As bullets rained down from the Las Vegas hotel, Josh Decker and his girlfriend dropped to the ground. Just out of arm’s reach and covered with blood was a Minnesota man who was Decker’s best friend.
He couldn’t save him. Decker learned Tuesday afternoon that his friend — Steve Berger, a father of three young children, is among those confirmed dead after a shooter’s rampage killed 59 people and wounded more than 500 at a country music concert.
For three days, family and friends waited to know whether Berger was among the living or the dead. The wait was excruciating as his father, Richard Berger, sat near the phone in his Milwaukee suburban home. He and his family had called “every number” imaginable, including the FBI and other federal officials, in search of answers.
His son had flown to Las Vegas with friends to celebrate his 44th birthday. He and his Minnesota friends enjoyed the Vegas atmosphere during the day and then headed to the three-day Route 91 Harvest music festival at night.
As Jason Aldean took the stage, the crowd was “amped up,” Decker said. A barrage of cracks boomed behind him. “Pop. Pop. Pop,” he recalled.
Thinking it was an excited fan letting off firecrackers, Decker turned to look. Commotion erupted and “a lot of the crowd was falling down.”
“It was like dominoes,” Decker said. “Someone fell and hit someone else, and then someone else fell. I didn’t understand why. And then I saw blood.”
Decker and those near him dropped to the ground. There was no immediate escape. “There was a mass of people and you couldn’t go anywhere. We kept our heads down.”
Decker looked in search of Berger. He also was on the ground — motionless. He was unconscious and bleeding profusely, Decker said. “He was covered in his own blood.”
Decker held his girlfriend’s hand amid the sounds of screams, cries and gunfire. “There was no way to communicate with anyone except the person right next to you,” Decker said.
“It sounded like a machine gun,” he said. A barrage of gunfire rang out. Then it stopped only to start again, he said.
No one dared to move, fearing “you’re going to be the next one to be hit by a bullet,” Decker said. “Many minutes” passed before Decker and others began to crawl in search of safety.
On hands and knees they edged up against a metal barricade, making themselves as small and unobtrusive as possible. “We really didn’t know where the bullets were coming from.”
He now knows they came from above and behind — 32 floors up at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, where the gunman blasted into the concert crowd.
Decker called out to get medical help for his friend while three people worked to revive him. “One person was blowing into his mouth, another was pumping his chest and someone else was putting pressure on the wound to stop the bleeding.”
Decker screamed for an ambulance, for more medical help. But the ambulances weren’t coming because there was still an “active shooter,” he said. A man, identifying himself as a former Marine, told Decker to leave. He was in the line of fire and he couldn’t help Berger anymore.
Decker and his girlfriend ran to the back of the concert venue as a SWAT team moved in, yelling for them to take cover.
Behind them motionless bodies and debris were scattered across the venue. It was eerie. “No one was crying out. It was just very quiet.”
Moments after it was confirmed Tuesday that Berger was dead, Decker struggled to talk about his friend, whom he has known since 1991 when they were roommates at St. Olaf College. They work together at EFS Advisors, a financial company.
The emotion is raw; the horrific sights and sounds of a shooter’s rampage seared into his memory.
“The sound of gunfire is stuck in my head,” Decker said. Watching video of that night is difficult. “I watched my friend die in front of me,” he said. When he ran from the scene, he knew in his head that his friend was dead, but “my heart hoped he was alive.”
Berger, who grew up in Wauwatosa, Wis., lived in the Twin Cities, and was the father of three kids ages 8, 11 and 15.
“He was charismatic, full of energy and breathed life into every room. He was always so positive,” Decker said. “He was larger than life to me.”
Meanwhile, family and friends of Minnesota native Philip Aurich continued to wait on news from Las Vegas.
Aurich is listed in critical condition after he was shot during the Saturday rampage. Sheila Aurich, who is married to Philip’s brother, said her brother-in-law opened his eyes and was breathing on his own after a second surgery Monday night. In an earlier surgery, doctors removed his spleen and part of his colon. He also suffered a collapsed lung and a ruptured diaphragm.
Aurich, 36, lives in Las Vegas and is the father of two daughters. He is a 1999 graduate of Concordia Academy in Roseville, where his father is a teacher and coach. He was at the Jason Aldean concert with his girlfriend, who was not injured.
Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788