When the gunfire began, Christina Kitcat thought she heard fireworks. Instead she turned around and saw terror on the Las Vegas strip.
People were fleeing before her eyes, but she still didn’t know she’d been shot. “It’s hard for me to breathe,” the 29-year-old said, before collapsing into the arms of her boyfriend, Kelly Culbertson.
Her family would later learn a bullet blasted through her arm and into her heart.
The California couple stood about 150 yards from the stage at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival when the gunshots rang out. The concert was Culbertson’s birthday present for Kitcat, who turns 30 this Tuesday.
Culbertson thought the noise was firecrackers, too, until he saw the blood. As a firefighter and EMT, the 27-year-old was trained in trauma. But he never imagined he’d fight to save his girlfriend’s life.
“I’m like, why would somebody bring fireworks? Why did everybody disperse? Then another round of fireworks goes off, and she looks at me and says, ‘It’s hard for me to breathe,’” Culbertson told The Daily Beast.
The paramedic remembers hitting the floor with Kitcat, trying to protect her from what he instantly realized was a mass shooting.
“We have a saying: we prepare for the worst but hope for the best. I hoped to never have seen that. Or experienced it. Or even seen the aftermath of it,” said Culbertson, who works for the Kern County Fire Department’s Station 75 in Randsburg.
On Sunday night, 64-year-old Stephen Craig Paddock sprayed automatic bullets into the crowd at the festival, killing 59 people and injuring at least 530 more in what’s being called the worst mass shooting in U.S. history.
Around 10 p.m., Paddock fired into the crowd from his 32nd-story hotel room at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, where police discovered a cache of weapons, including AR-15 rifles. One semi-automatic may have been modified to act like an automatic weapon, Las Vegas Sheriff Joseph Lombardo said.
About 22,000 people attended the three-day festival, which featured country stars like Eric Church, Luke Combs, and Jake Owen.
What was supposed to be the concert’s grand finale turned into a war zone.
A hail of gunfire surrounded them as Culbertson set Kitcat on the ground to assess her injuries. Bruce and Tricia Pollett, two firefighters from San Diego they’d just met, helped carry her to safety behind a merchandise tent.
“I noticed her left arm was very flimsy, which is not supposed to happen,” Culbertson said of Kitcat’s injury. (At one point, according to Kitcat’s brother Michael Lane, 32, she said her arm looked like it turned into tentacles.)
Tricia Pollett saw blood coming from Kitcat’s chest and put pressure on her lung. Culbertson says he kneeled over Kitcat, “looking at her, making sure she’s okay, making sure she’s still breathing, making sure she’s still with me.”
Bruce Pollett, who’d been shot in the foot himself, helped find a beer cart and they put Kitcat inside it. They rushed out of the concert grounds and into the street, where ambulances were already triaging patients, Culbertson said.
“We bolted out of there and ended up getting outside,” Culbertson told The Daily Beast. “I’m seeing the sheriff has already pulled up. I see the triage. I said, ‘This isn’t going to happen.’ I ended up passing all the ambulances because they would be actively triaging people.”
Then he saw the white Chevy Silverado.
“Do you have room for one more?” Culbertson asked the driver, who is believed to be veteran Marine Taylor Winston.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, get in, get in,” the firefighter recalls the driver saying.
Culbertson loaded Kitcat in the cab of the vehicle, where the driver and his girlfriend were collecting other victims and transporting them to Desert Springs Hospital. (While it has not been confirmed, Culbertson believes the driver was Winston.
The firefighter sat in the back, applying pressure to her bullet wound.
Kitcat was in and out of consciousness and going into shock, Culbertson said. “She’d come back, look at me. I’d say, ‘Babe, are you with me?’ She’d smile. She kept saying, ‘I’m going to go to sleep.’ I’m like, ‘No, you’re profanity not.’”
When they reached the hospital, one entrance was locked. They wheeled over to the emergency entrance, where staff darted out with beds.
“I grabbed her and I pulled her out,” Culbertson says. The instincts he uses every day at the fire station kicked in. He told the nurse, “29-year-old female with a gunshot to the upper torso” and “she needs surgery soon.”
Culbertson never left Kitcat’s side. He put on her oxygen mask, and Tricia Pollett applied the EKG. When he could do no more, he helped other patients at the hospital, including one man who was shot in the foot and didn’t have a phone to call his mother.
Before Kitcat would enter open heart surgery on Monday, the doctor asked Culbertson to help calm her down. He petted her hair, told her to look at him, and kept talking. “A lot of the other stuff was a blur,” Culbertson says.
Doctors told Kitcat’s family it’s a miracle she’s alive: a bullet blew through her arm and into her heart and lungs. Shrapnel left four holes in her heart and holes in her lungs, her relatives told The Daily Beast.
Kitcat’s brother, Michael Lane, told The Daily Beast that doctors removed a bullet from the left ventricle of her heart. It passed through the heart but avoided three of the major coronary vessels. Had it hit a major coronary artery, Kitcat would be dead.
Her arm saved her life, Lane said.
Lane said Tuesday was the first day he was able to speak to his sister. She remembers looking down at her arm, which had exploded from the bullet, and thinking it looked like the tentacles of an octopus. She felt no pain.
She remembers being thrown into the truck, and people screaming. She remembers Culbertson inside the vehicle, holding her hand, Lane said.
When the dust settled, Culbertson said he grappled with survivor’s guilt. He confided in his father, who retired as a Los Angeles fire captain in February.
“It’s like, ‘Why didn’t I get hit? Why her? She didn’t do anything to anyone,’” Culbertson recalls. “It was tough. I told that to my parents.”
In the ICU, Kitcat told Culbertson, “You saved my life.” He could not muster a reply. “You can’t say anything to that,” Culbertson said.
Still, Kitcat’s friends and family call the paramedic boyfriend a hero.
“I really feel like this is a love story,” said Kitcat’s friend Casey Winchell Napolitano, 30, of Calabasas. “He’s a fireman and he saved her. Even though she was shot in the heart, it was her arm that saved her. And it was their love that saved her.”
Napolitano created a GoFundMe page for Kitcat’s medical expenses. As of Wednesday night, Napolitano raised $79,948 for Kitcat, a freelance film production manager who was on hiatus without having another gig lined up.
“At the end of the day, we want her to get better and focus on living and not have to worry about money … which shouldn’t even be an issue but it is in our current society,” Napolitano told The Daily Beast of Kitcat’s lack of health insurance.
Meanwhile, the Las Vegas Victims’ Fund on GoFundMe has $8.9 million as of Wednesday. Steve Sisolak, the Clark County Commission chair, launched the page and donated $10,000 of his own money to the campaign.
Those who know her describe Kitcat as a free spirit who always smiles. She’s down to earth and loves music and dancing. She never seems to have a bad day.
As a film production manager in Los Angeles, Kitcat has worked on music videos and other projects for the likes of Jennifer Lopez, Ben Affleck and the NFL, Lane said.
She spent a semester in college but realized it wasn’t for her. Instead, she worked her way up as a production assistant sweeping floors, Lane said.
“The best thing about her is that she will find the good in people regardless,” the older brother added. “She will do something for other people before herself, because that’s what makes her feel good.”
Lane says that until Culbertson came into her life, she was very free spirited. “Kelly grounded her,” Lane said.
Over the last few days, Culbertson acted as Kitcat’s bodyguard in the hospital. Letting some visitors in, speaking to doctors, Lane said.
“We were in the room and I said, ‘Stop making me look so bad, Kelly,’” Lane laughed. “You can just tell by the way he kisses her or holds her hand [that he’s in love].”
Kitcat and Culbertson met at the Mammoth Lakes, California ski area in December 2016. They snowboarded together, then said their goodbyes.
Three weeks later, Kitcat sent Culbertson a text message inviting him to her mother’s annual wine and cheese holiday party. Then he invited her over to his family’s home for dessert on Christmas Day.
They became official in February of this year.
“She’s one of the kindest people I know,” Culbertson says. “Crazy awesome personality. She’s never had a bad day. When she has a bad day, she’ll complain about it for three minutes, then she’s right back to her cheery self.
“You ever meet someone with no enemies? That’s her, without a doubt.”
Culbertson said he woke Sunday at 9 a.m. but was only able to go to bed at 12 a.m. Tuesday. He decided to get some shuteye following Kitcat’s surgery.
When doctors removed the breathing tube and she was able to talk, Kitcat said, “I would like to see Kelly. But please have him sleep in.”