IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

'I felt my heart stop': Latino survivors of UNLV shootings describe terror-filled moments

Those who took shelter during the deadly shooting at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, describe hiding behind locked doors and trying to stay quiet.
Police on the UNLV campus.
Police at the scene of a shooting on the UNLV campus on Wednesday.Madeline Carter / Las Vegas Review-Journal via Getty Images

César Márquez was participating in a political training session with a group of students shortly before noon Wednesday when it all began.

“We were in the Student Union when the shooting started in the building in front of us. So we closed the doors, turned off the lights," Márquez, 33, a leader of the Forward Party, said in an interview with Noticias Telemundo. "We all stood in the corners and also looked at the entrances in case someone walked by, and we were quiet for more than half an hour.”

A gunman later identified by police as Anthony Polito, 67, opened fire Wednesday on the campus of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, killing three people and wounding a fourth before he was shot dead by police. Two senior law enforcement officials told NBC News that Polito had applied for a job at the university but was not hired.

Latino students made up almost a third (32%) of the student body in 2022, according to university figures, and Hispanics made up almost 29% of the state's population in 2020, according to the state's Legislature.

Surviving and feeling 'born again'

“It was a very large group, approximately 100 students," said Imer Céspedes, 20, a political science major who was locked up with Márquez in the same room. "We divided ourselves in the corners because we had two entrances, and we were afraid that the shooter could enter our space. We even thought about how we could attack him, if necessary."

“Honestly, I thank God because I feel like I was born again. For me the American dream means having security, having my loved ones, because it wasn’t easy being in that room without your parents, without your family. I want to see all politicians uniting and working to create better, safer security policies,” said Céspedes, who was born in the U.S. and whose parents are Costa Rican.

Márquez, who was born in Chicago and whose family hails from Jalisco, Mexico, said: "I was trying to comfort some of the students who were crying, who were very worried. There was a moment when someone tried to open the doors and I felt my heart stop, because I didn’t know if it was going to be the shooter.”

Students also shared their fear on social media as events were taking place.

“My people, I am very afraid. There is currently an active shooter here at the university where I study,” Carlos Eduardo Espina, a student at the study center, said on his TikTok account.

With tears in his eyes, Espina explained that he had just finished taking a final exam when he heard warnings that there was an active shooter at the university, so he stayed locked in the classroom with his classmates.

“They don’t let us out, we are literally locked in. They say that we are safe in this building, but I don’t know. I’m very afraid and, well, there’s no way. It's sad what one lives with here in the U.S., my people. I’ve never been close to something like this,” Espina said.

For more from NBC Latino, sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Jerónimo Guerra, a student at the university who was on campus when the shooting occurred, told the EFE news service that when he was leaving his class, he and his classmates heard an alarm and thought it was something routine.

Then they heard gunshots and decided to run for cover. “We hid in one of the cleaning staff’s rooms,” the young man said. "We were locked in for almost three hours, we put garbage containers and suitcases to block the door.”

Vincent Perez, a professor at UNLV who had sought shelter when the shots were fired on campus, said he heard seven or eight loud gunshots, “one after the other,” when he stepped out onto the balcony of a building.

“We heard it [and] ran back inside,” Perez told MSNBC’s Katy Tur. “We realized it was a real shooting and there was an active shooter on campus.”

“It sounded like a high-powered weapon. It was echoing, in a way that makes you realize that this is someone who wants to kill people,” Pérez said.

Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman called the shooting “tragic and heartbreaking,” adding, “I’m praying for everyone on campus.”

President Joe Biden, in light of the shooting in Las Vegas and two others Wednesday in the Texas cities of Austin and San Antonio, in which six people died, reiterated his call for Republicans in Congress to support his proposal for a ban on assault weapons. Biden said that the U.S. has recorded more than 600 mass shootings and 40,000 deaths from armed violence this year.

“Together we must do more to prevent more families and communities like Austin, San Antonio and Las Vegas from being torn apart by gun violence,” Biden said in a statement.

The shooting Wednesday again put Las Vegas at the center of gun violence, after the deadliest mass shooting in the nation’s history occurred in October 2017, when a gunman opened fire on the Harvest Music Festival on the busy Las Vegas Strip from his hotel room. The gunman killed 58 people and injured more than 500.

An earlier version of this story was first published in Noticias Telemundo.