Peering into the computer screen at his security desk, Jeremiah Griffith mistook the gunman entering Club Q for a bounty hunter.
A few minutes before midnight, Griffith watched the man pull up in a tan SUV. He stepped out wearing tactical gear and carrying what looked like a gun, then took about five strides to reach the front door of the nightclub. Griffith moved to leave his office next to the front door to confront him.
Before he could swivel in his chair, he heard the first pop of gunfire and saw a shell flying into the air.
The music thumped and the lights flashed on the dance floor as the bullets began to spray.
Ed Sanders had just handed over his credit card to start a tab at the bar. Richard Fierro was sitting at a table, drinking with friends. Joshua Thurman was on the dance floor, thinking the first shots were part of the music. About a block away, Aleana Wyman was startled awake by the sound of gunfire and got up to lock her window.
Emergency dispatchers received their first call about the shooting at 11:57 p.m. Saturday and within three minutes police and ambulance crews were there, beginning to sort through the chaos that had unfurled inside Club Q almost as quickly.
Interviews with survivors and reviews of police statements and 911 recordings reveal the details of how what started as a normal Saturday night turned deadly at the beloved LGBTQ bar filled with regulars there to catch up and strangers who came to dance and drink. Five people were killed, at least 18 were injured and a tight community of chosen family and its allies are in mourning.
$20 “drink all night” special, 9 p.m. drag show
Griffith, the head of security for Club Q, arrived for his shift a little after 7 p.m. The club had been short staffed, so that night he was the only security guard. One other person was checking IDs at the door.
The club, which is tucked behind a strip mall on North Academy Boulevard, began to fill with people at a “slow, steady pickup,” for the night’s events, Griffith recalled. A drag show hosted by performer Del Lusional was set for 9 p.m. Tara Bush, or DJ T-Beatz, was mixing for the night.
“It was a great vibe, everybody was having fun. There was no drama,” Griffith said. “Everybody was dancing and having drinks. The bartenders were slinging the drinks. The DJs were doing an amazing job, like normal.”
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The only problem Griffith had run into was the occasional under-18 person attempting to buy a drink. He didn’t want to discuss specifics of what happened after the shots rang out inside the club because of the investigation, but said he “had to do what I had to do to protect” people in the building.
Thurman, 34, who frequently went to dance at Club Q, arrived at about 9 p.m., just in time for the drag show. His birthday was coming up and he was out to celebrate. The club was having a $20 “drink all night” special. Patrons who held onto their clear plastic mugs with a red twist lid and straw could refill until they were cut off or the night ended.
The club entrance opens into the bar area, where the owners created a chill space to hang and chat, somewhat insulated from the club’s pulsing music by a soundproof wall. A ramp on the left leads to the dance floor.
“It wasn’t packed. It wasn’t dead. It was decent,” Thurman said.
Justin Godwin and Aeron Laney, both 24, recently moved to Colorado Springs to work at Schriever Space Force Base and decided to find a local gay bar to visit. After a quick search online, they learned about Club Q, one of the few options for an LGBTQ club in town. They arrived at about 9:45 p.m.
They didn’t hit the dance floor, but they enjoyed watching Thurman and others dancing, they said. With fewer than 50 people at the club, they saw most everyone there.
The dance floor was just starting to thin out when they started to leave, Godwin said. “We saw all the people dancing, having a good time,” he said, “It just doesn’t seem like it would have happened.”
The two walked out only minutes before the shooting started. By 11:53 p.m., they were in an Uber headed to another bar.
Shots ring out
When the gunman burst through the door four minutes later, Fierro was talking with friends at a table and his wife and daughter were dancing. Thurman was on the dance floor, too, and he first thought the sound of the gunfire was coming from the stereos.
Behind the bar, Michael Anderson was pouring drinks, the music thumping, when he heard loud popping sounds that stood out from the music. Barrett Hudson was hanging out with friends who had come with him to see the drag show.
And Ed Sanders was opening his tab at the bar, next to the front door.
A bullet sliced into Sanders’ back, right between his shoulder blades.
Sanders, 63, turned to look at the gunman, then watched him fire off another 10 or 15 shots. During that second volley, a bullet hit Sanders’ thigh and he dropped to the floor beside the bar. Everyone around him dropped, too.
The gunman was shouting something as he fired, but Sanders couldn’t hear it. It was too loud. Too chaotic.
Two bartenders standing just to Sanders’ right were killed. Beside him, a woman was dying on the floor. Sanders draped his coat over a woman, trying to hide her. “Cause I didn’t know how long they were going to shoot,” Sanders said in a video blog from his hospital bed, wearing a hospital gown and an oxygen tube in his nose.
Thurman grabbed the hand of Fierro’s daughter, Kassy, on the dance floor and pulled her into a dressing room to hide. “When I realized it was shooting and not part of the music I immediately ran to the dressing room and got on the floor, cut off the lights and locked the door,” he said. One of the drag performers, Del Lusional, was in the small room, too. The three huddled together on the floor under a table, fearful the gunman could barge in at any moment.
“I felt like there was nothing stopping him from exploring and just literally busting down the door,” Thurman said. “That little flimsy-ass lock was not going to hold him if he really wanted to get in.”
They made desperate pleas for help to a 911 operator, he said, choking up as he recounted their fear. “We were literally on the phone whispering to the police, ‘Hurry, hurry, hurry. There’s an active shooter.’”
When bartender Anderson saw the man with the gun, he ducked below the counter and began to pray more “sincerely and quickly” than he ever had before, he told CNN.
Hudson was shot seven times in the back with what he thought looked like an AR-15. He got up, ran to the back door of the club and hopped onto a table and over a 12-foot fence. He ran across the street to a 7-Eleven, where bystanders helped him, and called his dad.
Anthony, a patron who declined to share his last name, was standing in the front, near the door, when he heard shots ring out. He didn’t see the gunman, but he heard the shots — he can’t remember how many.
“I pretty much heard it first along with everybody else who was up near the door,” Anthony said, wearing a yellow hospital gown and sitting in a wheelchair while speaking to a room full of reporters Tuesday afternoon at Penrose Hospital. A white sheet was draped around his shoulders and an oxygen tube was secured under his nose.
He fell to the floor and crawled near a wall, hoping to escape the gunman’s line of fire.
“Just out of the way because I didn’t want to be in the middle of the floor,” he said.
Fierro, from the table, saw the shooter open fire, saw the flash of the muzzle and smelled the gunpowder.
A veteran of four combat tours with the Army, he said didn’t have to think before he dove for cover and pushed his friend to the floor. He fell backward, hitting his head on a bench. As he got up, the gunman’s body armor caught his eye from across the room.
“I got into (combat) mode and I needed to save my family and that family at that time was everybody in that room,” Fierro later told reporters outside his Colorado Springs home.
Fierro remembered there was a lull in the gunfire. He looked toward the patio, where his wife and others had run to escape.
Then, he said he grabbed the gunman by his body armor and tackled him to the floor. He took the pistol from him and shouted at another person to move what appeared to be an AR-15 out of his reach.
“Then I started wailing on this dude,” Fierro said. “I just kept wailing him. I told the guy in front of me, ‘Kick him in his head! Kick him in his head!’”
“Nine-one-one. Somebody call 911!” he yelled. The gunman wriggled beneath him, trying to get his ammo and guns, Fierro said.
A trans woman was running by and Fierro told her to kick the gunman. She used her high heels to stomp on his head.
When the gunshots ended
After the gunshots stopped, bartender Anderson waited for what he said was about a minute and a half before getting up from a corner and running outside. On his way, he saw two people pummeling the shooter on the floor. “I truly believe those two people saved my life,” he told CNN.
Anthony realized the gunshots had ended.
“I don’t know how quick or where they took the gunman down. I was in a panic. I wasn’t trying to pay attention to anything around me,” he said.
As he lay on the floor, he didn’t know how extensive his wounds were. He wondered if he would ever hug Jeremy, his partner of 14 years, again.
Several pieces of shrapnel pierced his buttocks. He couldn’t walk, but first responders helped him out of the club.
Sanders, blood seeping from the wound on his thigh, stayed on the floor near the bar for what felt like two minutes. He didn’t know why the shooting stopped because he was facing away from the gunman and didn’t see him get tackled.
“People that weren’t hit were helping each other, just like a family would do,” he said.
“The police came very quickly. They took the woman next to me first because she was passing.”
The terrifying scene was one he had imagined, ever since 2016 when a gunman killed 49 people at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. When it happened in Colorado Springs, though, Sanders didn’t have time to run or hide.
“I didn’t see it coming and I was surprised and shocked and turned around to look, which I should have ducked,” he said, “but in those kinds of situations you do what you do and you take the consequences.”
Sanders had been going to Club Q since it opened more than 20 years ago, and said he was there on opening night. He knew the two bartenders, the woman at the front door, the trans woman who was killed.
“I want to be resilient,” said Sanders, who had a large chunk of flesh removed from his back and was grateful that the bullet missed any vital organs. “I’m a survivor. I’m not going to be taken out by some sick person.”
Shattered glass, broken cups, people crying
From the dressing room, Thurman heard the gunshots end, followed by the sound of people beating the shooter. He heard the blows landing and the shouts telling him to stay down.
“And then we heard the police come in,” he said. It was 12:00 a.m.
Kassy began to panic in the dressing room as she heard her father’s voice yelling back and forth with police. Fierro had taken down the shooter, was covered in blood and still had the handgun when police entered. They put him in handcuffs in a patrol car while they sorted out what had happened. He waited there for about an hour.
“When that cop walked in, he must have thought I was crazy,” Fierro said.
He would later find out that his daughter’s boyfriend was killed.
Thurman told Kassy and Del Lusional to stay in the room while he crawled out and asked police if it was safe.
“When I came out there were bodies on the floor, there was shattered glass, broken cups, people crying,” Thurman said through tears the next day. “It wasn’t pretty.”
At 12:15 a.m., according to dispatch recordings, a first responder reported a victim was shot seven times and requested an ambulance. It was for Hudson, who had run to 7-Eleven. From his hospital bed two days after the shooting, Hudson shared a livestream on Facebook, his voice weak and scratchy. “I shouldn’t be alive,” he said. “All the bullets missed my organs.”
By 12:33 a.m., a dispatcher said they believed everyone had been brought out of the building and all victims were on their way to hospitals. The club has since turned over its security footage to investigators, which shows both the inside and outside of the building.
After the lights came on and the music finally stopped, police learned at least five people had been killed and 17 others were shot.
Those killed were:
- Raymond Green Vance, 22, Kassy’s longtime boyfriend
- Daniel Aston, 28, and Derrick Rump, 38, two beloved bartenders of the club
- Kelly Loving, 40, a visitor from Denver
- Ashley Paugh, 35, a mother and foster care worker from La Junta
“You have harmed us in a way that I don’t know how we can bounce back,” Thurman said outside the club the next morning. “What can we do? We can rebuild, we can come together, we can do a vigil, we can raise money, but that’s not going to bring back those five people that lost their lives.”