On Oct. 1, 2017, Marty Heffernan and his wife, Jeannie, had plans to celebrate Marty’s 56th birthday with a concert in Las Vegas.
But when gunshots erupted during the Route 91 Harvest festival, celebration turned to chaos. In the panic that followed, Heffernan showed disregard for his own safety, running into the line of fire to help get his wife and 20 strangers to cover under a set of bleachers.
After about 10 minutes of shooting, there was a break in the gunfire. Quickly, Heffernan led the group to an even safer position where they were behind a wall and could run to safety.
“No matter the amount or type of training, be it military, first responder or workplace, you truly don’t know how you are going to respond or react until, God forbid, it actually happens,” Heffernan tells me.
Stories of heroism can help bring some measure of comfort after an unspeakable tragedy. We heard many such stories in the aftermath of the shooting that left 58 people dead and more than 400 injured. These heroes include Bailey Thompson, a Law Enforcement Explorer who ran toward the gunfire to pick up victims and drive them to the hospital.
But on the second anniversary of the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, we’re hearing about Heffernan’s story for the first time.
For taking lifesaving actions despite extreme risk to himself, Heffernan was awarded the Honor Medal with Crossed Palms in August. It is the BSA’s highest award for bravery. Heffernan becomes the 313th person to be awarded the medal in its 96-year history.
To learn more, I contacted Heffernan, an assistant Scoutmaster and father of two Eagle Scouts. He’s currently a volunteer with Troop 801 of Brea, Calif., part of the BSA’s Orange County Council.
Running toward danger
Martin J. Heffernan Jr. joined Scouting in 1973. His dad was in the shipping industry, so the family moved quite a bit. He was a member of troops in East Windsor, N.J.; Mount Pleasant, S.C.; New Orleans; and Severna Park, Md.
“By the time my Scouting records caught up with me, I was too close to my 18th birthday” to earn Eagle, Heffernan says.
But he quickly — and proudly — points out that his two sons, Eric and Ian, are Eagle Scouts.
In his late teens and early 20s, Heffernan was a volunteer firefighter. He then joined the U.S. Coast Guard.
“I’ve never been one to run from away from an emergency,” he says. “I’ve always run toward it.”
That’s still true in Heffernan’s current job at a container facility.
“If there is an accident, chemical spill or intruder incident, I’m normally one of the first ones there,” he says.
The Route 91 Harvest festival
“I recognized the sounds of gunfire and started screaming for everyone to get down,” Heffernan wrote in an account of the events he sent to his council in 2018. “My first instinct was to get Jeannie and other people under cover.”
Heffernan and other witnesses report that Heffernan grabbed 20 people and hurried them under the bleachers.
“What hurts me the most is the thought of almost losing Jeannie, and the sight of a woman running towards us, 20 feet away, as I watched her go down,” Heffernan writes. “I couldn’t help her because we started taking heavy fire. I could hear the ricochets hitting the ground as close as 5 feet away.”
During a pause in the shooting, perhaps for the shooter to reload, Heffernan made a break for it. He led the group, some of them clutching onto his belt as they ran, out of the shooter’s range and into the Tropicana Hotel.
Heffernan tells me he was hesitant to share his story for the longest time after. Eventually, enough adults from his troop, district and council encouraged him to tell others what happened.
“I’m not one that seeks the limelight,” he says. “I had no idea that it would go as far as it did. I was very surprised and humbled by the news.”
The passage of time hasn’t made things much easier for Heffernan, who thinks back on the day with a range of emotions.
“There are points to where I sit and cry, get angry, or ask myself did I do enough to help? Could I have saved more people?” Heffernan says. “I still have images of what I saw that night running through my mind.”
He’s a member of a few survivors’ groups on Facebook, offering an outlet for Heffernan and others to share what happened and help one another.
At the ceremony to present Heffernan with his medal, James Crabb, Troop 801 committee chairman, shared his thoughts with those who gathered.
“There is no telling how many lives he saved that day,” Crabb said. “Or how many lives he will impact through his actions which allow us to now recognize and honor him.”