The view from an airport: Making sure our massacre didn't get worse

Christina Stewart, an air traffic controller at McCarran Airport, was attending Route 91 with her husband. As the shots rang out, she quickly called McCarran's tower, giving it the first heads-up a shooter was nearby. (KSNV)

That Sunday night, Christina Stewart was in the crowd when the firing started.

“I see people running, carrying people out. There's a man crouched next to me and he's laying over his family,” Stewart says.

She and her husband made their way to a wall, where they crouched for safety.

All around them, terror was striking the Route 91 Harvest Festival, three days of music that, within seconds on a Sunday, became a killing field. They didn’t know it then, but a gunman, Stephen Paddock, was firing out of a 32nd-floor suite at Mandalay Bay. 58 people died, making this America’s worst mass shooting in modern history.

But that headline was for the next day. In the moment, Stewart wore her other hat, as a McCarran Air Traffic Controller.

And she also understood something else: gunfire hits aircraft, too.

Amidst all the chaos, she called McCarran's tower, giving it the first heads-up a shooter was nearby.

“I believe it was something like there's an active shooter. You need to stop the helicopters - keep them away from the strip,” Stewart says.

The tour choppers were one worry. Flights on the two pairs of main runways were the other.

“So her call was critical and it came at a critical time, where we could take the information and still use it to keep the flying public at a safe distance away,” says her fellow air traffic controller Anthony Borgert.

Flights here were grounded.

At least 23 inbound flights were diverted.

McCarran's airfield also became a refuge.

At least 300 scared concertgoers -- some wounded -- breached a piece of the airport's 10 miles of fencing.

They were on the airfield.

“We deployed multiple staff vehicles in order to shepherd people across the airfield,” says McCarran’s Christine Crews. “It became apparent that these people were not a threat to our airport but more that there was a threat to them that we needed to assist with.”

Looking at their radar screens, controllers understood why this incident was potentially so dangerous.

Runways were potentially in the line of fire.

“The area of concern for us was - being on the west side of the airfield, we are in very close proximity to Mandalay Bay Route 91 festival area,” Borgert says.

Their tower simulator gives you a birds-eye view of what they saw: Mandalay Bay in the distance, where a bullet, perhaps, could have reached the pair of runways that run parallel to the Strip.

We now know the airport was in Paddock's sights. Two of his bullets hit jet fuel tanks near the runway.

But thanks to one woman's call, controllers made sure aircraft weren't targets, too.

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