In a word, J.C. Monticone described the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history that left 58 innocent concertgoers dead in Las Vegas as “terrifying.”
Monticone, a firefighter/paramedic with the South Pasadena Fire Department, made a last minute decision to visit Las Vegas with buddies to in October to “watch some football and do a little gambling,” a short distance away from his fiancée Melissa Castruita, who also was in town, celebrating her 34th birthday with her aunt and cousin with plans to attend country star Jason Aldean’s concert.
Today, Monticone, 36, and Castruita are glad to be alive after gunman Stephen Paddock, 64, a retiree with no significant criminal history, opened fire on more than 22,000 people gathered from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino on Sunday, Oct. 1, during the second Route 91 Harvest Festival.
“She didn’t know I was going,” explained Monticone about his last minute plans. “I didn’t want to ruin her girl’s weekend. I booked the hotel that Friday after I got off work, and managed to be in Vegas at the same time.”
During the weekend, the couple caught up with each other and celebrated Castruita’s birthday just after midnight on Sunday, October 1, only hours before the start of the concert.
While in Las Vegas, Monticone was offered two free concert tickets from a person he met at a sports book bar, but declined the invitation on account of being with two friends, and one would have been left out. “Two tickets, three friends would have meant an odd man out,” Monticone explained, adding, “I didn’t feel good about one person not having a ticket.”
His fiancée, however, was in the crowd, seated in the VIP section west of stage, with her back to the Mandalay, where Monticone just happened to be eating dinner with his friends. “We were having an awesome time, wrapping up, and I paid the restaurant bill at 9:58 p.m. When we were walking out at 10:08 p.m., I got the first text message from Melissa that read: “What’s that noise, do you hear that?” Monticone text back: “Where are you?” Melissa sent another text: “They are taking Jason Aldean off the stage. I’m so scared.”
Her next message read: “Active shooter.”
At that point, Monticone recounted that everyone in the hotel was going about their business – drinking, gambling, partying, having a good time “with no idea what was happening two hundred yards away,” he explained, noting that he then called Melissa and could hear gunshots in the background while talking to her on the phone.
Admittedly, Monticone got chills, hearing his fiancée crying and shots firing as he tried to calm her.
He moved to the lobby of the Luxor hotel, which has two sets of glass doors separating the main lobby and the taxi/valet area. “I ran through the first set of doors, got to the second and, as they opened up, I got pinned down because I didn’t know where the gunfire was, and I could hear it all around me. I didn’t know where to go, what to do. It echoed in the corridor, and in the hallways of the valet and taxi area.”
At that time, Monticone didn’t know a lone suspect had opened fire at the Mandalay, unleashing his assault on the crowd. “It sounded like multiple shooters, multiple guns,” he recalled, explaining that security pushed the crowd back into the hotel lobby. “I kept saying, ‘I need to get outside, get outside, get outside to get to Melissa. She was telling me on the phone, ‘don’t come out here, don’t come out here. Go to your room and go into lockdown.’ I kept saying, ‘no, I’m coming to you, I’m coming to you.’ I told her to stay safe, but whatever it takes, I’m coming to you.’”
At that point, an injured man staggered into the lobby of the Lexor. “He was covered in blood, wearing a plain white t-shirt,” remembers Monticone. “I will never forget him crying and his mom crying. He couldn’t catch his breath. He had a wound to the right wrist. The amount of blood coming from his wrist didn’t match what was coming from his shirt.”
Work mode quickly kicked in for Monticone, who came to the man’s aid, telling him he was a paramedic as he began providing treatment with the support of one his friends, a firefighter/paramedic from Ventura County and a teacher from Upland. The teacher was instructed by Monticone to keep Melissa on the phone and make sure she was safe. The firefighter/ paramedic friend was asked to get on social media – Twitter, Facebook, Instagram – and find out what’s going on, “because I knew the news would break faster there in today’s society than over the television networks,” said Monticone.
To this day, Monticone doesn’t know if the initial person he treated survived after taking three shots to his body. “That’s when the chaos started as more and more bodies started coming into the hotel,” he explained. “I started setting up a minor triage area in the lobby, and sat the man down. We went from one patient to the next, doing whatever we could to help them. We were plugging holes, whether it was cleaning them up or calming them down.”
The local firefighter/paramedic had no medical equipment, no supplies and asked security personnel if they could provide some. “They had nothing, no first aid kits, no trauma kits,” said Monticone, who along with his friend, continued aiding patients the best he could. He tried stopping the bleeding using towels from hotel restrooms.
Meanwhile, he called Melissa, who was trying to make her way out of the concert venue, noting his fiancée could still hear gunshots. “It was scary because she just didn’t know where they were coming from. As I was kneeling down talking to one of the patients, a mass flux of people came through the main doors of the Luxor lobby. People were screaming, ‘shooter, shooter, shooter, shooter coming.’ Panic set in at the entrance to the casino floor. I told the lady with the man (who was shot) ‘to hold his wrist and run. Get to your room and go into lockdown.”
All the injured individuals had vacated the Luxor lobby by now. “None of us knew what was coming,” said Monticone. “In the process of running, people had dropped drinks on the marble floor and it was slippery.”
A woman took a brutal fall, crashing to the floor on her back and hitting her head. Monticone was there to help her as people scurried for safety, nearly trampling her. Monticone helped the woman get up and told her to run.
Separated from his friends, one found safety in their hotel room while the other hid in a janitor’s utility closet. “I stopped running, peeled off and hid behind a slot machine,” Monticone explained. “I just wanted to know what was coming at me right then. I didn’t want to keep running just to run.”
On the casino floor of the Luxor, Monticone slowly made his way to the lobby, hiding behind slot machines until he found two security guards at the rear of two pillars. The guards told him there was an active shooter in the area as he came to the rescue of injured victims.
In a free moment, Monticone sent another text to Melissa in another attempt to locate his fiancée. After about an hour treating patients, he learned that she had found safety at the MGM Grand. It took Monticone about 90 minutes to get to the hotel as he administered first aid to injured individuals along the way.
“Every 100 yards another person would walk up looking like a zombie and I would do whatever I could to help them,” said Monticone, who finally caught up with Melissa at about 11:45 p.m. the night of the massacre. “Reports starting coming in that the shooter was in the area, so I said, ‘Hey, we need to get off the (Vegas) Strip. We went east and hid in a hotel lobby about a mile away, with about 30 other people.”
A Las Vegas friend of Monticone picked up the couple, Melissa’s aunt and cousin, at about 12:30 a.m. and brought the group to safety. Throughout the early morning hours, they watched television reports as “the death toll went from two, to 19, to 25,” recalled Monticone. “It kept rising. We were able to get back to our hotel the following morning as we heard about another active shooter scare, sniper lockdown and bomb threat.”
It never materialized, but it was enough for Monticone and those around him to make a quick exit from Las Vegas and promptly get home. “We’re lucky and thankful we made it back,” he said. “There were others who weren’t so fortunate.”
The heartbreak was also a reminder of the past for Castruita, whose workplace at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino was the site of a mass shooting two years ago. The terror of that ordeal has never quite left her, explained Monticone.
On Saturday, Monticone was presented a Medal of Valor and life-saving award for his actions in Las Vegas. The honor followed a badge pinning ceremony, recognizing five promotions and a handful of new employees hired by the South Pasadena Fire Department. Eric Zanteson and Chris Szenczi were promoted to division chief, Dan Dunn and Anthony Porraz to captain and Justin Furtado to engineer.
Along with his life-saving efforts, Monticone was welcomed to the city as new firefighter/paramedic, joining Anthony Corrao, Justin Miller, John Papadakis and Scott McLellan.
Looking back on the Las Vegas shooting more than a month and a half later, Monticone says he has “a mixed bag of emotions” and doesn’t go a day without thinking about it. “I wasn’t supposed to be in Las Vegas that weekend, but looking back, I’m just so thankful I was,” he said. “I didn’t do much for those people, but I’m so thankful I was there, especially for Melissa.”
Perhaps it was fate for the couple that everything worked out in their favor and Monticone scheduled late plans to Las Vegas. “If I would have woken up the following morning and heard the news of what had happened, and not seen her, hold her or touched her, I don’t know what I would have done,” he said.
It makes this Thanksgiving even more meaningful for the young couple. “Just the fact I was able to be there, to get to her, to help other people is something I can be thankful for in a situation like this,” said Monticone, looking ahead to the couple’s wedding, the day yet to be determined. “All this kind of puts things into perspective.”
That life is precious.