Like so many who hear shots, Ben Sweeney thought they were fireworks.
Boom, boom, boom.
He figured if the Jason Aldean show far below his 30th-floor room at the Mandalay Bay hotel in Las Vegas was ending with a fireworks show, he might as well watch, even though he was eager to get to sleep. He had traveled a long way from Salisbury Township and had to attend a conference in the morning.
It was about 10 minutes past 10 p.m. as he looked down onto the concert grounds, 30 floors below and perhaps 200 or 300 yards distant.
The next sounds he heard were, unmistakably, not fireworks, Sweeney said in a phone interview Monday as he headed to Las Vegas’ McCarran International Airport for a flight home.
“I heard maybe 20 shots,” Sweeney said. “The sound was coming through the hotel walls. I didn’t know he was shooting at the event. I thought he was shooting in the hotel.
“I thought he was coming down the hall.”
Sweeney would learn later that he was just two floors down and one room over from the room where, authorities say, 64-year-old Stephen Paddock opened fire on the massive crowd at the Route 91 Harvest Festival.
Aldean, a chart-topping country singer, was wrapping up the day’s entertainment when the massacre — the worst mass shooting in American history — began unfolding.
Sweeney, 33, who works for Guardian Life Insurance, had been able to hear the concert clearly from his room. He called his wife, Allison — the couple married last month — so she could hear it too. She’s a country music fan.
When the shots began, “I heard them in the background,” Allison said. “I was trying to figure out where they were coming from and so was Ben.”
The next minutes were a blur. Allison, 31, saw nothing on television about a shooting so she began checking social media. She saw a tweet about an active gunman in Las Vegas.
“I was completely terrified,” she said. “And Ben sounded really scared and concerned. I’m not used to seeing him like that, so it was very stressful.”
Ben, meanwhile, was texting his parents. Because of the time difference, he knew they would be asleep, but he wanted them to know he was all right when they heard the news in the morning.
Looking outside again, he saw the lights had come up on the festival ground and the crowds were dispersing. He thought nothing of it, assuming the concert had ended.
“I didn’t put two and two together, that someone next to me was shooting the length of two football fields into a crowd,” he said.
He turned off the room lights and hid in the bathtub for a time, fearing bullets would come through the door and walls. Soon he heard the sound of helicopters, which were circling the hotel and shining spotlights into the rooms.
Then he heard a deafening explosion, followed by another one a minute or two later. He surmises the explosions were part of the storming of the gunman’s room by tactical units.
Things quieted. and Sweeney, exhausted, fell asleep around 1:30 a.m. but didn’t sleep long.
“At 4 or 4:30, the police came into my room with guns and lights to search it,” he said. “They pretty much said, ‘Make sure we can see your hands.’ One guy kept a flashlight on me at all times. They opened up the [bathroom] and closets.
“They said thank you and I said thanks and they left.”
No one answered the phone at the front desk, so it wasn’t until a morning news conference by authorities that Sweeney learned he could finally leave his room.
His employers told him to go home. He booked a Monday evening flight to Newark International Airport, where his father, Thomas, was going to pick him up.
Thomas Sweeney, of Ackley Sweeney Advertising in Emmaus, said he had a few bad moments Monday morning.
“I saw the news before I saw the texts,” he said.
Ben said the local news, early in the coverage, had reported two deaths.
‘”I thought, all those shots he fired, he only got two people,” he said. “When I wake up this morning and see it’s the largest shooting in American history and I was probably 30 feet from the guy when he’s doing it — the reality is setting in.”