Eric Pitkanen had been in Las Vegas for less than nine hours, and he already missed his 15-month-old son back home in Oregon.
As the athletic trainer and his team of college wrestlers walked past the famous hotels lining the Strip, he called his wife and explained that as much as he wanted to see his son on video, the teeming sidewalk wasn’t the best place to do it.
“It’s not safe to FaceTime while we walk the Strip,” he said.
The words had barely left his mouth when a 1996 Oldsmobile jumped the curb 30 feet in front of him and plunged into the crowd.
Time seemed to slow down, Pitkanen recalled. He heard a muffled thump-thump-thump as the sedan hit three or four people.
It was the beginning of a trail of havoc that would end with one person dead, at least 35 others injured and authorities struggling to explain the driver’s motive for what they say was an intentional act.
Pitkanen, 32, watched one man flip over the vehicle as it sped past Planet Hollywood.
As far as he could tell, the Oldsmobile’s brake lights never came on, he said: “It was gas the whole way, unfortunately, for the people who got hit.”
Pitkanen, who had come to Las Vegas for a wrestling tournament, had long wondered what he would do in a real-life crisis situation, whether he would “run the right way and help some people.”
His medical training kicked in. He rushed over to a man in his early 50s and stabilized his dislocated knee. He also helped calm the man’s 29-year-old son, who seemed to have a concussion.
When the first paramedic arrived, Pitkanen told him to help the more seriously injured. A woman with a bloodied head needed aid. Soon officials shut down the Strip.
Pitkanen still didn’t know that the crime was far larger than he could see, and that four of his Pacific University wrestlers were among the injured, along with victims from all over North America.
He never saw the driver, only the car, and only for a few seconds.
On Tuesday, Lakeisha N. Holloway, 24, of Portland, Ore., was charged with one count of murder, one count of leaving the scene of an accident and one count of child neglect for having her 3-year-old daughter in the car during what authorities say amounted to an attack.
“This is a horrendous and inexcusable act that has needlessly and tragically impacted countless lives,” Clark County Dist. Atty. Steven B. Wolfson said in a statement, adding that he was confident “we will be filing many more charges against Ms. Holloway.”
Holloway, who was arrested after parking her car at a casino and telling an employee to call 911, was set to make her first court appearance Wednesday. Police said that she admitted driving the vehicle and that video showed her act was intentional.
But investigators have not offered a motive, and she denied being under the influence of alcohol or drugs, according to police records.
“We can all agree this is a shocking and tragic event,” Holloway’s public defender, Joe Abood, said in a statement, expressing “great sympathy” for the victims. “At the same time, we simply don’t have enough information to piece together how or why this event took place.”
On Monday, Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo said investigators thought Holloway had been in Las Vegas for a week, homeless and sleeping in her car, and possibly headed to Dallas to see her daughter’s estranged father.
Holloway told investigators that Sunday had been a stressful day in which she had tried to sleep in her car at various places in Las Vegas but kept getting chased away by security guards, according to a police report.
But on Tuesday, a spokeswoman for Holloway’s family offered a new possible version of events. LaShay Hardaway, a cousin, said Holloway, a women’s clothing designer, had stopped in Las Vegas twice as part of a long road trip: once last week and once on Sunday.
Hardaway declined to say where else Holloway had been on her trip.
Hardaway said she was still collecting information from family members about what Holloway was doing before Sunday night.
“I do want the public to know that she has a loving family [and] she is a loving person,” Hardaway said, asking for “prayers for the victims, prayers for Keisha.”
The family of the person who was killed, Jessica Valenzuela of Buckeye, Ariz., a 32-year-old mother of three young girls, has raised more than $33,000 on the GoFundMe website for transportation and funeral costs.
On her Facebook profile page, Valenzuela recently wrote that she and her husband had just celebrated their 10-year anniversary.
Her brother, Bryan Roessler, told an Arizona TV station that “her husband surprised her with a Vegas trip.”
“She was just wonderful, you know,” Roessler said.
He called her “a good mother, a good sister, a good wife — just an all-around good person.”
Roessler said that “the outpouring from people she knew and didn’t know has been amazing to me” and that Holloway “deserves to be put away for a very long time.”
The last of the four Pacific University wrestlers injured in the incident was released from a hospital Monday.
The team returned home Monday, skipping the Desert Duals wrestling tournament.
“All in all, everyone made it out OK,” said Pitkanen, who returned to his family knowing that he was the kind of guy who had run the right way.