Surviving the Las Vegas shooting: Kent State alumnus uses radio waves to broadcast comfort

Vegas+perspective

Vegas perspective

Ben Orner

When Kent State alumnus Paul Schillig walked into the Mandalay Bay hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada, at 10 p.m. Sunday night, he didn’t believe what he heard.

“Get out! Get out! There’s a shooter! There’s a shooter! Get out!” police officers screamed at him and two of his coworkers.

Schillig kept walking, unaware that 32 floors above him a gunman was firing into a crowd of thousands of people in what would become the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. 

“Everyone was confused. We were kind of dumbfounded,” Schillig said. “We kept walking in. It didn’t sink in that there’s an active shooter. It couldn’t happen here. You just didn’t believe it.”

Schillig, 33, is a country music DJ at KCYE-FM 102.7 The Coyote, one of two country music stations in Las Vegas. He started at the station in 2009 after receiving his bachelor’s degree in electronic media management from Kent State in 2007.

The station had technical crews, a promotions team and thousands of listeners at Sunday night’s concert, after which the station had a party planned at the hotel.

While Schillig was helping set up for the party at a club on top of the hotel, country artist Jason Aldean was on stage across the street when Stephen Paddock open fired into the concert crowd, killing at least 59 people and injuring more than 500.

The gravity of the situation finally sunk in for Schillig and his colleagues when he saw fleeing concert-goers pour into the lobby followed by a SWAT team.

“When you saw people coming back from the concert, they were screaming, they were crying, they were running; it was just terror,” he remembers. “Then you realize, ‘Oh, God, this is real.’ From there, it snapped for us.”

In the panic, they heard there could be up to three shooters in the hotel, so they ran back into the parking garage and hid under their cars.

As Schillig was catching his breath and hiding under his vehicle, he pulled out his cellphone. After several calls, he successfully contacted Melissa, his wife, to tell her what was happening.

“Hey, there’s a shooting,” Schillig began. “I’m at the Mandalay Bay, but I think I’m OK. I’m hiding right now.”

The last thing Schillig said to Melissa was “I love you” as he laid under his car, unsure if that would be the last thing he said to her.

When the shooting stopped, Schillig left to meet up with his co-workers.

“They didn’t know where the bullets were raining from,” Schillig recalls. “First they thought it was fireworks, then they realized ‘Oh, God, we’re being shot at.’”

Broadcasting tragedy

For half an hour, the group watched the events unfold on TV, but Schillig realized he also had access to the airwaves above Las Vegas.

“As a broadcaster, my instinct came in to say, ‘Hey, we need to break live on this.’ This is our genre of music. These are our listeners who are there. This is our community. We need to take over the station.”

Schillig dropped all music programming and opened up the airwaves to take calls from concert-goers and give the public crucial information for 12 hours.

“I broadcasted from 1 a.m. to 1 p.m.,” Shillig said. “We did a live show to take listeners’ calls, provided updates from our sheriff (and) our mayor.”

Rumors and confusion lasted until the early morning, as claims of multiple shooters, their locations and planted bombs spread throughout Las Vegas. When it was determined that there was only one shooter, Schillig made a point to not use the suspect’s name.

“When I was taking calls, I would not mention the suspect’s name,” he said. “We’re making a very conscious effort that we don’t want to immortalize this guy. We don’t really want to care about him or want to talk about him. If we can get some kind of answer to why, it would put some closure to that piece. But it’s hard to make sense of a senseless person.”

When he first went on the air, the official word was two casualties.

“I’m talking to people that were hurdling over bodies, and I’m like, ‘There’s a lot more than two.’” Schillig said. “Then that number jumped to 20, then it jumped to 50 and now it’s up to 59.”

Monday morning, Schillig brought on the radio station’s morning DJ, “Mad Dog,” who found himself amid the chaos during the shooting.

“He’s sharing stories of helping people over fenced walls as they’re getting shot up,” Schillig said. “People hiding in dumpsters, behind dumpsters, behind cars, underneath cars, underneath the stage.”

After Mad Dog ran to safety, he took a video of the shooting. Sounds of rapid gunfire dominate the footage, as it faintly shows flashes from the shooter’s hotel window. 

Feelings in days after

In the days after the shooting, Schillig said emotions are starting to sink in. He said people were very numb on Monday, including himself.

“It was a feeling that you just have to throw up all day, and you’re just completely numb and shocked,” he said with a slight tremble in his voice.

Now, tragic stories of victims overwhelm a city of over 600,000 people.

Through the grief, however, Schillig said the community has pulled together. Long lines for blood donations quickly sprouted, while other people donated food and water to those temporarily displaced at the Thomas & Mack Center, the indoor sports arena on the campus of the University of Nevada in Las Vegas.

“People kept saying it hit close to home, but it was home for us,” Schillig said. 

Since 102.7 returned to playing music after news updates became further apart, Schillig has been using his 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. slot on the airwaves to help Las Vegas residents, and even himself, cope with the tragedy. 

“I think getting back to the routine of playing the music — and that’s what we were all for — was for the music, the power of the music has really helped people through this right now.”

Country music has been an important part of Schillig’s life since growing up in the small town of Marlboro, Ohio, just south of Kent in Stark County.

“Country music is almost like a lifestyle,” Schillig said. “It has its own community.”

Schillig sees his job in the aftermath of the shooting as a duty to his listeners and his community. 

“We’ve pulled long hours the past three days. The programming, the shifts, it just doesn’t matter. It’s a team coverage effort of trying to cope, trying to heal, trying to provide updates.”

In addition to talking with people coping, the station has also been taking music requests from listeners.

One heavily requested song is “When She Says Baby” by Jason Aldean, the musician on stage during the shooting. Aldean was in the middle of playing that song as shots rang out. 

“Some people just need the closure,” Schillig said. “They wanted to hear that Jason Aldean song. You’ll never think or hear that song the same anymore, especially if you were a part of that that night.”

For Schillig and his listeners, music and lyrics help with the grieving process.

“I think music pulls people together,” Schillig said. “Lyrically, I think songs touch people in ways I can’t describe. That’s what they need now. That’s just a little piece that we can provide.”

Coping with trauma

Some Las Vegas residents are coping with the trauma better than others, Schillig said.

“I don’t know how some of those people are (coping),” Schillig said. “That’s amazing and a miracle in and of itself.”

“Schillig said there’s a lot of post-traumatic stress right now.

“Every time a siren goes off, people that were there aren’t reacting the same to just the sound of a siren,” he said. “I heard someone saying that the dripping from their shower head sounded like the gunshots.”

Schillig continued, “What they saw, what they went through, the carnage, it’s just not the same. A lot of people are going to need help.” 

How to help

Schillig said Las Vegas is not just the Strip, the casinos and the hotels.

“There is a complete community and life outside of the Strip. We have teachers, schools (and) banks. It’s more than just that Strip that people envision as Vegas.”

Schillig said the best way to help the victims and their families is through a GoFundMe campaign set up by Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak.

“Initially they asked for $500,000 on the GoFundMe,” Schillig said. “That got blown through within like the second hour.”

On Tuesday, the campaign’s funding goal was at $4 million, but once that was surpassed, the goal rose $10 million. As of Wednesday night, it was quickly nearing the $10 million mark.

Ben Orner is the enterprise producer for KentWired and the executive producer for TV2. Contact him at [email protected]