Tears, frantic texts: Survivors of Las Vegas campus shooting recount trauma and tragedy

Alexis Rice was in a statistics lab next to a library at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, when she and her classmates received an alert: their campus was under attack. Although the alerts provided little detail, they urged everyone to flee or hide. So they hid, and the group of about eight women locked and barricaded the classroom door and shut off the lights.

It wasn't Rice's first "active shooter" threat – she underwent one as a high school student where she hid in a closet. So at 22, she was familiar what was necessary: Stay calm. Stay quiet. Text someone for help if you can.

"We all hid far from the door under desks," Rice, 22, a PhD psychology student, told USA TODAY. "Some of us cried, were shaking, held hands, and texting our loved ones. With every sound we were hearing we were flinching."

Rice was one of numerous students who took cover as police swarmed onto the UNLV campus after a shooter sprayed bullets into crowds at two campus buildings during a lunchtime assault Wednesday that killed at least three people and injured another.

Investigators said the shooter began his attack on the fourth floor of the university's Frank and Estella Beam Hall, which is home to the Lee Business School. The gunman then went down several floors before two university detectives confronted him and killed him in a shootout outside the building, according to UNLV Police Chief Adam Garcia.

For many, the UNLV shooting surfaced memories of one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history — the 2017 rampage near the Mandalay Bay casino in Las Vegas, where a lone gunman killed 60 people. Wednesday's attack took place just three miles away from the casino.

Law enforcement escort people outside the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, campus following a shooting in Las Vegas on Dec. 6, 2023. "Multiple victims" were reported in a shooting at UNLV on Dec. 6, 2023, with police saying a short time later the suspect was dead. Students and members of the public had been told to avoid the area after reports of an active shooter on the campus of the University of Nevada Las Vegas.

'Still processing the tragedy'

Rice said the shooting brought back memories of an active-shooter situation at her high school where she hid in a closet until it was safe.

In Wednesday’s shooting, she texted her location to her boyfriend and his father, a police officer, then came to their classroom to rescue the group. Rice said events like this will linger in the minds of those who endured it.

"Many of us have this feeling of constantly looking over our shoulders due to being an ethnic minority, woman, or a sexual minority," she said. "With the rise of school shooting and violence against women and people of color, this hyper-vigilance in response to these tragedies could potentially have devastating lasting effects on students and faculty such as memory loss, anxiety disorders and cognitive impairments."

University administrators canceled classes for the rest of the week and are still deciding how to handle final exams that were scheduled to start Monday, followed by winter break.

"Many professors are extending deadlines while most professors are staying silent on exams. We are being left in the dark when it comes to what this means for finals week," Rice said. "I believe the professors are just as shocked as we are and still processing the tragedy.”

The attack shortly before noon sent people racing to hiding spots. Many campus community members spent hours crying and frantically exchanging silent text messages in locked offices, classrooms and the Lied Library until police gave the all-clear. Four people were treated for panic attacks, police said.

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'I will never forget that moment. This could be it'

Cesar Marquez was in the student union building conducting a training session for students when someone burst in and said an active shooter was on campus. Marquez told USA TODAY that he was on campus on behalf of the Nevada Forward Party, a third-party political group.

The group locked the doors, turned off the lights and computers and huddled together in corners of the room, Marquez said. Some students were crying, while others were frantically scanning their phones for information.

Marquez said he soon learned online that the shooting had taken place in a building a short walk from the Student Union building — news that sent a ripple of alarm through the group hidden in the room.

"I was doing my best to comfort them and to get them, you know, behind me, just in case the shooter came in," he said. "And I was just trying to do my best to help people feel as safe as we could."

At some point in the lockdown, Marquez said somebody tried to open the doors. He held his breath and waited until the person moved on, and police later arrived to evacuate the area.

"I will never forget that moment," he said. "That’s when I really felt, 'This could be it.'"

Marquez said he’s still "decompressing," but he hopes the tragedy will help push the country to think about why shootings keep happening.

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Support pours in for UNLV community

Across the Las Vegas Strip, several banners lit up showing support for UNLV — displaying the message "#UNLVStrong #VegasStrong."

In a message to the UNLV community on Wednesday night, University President Keith Whitfield offered support to the victims, their families and friends. Whitfield reminded the community of its resilience and strength.

"Our community of faculty, staff, students, and alumni will pull together to support one another in this time of crisis," Whitfield said in the message. "Know it's OK not to be OK at this dark time. Ask for help if you need it. You are part of an incredible community and together we will pull through."

The American Federation of Teachers, which represents faculty and staff members at UNLV, also issued a statement Wednesday in support and mourning of the university community.

"Today, we must stop and mourn with the UNLV community, as we have done with far too many others," AFT President Randi Weingarten said in the statement. "We cannot become desensitized to the epidemic of mass shootings in this country because they happen so often."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Students, survivors speak out after UNLV shooting in Las Vegas