IDA GROVE, Iowa | Dr. Michael and Sara Luft, of Ida Grove, were 20 minutes into a Jason Aldean concert in Las Vegas on Sunday night when the terror began.
"I thought they were fireworks at first," said Dr. Michael Luft, a family physician who has treated patients in and around Ida Grove and Denison the past 17 years. "And then it sounded like they were going off right behind me."
"I had a weird sensation in my stomach," said Sara, a family nurse practitioner who serves clinics in Ida Grove, Denison and Omaha. "I didn't see smoke, I didn't smell sulfur."
The Lufts, who spent a long weekend of rest-and-recreation attending the Route 91 Harvest Festival on the Las Vegas Strip, watched as people hit the ground. Aldean dashed off the stage and the pattern of the bang, bang, bang rose to a frenetic whir.
For the first time in their lives, the Lufts were under fire, along with 22,000 other concert-goers.
"A guy who had served two tours in Afghanistan had met us and he told us these weren't fireworks," Sara said. "He told us to get down under our seats."
The Lufts had club-level seats at the right of the stage. Rather than stand in the open area for the concert, they could sit or stand among several rows of seats positioned in front of a tent. They immediately dove under their seats, Michael atop Sara, protecting her.
"I told her that we'd make it through this," he said. "And that we weren't moving."
Sara and Michael texted their children and other loved ones as shots rained down. Michael picked his head up long enough to see a victim crumble to the ground, a gunshot victim.
The former soldier stressed calm among those around him. The Lufts obliged, awaiting his instruction.
"He said that when the shooting stops for a bit, the shooters will re-load," Michael recalled. "And then he wanted us to follow him."
At the time, no one knew if there were multiple shooters or a single assassin.
When the shooting ceased temporarily, the Lufts crawled on their stomachs from the club-level seats. They reached the stairs leading from the seats and encountered a woman who joined an EMT in administering CPR to a woman who had been shot in the head.
"As you looked out, you could see bodies not moving," Sara said. "There was blood everywhere."
The Lufts sprinted as a portion of the crowd merged to join them in a mad dash. Sara was tripped up and began to fall as another round of shots started. The group dove onto the ground and waited out this second barrage.
"We then got up and began running toward the back of the venue when our professional instincts kicked in," Sara said.
"Sara kept trying to help people," said Michael, who pulled her along, motivated by thoughts of the large family they share back home. He also wanted to find a better place in which they could offer assistance. The middle of a firing range, so to speak, was not that place.
They found temporary refuge beneath a set of bleachers at the back of the concert site. As bullets continued to strafe the complex, Michael helped moved debris and a barricade before pulling an elderly woman in a wheelchair to safety. Sara, meantime, advised two shooting victims to keep the pressure on their wounds, one, a gunshot to a leg, the other to an arm.
The group found an area where the fence encircling the complex had been broken or cut apart. The Lufts squeezed that opening and ran across an 8-lane road to the employee entrance at the nearby Tropicana resort. They stayed in the basement of the Tropicana for 30 minutes, using their phones to contact their children for updates.
"We texted our kids to say that we were OK," Michael said. "And the kids sent messages back, saying there may be multiple shooters."
At the time, nobody knew for sure.
"We'd heard there may have been multiple shooters at different hotels," Sara said. "We didn't know what place was safe."
The Lufts, who continued to follow directions and suggestions from their children, found their way back to their room at Vdara Hotel & Spa, in Las Vegas' CityCenter complex, just after midnight. They shut off the lights in their room, gathered their thoughts and let loved ones know they'd made it out alive.
By this time, authorities had rushed the room of Stephen Craig Paddock on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino and found the shooter dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
"I've worked in the ER (emergency room), I've seen people shot before and I've seen horrific car accidents," Michael Luft said. "I've been a coroner for a long time and yet it took me a while to process that we were getting shot at; we were literally running for our lives."
The Lufts departed for the Las Vegas airport at 4 a.m. Monday, and viewed a city that's seemingly going at all hours struggling to move. Luckily, their flight to Omaha left on time, at 8:40 a.m.
And while there were several concert-goers on the flight -- identifiable by the wristbands they wore -- nobody spoke as the plane lifted from the desert. "The plane was quiet, somber," Sara said.
The Lufts reached Ida Grove on Monday afternoon and gave their children hugs and kisses. They returned to work on Tuesday, seeking some sense of normalcy in the wake of this unspeakable tragedy.
"It hasn't hit me yet," Sara said, moments after finishing work on the day's last patient. "It's like you're in a bad dream and just not awake yet."
Michael Luft admitted he hadn't yet processed the carnage. He shied away from footage that showed shots ringing out. His thoughts kept circling back to the professionals who protect and serve, men and women who ran toward the sound of gunfire.
"My takeaway is that law enforcement was unbelievable in an unwinnable situation," he said. "They ran INTO the gunfire. We took it as we lay there and they ran toward it. This happens and they respond. It blows me away."
"Out of so many bad things, there were so many good things," Sara concluded. "Heroes put people in the back of trucks. They broke gates and used them as gurneys. They took their clothing and used it as a tourniquet. You could tell the number of military people in the audience, because they kept the people around them as calm as possible."
In a sense, Sara Luft said, they may owe their lives to a former soldier who demonstrated calm under ultimate duress, serving his fellow citizens as a psychopath turned an outdoor concert into a shooting gallery.
"I woke up today and didn't know if I could keep my composure. I kind of wish I had the day off," Sara Luft concluded as her voice cracked, but only for a second. "But then I told myself that I'm lucky to be able to go to work. I'm so happy to be alive."