COLORADO SPRINGS — Richard M. Fierro was sitting at a table with his wife, daughter and friends watching a drag show at Club Q on Saturday when sudden flashes of gunfire swept through the nightclub and during four combat missions in Iraq and instincts forged in Afghanistan hit home immediately. Fight back, he told himself, protect your people.
In an interview at his home on Monday, where his wife and daughter were still recovering from injuries, Mr Fierro, 45, who, according to military records, spent 15 years as an army officer and left as a major in 2013, described how he stormed through the chaos at the club , attack the archer and bloody him with the archer’s own weapon.
“I don’t know exactly what I did, I just went into combat mode,” Mr. Fierro said, shaking his head as he stood in his driveway, an American flag hanging limp in the freezing air. “All I know is that I have to kill this guy before he kills us.”
Authorities are holding Anderson Lee Aldrich, 22, for the murder of five people and say 18 others were injured in a club shooting that lasted just minutes. The death toll could have been much higher, officials said Sunday, if bar patrons had not stopped the gunman.
“He saved a lot of lives,” Mayor John Suthers said of Mr Fierro. The mayor said he spoke to Mr Fierro and was struck by his humility. “I have never met a person who has engaged in such heroic deeds and been so humble about it.”
It was set to be a relaxing family night out – the combat veteran and his wife Jess joined their daughter Kassandra, longtime boyfriend Raymond Green Vance and two family friends to watch one of his daughter’s friends perform a drag act.
It was Mr. Fierro’s first time at a drag show and he loved it. Having served 15 years in the Army, he was now enjoying his role as a civilian and father by watching one of his daughter’s old high school friends perform.
“These kids want to live like this, want to have a good time, want to exert themselves,” he said, describing the night. “I’m happy about that, because that’s what I fought for, so they can do what they want.”
Mr. Fierro tried to get better at going out. He’d been shot at in Iraq and Afghanistan, seen roadside bombs rip apart trucks on his train, and lost friends. He has twice been awarded the Bronze Star.
The wars were past and present. There were things he would never forget. After he got home, the crowds made him nervous for a long time. He couldn’t help but be wary. In restaurants he would sit against the wall, facing the door. No matter how hard he tried to relax, part of him was always ready for attack, like an itch that couldn’t be scratched.
He was too often suspicious and quick to anger. It had been hell for his wife and daughter. He was working on it. There were medications and sessions with a psychologist. He got rid of all the guns in the house. He grew his hair long and grew a long, white goatee to distance himself from his days in uniform.
He and his wife ran a successful local brewery called the Atrevida Beer Co. and he had a warm relationship with his daughter and her longtime boyfriend. But he also accepted that war would always accompany him.
But that night at Club Q, he wasn’t thinking about war at all. The women danced. He joked with his friends. Then the shooting began.
There was a staccato of lightning by the front door, the familiar sound of small arms fire. Mr. Fierro knew it all too well. Without thinking, he hit the ground, dragging his friend down with him. Bullets shot across the bar, smashing bottles and glasses. People screamed. Mr. Fierro looked up to see a figure the size of a bear, slightly over 300 pounds, wearing a body armor and carrying a rifle similar to the one he had carried in Iraq. The shooter moved through the bar toward a door that led to a patio where dozens of people had fled.
The long-suppressed instincts of a platoon commander came alive again. He ran across the room, grabbed the gunman by a handle on the back of his body armor, pulled him to the ground, and jumped on top of him.
“Did he shoot then? Did he want to shoot? I don’t know,’ said Mr. Fierro. “All I knew was that I had to bring him down.
The two fell to the ground. The gunner’s military rifle jingled just out of range. Mr. Fierro started to try, but saw the shooter appear with a pistol in his other hand.
“I took the gun out of his hands and just started hitting him in the head over and over again,” Mr. Fierro said.
As he held the man down and rammed the pistol into his skull, Mr. Fierro began barking orders. He used a series of expletives to yell at another club guest to grab the rifle, then told the patron to kick the shooter in the face. A drag dancer walked by and Mr. Fierro said he ordered her to step on the attacker with her high heels. The entire time, Mr. Fierro said, he was hitting the gunman with the pistol while yelling obscenities.
What allowed him to shed all fear and act? He said he had no idea. Probably those old war instincts that had plagued him at home for so long suddenly had a place now that something like war had come to his hometown.
“In combat, nothing happens most of the time, but it’s that crazy minute, that crazy minute, and that minute you’re being tested. It becomes a habit,” he said. “I don’t know how I took the gun away from the guy, I don’t know. I’m just a guy, I’m a fat old vet, but I knew I had to do something.”
When police arrived a few minutes later, the gunman was no longer fighting, Mr Fierro said. Mr. Fierro said he feared killing him.
Mr. Fierro was covered in blood. He got up and staggered frantically in the dark looking for his family. He spotted his friends on the floor. One had been shot multiple times in the chest and arm. Another was shot in the leg.
As more police officers arrived, Mr. Fiero said he started screaming as if he were back in the fight. Losses. Losses. I need a medic here now. He shouted to police that the scene was clear, the gunman was on the ground, but people needed help. He said he took tourniquets from a young police officer and put them on his bleeding friends. He said he tried to talk to them calmly while he worked and told them they were fine.
He spotted his wife and daughter at the edge of the room and was about to join them when he was attacked.
Officers rushing into the chaotic scene had spotted a blood-spattered man holding a pistol, not knowing if he posed a threat. They handcuffed him and locked him in the back seat of a police car for more than an hour. He said he screamed and begged to be let go so he could see his family.
Eventually he was freed. He was taken to the hospital with his wife and daughter, who suffered only minor injuries. His friends were there and are still there, in a much more serious condition. They all lived. But his daughter’s boyfriend was nowhere to be found. In the chaos they had lost him. They drove back to the club looking for him, they circled familiar streets hoping they would find him on the way home. But there was nothing.
The family received a call from his mother late Sunday. He had died in the shooting.
When Mr. Fierro heard it, he said he held his daughter and cried.
He cried in part because he knew what lay ahead. The families of the dead, of those shot, had been in the war like him. They would fight as he and so many of his fellow combatants had. They would ache with misplaced alertness, they would thrash with rage, never being able to scratch the tingles of fear, torn by the longing to forget and the urge to always remember.
“My little girl, she screamed and I cried with her,” he said. “Driving home from the hospital, I told them, ‘Look, I’ve been through this before, and if that happens, just go to the nearest patrol. You have to get it out of your head.’ That’s how you healed it. You healed it by doing more. Finally, you come home safely. But here I worry that there is no next patrol. It’s harder to heal. You are already at home.”