LAS VEGAS - The first thing Aaron Stalker heard when he answered the phone late Sunday night was his girlfriend’s anguished scream.
“There’s just been a shot fired! Mom is shot!”
He tried to talk to her, but she couldn’t hear him over her screams: “I need you here. I need you here!”
Then Stalker, 28, was out of the house and in his car, driving 10 miles - without regard for speed limits and bumping into sidewalks - toward the music festival that had just become a horror show.
For what he did next, Stalker was honored by President Donald Trump on Wednesday during a “heroes meet-and-greet” at the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department headquarters.
While thousands of people scrambled from the parking lot where the Route 91 Harvest music festival was held as bullets rained down from overhead, Stalker ran straight into the crowd.
He searched frantically for his girlfriend and her mother. Unable to find them in the chaos, “I just started helping anyone and everyone I could,” Stalker said.
He went to the first wounded person he could find and ripped up a piece of clothing to use as a tourniquet. He made splints, patched bullet holes, flipped over the plastic barriers that had been set up around the perimeter of the festival and turned them into stretchers. With two other men whose names he never learned, he carried the wounded to cars that would take them to the hospital.
A U.S. Army veteran who served as a combat videographer for two years in Iraq, Stalker was trained to keep his cool amid chaos. But this was scarier than anything he saw overseas, he said, “by far.”
“It’s not even close to the same. It was hundreds of people. There, you’re safe, you have a weapon, you have people at your back who know what to do.”
On Sunday night, he said: “I had nothing. I was helpless.”
But that didn’t stop him from trying. Stalker can’t say how long he spent shuttling the wounded back and forth to cars, or how many people he carried. Was it 75, 100, 150? He can’t even remember their faces.
“It was like a dream,” he said. There was no thought except the next wounded victim, no sound but the ringing of hundreds of abandoned cellphones jangling in his ears.
Finally, Stalker heard from his girlfriend, Stephanie Melanson. After her mother was shot, a retired firefighter found Stephanie kneeling over her wounded mother, along with her sister Paige Melanson and Stalker’s sister Shelby Stalker. The firefighter urged the women to flee - “I’ll stay with her,” he promised. “If you want to live, you have to go.”
Stalker found Shelby and Paige hiding at the Tropicana resort nearby. Paige had been grazed by a bullet on her elbow and was sopping up the blood with a cloth napkin. She went to the hospital, and Stalker headed to the Las Vegas Convention Center, where victims and families were congregating and where he was able to track down Stephanie.
But no one could find Stephanie’s mother, Rosemarie Melanson.
Unable to sit still, Stalker handed out blankets and bottles of orange juice to shocked concertgoers. Then he took the Melansons to the police station to wait for word of their mom. It finally came around 8 a.m.: Rosemarie was at Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center, alive and stable. Paige got her wound stitched up.
As of Wednesday night, Rosemarie remained on a ventilator in the ICU, recovering from two surgeries to repair damage to her lungs, liver and spleen.
Stalker went home, took a shower, drank a cup of coffee. Then he went to work, at the dance studio that the Melanson sisters run. He hadn’t slept, but someone needed to check on the building, call parents and let them know that classes were canceled, send out the email explaining what happened.
Robyn Garcia, a pastor at the International Church of Las Vegas, had never met Stalker before this week. But she reached out to him after a mutual friend told her about what he had done on the concert field.
When the White House contacted Garcia’s church Wednesday morning and told her they were looking for heroes, Stalker’s was the first name that came to mind.
“You’re my hero,” she told Stalker on Wednesday.
Trump used that word, too, in his address after the meet-and-greet Wednesday: “Every hero saved so many lives. And believe me, a grateful nation thanks you.”
On Wednesday afternoon, the manager of a local BMW dealership offered to fix his damaged car free - the vehicle had taken a beating during the frenzied drive to the concerts. A student at the dance studio walked up to him on her way into class and handed him two foil-wrapped packages.
“Homemade spanakopita and lasagna,” she explained, then ran inside.
But Stalker is uncomfortable with the attention and reticent when asked to explain why he ran into the fray.
“I was trained to help people,” he said.
He was just a person who knew what to do, he said. So he did it.