Cabbie Andrew Gnatovich became well-known for his tweets about life on the Vegas streets, but October 1 pushed him to his character limit
Amid his tireless travels across the valley, some places have a more freighted meaning for veteran cab driver Andrew Gnatovich. Like a stretch of Interstate 15 South, near Downtown, where, on a busy weekend shift last fall, three emergency vehicles sped past him, sirens blaring — an ambulance, motorcycle cop, and a taxicab authority officer. He remarked to his two fares that something wasn’t right.
It was just after 10 p.m. on October 1, 2017. A night that would challenge his illusions of his own personal safety, and that of his adopted hometown.
A few minutes later, when the passengers jumped out at the Paris, Gnatovich turned off the meter, enabling him to receive an ominous notification from his dispatcher. The message warned drivers to avoid the Strip’s southern end, where three active shooters were reportedly on the loose. Before leaving the Paris, Gnatovich snapped a photo of the alert and posted it on his Twitter feed, @LVCabChronicles, under the all-caps header: ATTENTION!
For the next several hours, until he tumbled exhausted into bed at 4 a.m., Gnatovich sent out dozens of tweets based on information gleaned from his police scanner and cab radio reports, as well as his own observations. Before many media outlets began relaying details of the shooting, the taxi driver was chronicling that dreadful night for his 10,000 followers — a diverse group of locals and regular visitors who devour all things Las Vegas.
On this night, however, the narrative was horrifying: Loner Stephen Paddock, a disgruntled 64-year-old retired tax auditor turned casino high-roller, had snapped. From a corner suite on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel, he opened fire on 22,000 fans at the nearby Route 91 Harvest music festival, a calculated urban sniper wielding an arsenal of high-powered weapons. Before it was over, Paddock killed 58 people and injured more than 500 others in the worst mass-shooting in modern American history.
For years, Gnatovich, 39, a Mississippi Valley native, had recounted keenly observed, tongue-in-cheek tales of the strangers who slid onto his cab’s grimy back seat — the sick-to-their stomach and simply clueless, arrogant minor celebrities, skinflints, and creepy night crawlers — in 140-character blasts of withering humor.
But this night was different. Gnatovich was scared. As the long night wore on, he became a source of information for a shocked city. “I observe news events all the time from my cab. Often, I’m the first person to see them,” he said. “With the immediacy of Twitter, I can quickly publish things that a large faction of my followers are interested in.”
That night at the Paris, as a German couple hopped into his taxi for a short trip to the Venetian, Gnatovich turned on his two-way radio, something he rarely does, to stay tuned in, like a reporter following his scanner.
Some bulletins were false: Shots fired at the Bellagio and the MGM Grand. A suspicious package delivered to New York-New York, giving the impression that the attacks were spreading. Gnatovich tweeted them all. “They turned out to be inaccurate,” he said. “But on a night like that, it was better to be safe than sorry.”
One sign of the evening’s gravity was the dread he heard in the voices on the two-way radio. There were 500 cabs crawling Las Vegas that night, and many were talking about what they saw. Gnatovich didn’t know the drivers by name but recognized many of their voices. “A lot has to happen to put cab drivers on edge,” he said. “It was anger more than anything else. And uncertainty.”
As the minutes ticked by, Gnatovich kept tweeting. “Cabbies on radio are not painting a good picture,” he wrote, followed by, “Mandalay Bay being evacuated now. Cabbie says he has MB doormen in his cab and (they) took off. Shots coming from hotel rooms/tower possibly …” And moments later: “Mandalay Bay instructed all employees to leave as well … but there’s nowhere to go. Everything locked down by police.”
Spellbound Twitter followers responded. “Wow, so tragic and so sad,” one wrote, followed by a registered nurse who exclaimed, “Lord have mercy.”
Another, worried about the cabbie himself, added: “Stay safe friend.”
Gnatovich came to Las Vegas to study music. The youngest of four children born to an Illinois dentist, at age 20 he joined UNLV’s music program to study guitar. He never graduated, but he liked Vegas. In 2004, after exhausting his savings, he took a part-time job driving taxi for Desert Cab.
He began writing a blog about his 12-hour graveyard shift, featuring accounts of his battles with greedy hotel doormen who demanded kickbacks, and defending against the frequent knocks on his fellow cab drivers. But those posts took precious time to write. Like many, Gnatovich came to prefer the immediacy of Twitter. He posted while paused at a stoplights or in cab lines, detailing that night’s police activity or hubbub surrounding the latest Floyd Mayweather fight. He was telling tales of the city, often in installments.
At 6-feet-3, the 300-pound Gnatovich is a big man who considers himself an introvert — until he’s behind the wheel of his cab. Then he’s a performer, a professional observer, eyes wide open.
In 2011, he witnessed the explosion of an electrical generator near the Monte Carlo. “Holy Shit fire at monte carlo elec plant,” he tweeted. “I was just 100 ft past it on way to nyny and BOOM like a bomb went off. All the lights went out.” Local media credited him for breaking the story. “It dawned on me — you see the traction that those tweets get,” he said. “People were beginning to see me as a reliable source.”
Gnatovich was on the front edge of a social-media trend that has seen unlikely people emerge to command significant followings by describing the city beneath the façade. In Las Vegas, along with LVCabChronicles, there’s a casino manager (@AnnoyedPitBoss) and, until recently, a professional call girl (@vegascourtesan), who tweeted about their misadventures behind the scenes, providing a unique glimpse of Sin City’s underbelly.
“Twitter has afforded new voices from all walks of life with the opportunity to be heard,” said Matt Heinz, president of the Seattle-based Heinz Marketing, which develops social-media platforms. “These people are incredibly dedicated. To be successful, you have to be both a good writer and an interesting person.”
That’s Gnatovich. “I have always been a good storyteller,” he says. “I enjoy making people laugh. The more I drove, the more I realized I was in an area to find good material. And I had the ability to tell the tale.”
Like his accounts of the “Cheerios Lady,” who occasionally summons him to her home, sliding her credit card through a cracked-open door, and dispatching him for a pack of cigarettes and a box of cereal. He’s described how a motorist washed his hands in a bucket of windshield cleaner at a gas station, and how a passenger tried to stiff him for his fare at the airport, forgetting his luggage was in the trunk. “You want to play hardball? You just lost,” he told the guy.
Gnatovich also reports on his conversations with interesting fares — doctors, engineers, diplomats. “He loves knowing about new people,” said childhood friend Nate Roush. “You’re not going to sit in his cab and not have a conversation. Andrew’s not gonna let that happen.”
“When he was 10,” says Gnatovich’s mother, Laura Putnam, who lives in Las Vegas, “I was driving him to soccer practice, and he said, ‘Mom, I want you to tell me everything you know about banking.’ I said ‘Banking?’ And he said, ‘Yes. I want to know everything you know.’”
Even his employers appreciate what he’s doing. “He’s an intellectual guy, a big giant of a man physically, but not the loud type who goes around the yard talking to everybody,” said David Shoemaker, an assistant operations manager at Desert Cab. “That changes when he gets inside his taxi. What he does is good for the industry.”
In a strange nexus of cyberspace and reality, Gnatovich’s online followers sometimes find their way inside his cab. Laura Kurtyak, a high school teacher from Chicago, is one. She’s known the taxi driver for a decade and considers him a friend.
“Andrew is real,” she said. “He has an insight your everyday cab driver isn’t going to give. He’s funny. He can debate. He’s a rock star.”
On the night of the massacre, as he waited in the taxi line at the Mirage, Gnatovich inhabited two disparate worlds: He heard gunshots in the radio dispatches delivered by cabbies near the scene as he watched couples walk by hand-in-hand, oblivious to the carnage a few miles away. He wrestled with his own thoughts: Should he go home to his wife and young son or rush to the scene to assist victims, as some cabbies were doing. “My hat’s off to them,” he says. “In hindsight, I wish I had.”
Over the course of the night, Gnatovich got calls from the BBC and National Public Radio, from producers who read his tweets and wanted to put him on air. “It seemed wrong,” he recalled. “It wasn’t the time to put myself in front of the camera or the microphone. It would have been tone deaf.”
Eventually, he drove to a secluded spot in the Aria parking lot and tweeted what he knew: The airport was closed. So were all the properties on the Strip. Rooms were scarce, but there were reports that the M and Red Rock still had vacancies and were renting rooms at $25 each.
He included a report from one cabbie at the scene that hundreds of wounded people were lying in the street. “But I took some poetic license. I said dozens,” he recalled. “I refused to believe that the number was in the hundreds.”
He texted his mother: “Mom, I’m OK. Don’t worry.” He figured she was asleep and would hear the news in the morning. But the beep of his text woke her up. She called.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
“Turn on the news,” he answered.
He got a call from a regular passenger and Twitter follower. Mark Marciel, a retired firefighter who lives in Hawaii, was just getting to town and had seen the roadblocks but had no idea the shooting was taking place.
“Hey, I’m in Vegas!”
“What are you doing here now?” Gnatovich answered. “It’s the worst time!”
“Well, I’m here, and I’m on Sahara. How do I get Downtown?” Gnatovich gave him directions and suggested he go to some hotels that were offering cheap rooms to displaced Strip patrons.
Months later, Marciel still remembers the cabbie’s concern. “Here’s someone I’d met a half-dozen times and traded insults, barbs, and good tidings. He protected my wife and I that night and got us to safety. That meant a lot to me. He didn’t have to answer his phone.”
By 11:30 p.m. the shooting was over, and Gnatovich drove to the Mandalay Bay to pick up passengers. The scene was still chaos. He tweeted about how the Strip and walkway bridges were closed. Hotels were not letting people back inside.
He didn’t get home until 4 a.m. and went to bed without waking his wife. He almost didn’t go to work the next day, worried he would have to relive the night with every fare. But he went in. “You have to carry on. I tweeted about that. People come to Vegas to have a good time, and it’s up to us, the people who work here, to carry on.”
As time passed, he thought about the people he’d delivered to the concert site in the hours before Paddock began shooting. “The people I took there, I can still see their faces. They’re real people to me.”
Like the cowboys he’d picked up at the Mandalay Bay. One had called his girlfriend back home. She was pregnant and couldn’t come to Vegas. “I miss you guys,” she’d said. “I wish I was there.” Gnatovich wonders whether that was the last conversation between the two. “Those two cowboys are all I thought about for days,” he said. “God, I hope they made it.”
After the shooting, Gnatovich also thought about two Mandalay Bay doormen with whom he had feuded. “That’s when I told myself I was gonna go squash it. We’d had our beefs, but it seemed wrong to let it carry on in light of what had happened.” One night, he rolled up and extended his hand to one of them. “I know we’ve had our difficulties, but I’m just glad you’re all right,” he said. The doorman grasped his hand. One small step forward after a city’s night of terror.
The cabbie tweeted about that, too.