worked his way up there before taking a job with PokerStars that put him front and center with some of the best players in the world as the VIP Player Liaison. It was a job that meant lots of time on the road, so even after he left Las Vegas for a two-year stint in Florida and then moved back, he never really considered it his hometown.
“Every year I flirt with moving away, maybe going closer to home, just finding a city that has more culture and feels like a community, and I miss having four seasons. Vegas is a little rough weather-wise three months out of the year, but yeah. I’ve had an instant attitude change towards the city and how I consider it home,” said Gates.
The days following the shooting gave Gates a new perspective on Las Vegas though. In the midst of all of the darkness and sadness of what happened, the good of Sin City found a way to shine brightest.
“When you turn on the news at 7 AM after something like that and the local news media is showing lines of people at the blood banks and good samaritans delivering food and water to hospitals for doctors and nurses that were exhausted and families of emergency room patients who were waiting overnight, and just the humane nature of a community coming together in a time of absolute crisis. It was not only moving, but it just made you proud that humans no matter what they’re facing in any moment of crisis like that, good seems to prevail over bad or evil,” said Gates.
Seeing others in his city doing what they could to help combined with having so many people reach out to him inspired Garry and Brian to try and figure out ways that they could help out, even as they tried to comprehend exactly what they’d been through.
“On one hand I didn’t want to let this bring me down and I wanted to avoid being complacent. My first reaction was, ‘How can we help?’” said Gates. “Literally 24 hours after (the shooting), Brian and I both were looking on Facebook and watching the news to find how we could donate our time and resources. And the people in my life were great, both my social life and work life, in reaching out and making sure I had the immediate resources and help that I needed. That was very good, and helped me move through it quicker than I probably would have otherwise.”
The healing process began almost immediately. In the first week, Garry and Brian spent a lot of time together. Having survived the horrors of what was supposed to be an easy, carefree night out gave the two an even deeper connection. Rather than dwelling on what happened though, they made an effort to get out of the house and spend time away from the hustle and bustle of The Strip and the never-ending news coverage of the shooting.
“I spent more time with Brian honestly than anyone else. I felt like the people that related to being there and were going through the exact same emotions I think understood best what I was feeling,” said Gates. “I think Brian and I spent a lot of time in nature that first week. We went on hikes and walks and spent time in the dog park with Wiley. That was very helpful.”
While most of Gates’ family knows about what happened that night, there’s one person who remains blissfully unaware. Garry has a five-year-old daughter, Scarlett, who lives with her mom in Missouri. Garry talks to her almost daily and has a very special connection with her. In the days after the shooting, he wasn’t sure what, if anything, he should tell her about it.
“I thought about it a lot, but she’d just turned five years old the month before and I felt like this was a conversation that we could have somewhere down the line when she’s a little bit older, more mature, and maybe could comprehend the scope and just what happened,” said Gates. “I think there’s a place to have a conversation like that with someone her age about there being evil people in the world and how community and family is so important to lean on in times like that.”
The community of Las Vegas got a welcome distraction ten days later. The Vegas Golden Knights, the newest National Hockey League team and the first top-tier professional sports team to call Las Vegas home, had their first regular season home game. The opening night festivities were supposed to be a celebration of the new team, but in the wake of the tragedy, the team opted to honor the victims and first responders.
“I was at the game. It was sort of the first public event that I went to in the aftermath. The team delivered the classiest, most heartfelt tribute they possibly could have considering they had nine days to prepare and plan something,” said Gates. The pre-game events included a ceremonial opening puck drop between the team captains, with the Golden Knights’ owner Bill Foley and some survivors of the shooting doing the honors.
“I didn’t think anything of it at the time because I couldn’t see from where we were sitting, it’s pretty far down, but the very next day Brian texted me a video. It was a close-up video of his TV screen because he didn’t go to the game, but it was actually Gabby, the girl that he was dating and her little son that got to do the puck drop,” said Gates.
The ceremony gave the people of Las Vegas an opportunity to honor the victims while thanking the paramedics, police, firefighters and medical personnel that assisted at the scene or in local hospitals. The game itself gave the 18,000 fans in attendance, and those watching at home, the chance to begin thinking something else while beginning to adjust to whatever their new normal was going to be. The game ended with the Golden Knights winning 5-2 to continue a seemingly improbable 3-0 start to their season.
“That day meant a lot to a lot of us. When something like that happens in a city, I think the community looks for a distraction, an avenue that can turn a negative into a positive, and the Golden Knights came along at a perfect time,” said Gates. “I think we all clung to the team and adopted them as our own in that moment and I think that’s carried through even to this day.”
Live Each Day a Little Bit Fuller for Them
A memorial for the 58 victims was set up at the famous Las Vegas sign at the south end of the Strip. Residents and tourists alike were dropping off flowers, stuffed animals and other mementos in the days after the shooting. Garry and Brian first heard of the memorial while watching the evening news but with the events of that night still so fresh for them, they held out on visiting it in person. After hearing that memorial was going to be taken down soon, they decided the time was right to visit.
“There were portraits of each of the 58 attached to every cross, and personalized items that friends and family must have dropped off there in the weeks after. I took the time to make eye contact with each one of those photographs, and that was a difficult thing to do, but important nonetheless,” said Gates. “I just kind of made a personal choice to live each day a little bit fuller for them, just a little bit extra. It really shifted my perspective long-term I think. I can tend to be a high-strung guy with friends and family, but that kind of brought the important things to the forefront for me. I was glad I went.”
The famous Las Vegas sign is just over a mile away from the concert grounds. This is the closest that Garry had been to Mandalay Bay since the shooting. Brian mentioned to Garry that he wanted to retrace their steps from that night and walk around the fenced-off area.
“They still had the fences up. You couldn’t actually go on to the concert grounds. In fact, even a month after, they still had all the booths, all the vendor booths were still set up. I think people’s belongings were still there,” said Gates. “They hadn’t torn down the stage yet. So we couldn’t go inside, but we did walk completely around. He showed me where he exited and I showed him the same, and we did a complete lap around. It was harder than I thought it would be for sure, but I was glad I did.”
In the nearly 14 years that Gates has worked in the poker industry, he’s seen people end up on the good side of variance in life-changing moments hundreds, if not thousands, of times. That experience has helped him reconcile the events of October 1 and how a bunch of normally insignificant moments that day snowballed together to allow him to survive what would eventually go down as the worst mass shooting in American history.
“30 minutes prior to the beginning of the shooting, Brian and I were actually on the opposite side of the venue, in a place where we had linked up with a friend of mine previously, and we were hoping to connect with her group again on Sunday night,” said Gates. “We couldn’t find them so we did a quick lap around the right side of the stage and then walked back to the other group. As we found out later, that area was in a wide-open area that (the gunman) probably had better access to, I think. In that regard, we were probably lucky as well, but it could have been any of us. You ask yourself, ‘Why not me?’, or on the contrary, ‘Why was I one of the lucky ones?’”