Michalynn Brown was having the greatest night of her life Sunday — the culmination of eight months of planning for the ultimate girl’s weekend with her bestie, Michaela Christine.
They had tickets for the Route 91 Harvest Festival, and they are friends with members of Big and Rich, one of the bands playing, so they scored backstage passes.
“We were living the life,” said 24-year-old Brown, a Centennial High School graduate who moved to Orange County about five years ago.
Big and Rich opened for Jason Aldean, and were heading to a local bar that John Rich owns to play a set there. Brown and Christine decided to stay for a few of Aldean’s songs.
Brown walked to the pit between the barricades and the main stage while Christine was backstage. She was chatting about her boyfriend, who had just deployed with the U.S. Marine Corps.
After one song, Brown looked down at her phone. She had 1 percent left on her battery, and was separated from her best friend. Then she heard popping. She thought at first it was feedback from a faulty microphone, or maybe fireworks.
Then she heard it again — and saw people running in panic.
She took cover along the fenceline, the bottom half of which was a concrete barrier. She looked at a man beside her.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
Just then, a sheriff’s deputy rushed over.
“You’ve got to get out of here,” he told them.
She headed toward a truck and took cover there.
Yards away, Christine was scrambling to find safety when a man next to her was shot. A man asked for Christine’s belt and wrapped it around the victim’s leg like a tourniquet. Then Christine kept running.
Brown had no idea where the shots were coming from. It sounded as if they were raining down from all directions.
She made it across the street to a Danville Lane apartment complex where she found a cement stairwell to an upstairs unit and took cover there. Another girl from the concert pounded on the door, crying and pleading for the owners to open it. They did.
Within moments, about 20 victims were in the apartment, huddled in darkened rooms. They had heard all kinds of rumors on social media: that two women in camouflage fled from the cops; that the shooter was dead; that there were multiple shooters; that shooters were targeting Trump supporters and that concert-goers should cut off their wristbands so they wouldn’t be identified as country music fans, since it could be associated with conservative values.
The homeowner pulled out a shotgun and patrolled the home.
“I felt incredibly safe at that moment knowing this guy has a gun, and if anybody tries to come in here and hurt us, we’ll be OK,” Brown said.
She looked around her. Everyone was scared. A man in blood-soaked clothes was visibly upset. She put her hand on his shoulder.
“Hey, can I just pray over us, please?” she asked.
Those in the apartment passed around a single cellphone cord and called their loved ones. Brown called her mother. She was safe, she told her, but lost Christine – who wasn’t answering her phone.
“I was thinking the worst,” Brown said. “And I’m hysterically crying and these strangers are around me trying to protect me. I said, ‘No, you don’t get it. I have one friend here.’ I needed to be with her.”
Brown didn’t know it then, but Delaney Baker, the bass guitarist for Luke Combs’ band, saw how hysterical Christine was and calmed her down. They waited for a lull between gunshots and ran for the tour buses. The first moment she could, she used his phone to call Brown.
“I’m OK,” she told her.
Eventually, Brown heard victims would be evacuated to a nearby baseball stadium. She wouldn’t stick around long enough to go. She had to be with Christine. She told her she was leaving the apartment – her little nook of safety – to find her.
“She told me not to leave,” Brown said. She didn’t listen. “We had to stay connected.”
She headed toward the festival grounds where the tour buses were, an eerie walk along seldom silent streets that fell quiet after the attack. She was on the phone with Christine, who spotted her from the tour bus.
“I can see you,” she said. Brown started crying. Christine ran to the middle of the street and the two embraced.
“When I wasn’t with Michaela, I felt hopeless,” Brown said. “I turn 25 next month, but I felt like a child – alone and just helpless.”