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These old boots became part of a very big story at the Las Vegas music festival shooting

"11 Minutes" | Official Trailer
"11 Minutes" | Official Trailer 02:24

Watch the new Paramount+ docu-series "11 Minutes" — a story of humanity and survival, told through emotional firsthand accounts and never-before-seen footage of the largest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. Streaming Sept. 27 only on Paramount+

Five years ago, my life changed forever. And when it did. I was wearing these boots. Purchased at a local thrift store, they had become my concert go-to's — cute and comfortable, with a unique, often complimented design. I never once put them on thinking, "These are the shoes I will run for my life in," but that's what they became.

On October 1, 2017, I was standing in the fourth row when a gunman opened fire on the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas, Nevada. My husband and I were on the ground for three rounds before getting up to run. I fell constantly. 22,000 people had dropped their drinks, leaving the cement like an ice-skating rink, and as it turns out, cowboy boots are very bad running shoes. After my third fall, we stopped down and I took off my boots before continuing to run.

That night ended with us hitchhiking home to Southern California with two gracious strangers, finding out I broke my arm during a fall, and gratitude that we were alive. However, there was one piece of me that didn't make it back… my boots.

Ashley at the music festival
A photo of Ashley Hoff at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas on Oct. 1, 2017, taken about 30 minutes before the shooting. Shaun Hoff

The image of them in the field haunted me in the days ahead. I called my best friend, a Vegas resident, and asked him to go to the warehouse where all the left items were being housed. They weren't there. An FBI agent asked me if I'd like to place a claim. Due to various circumstances — many items had been sent off for cleaning — and per this agent, "There would be a catalog eventually sent out."

I nearly laughed at the notion that after one of our nation's greatest tragedies anyone was prioritizing soiled belongings. It seemed absurd, but I placed the claim anyway. The months to follow were an emotional rollercoaster and one thing continued to pull my focus — the boots. I became obsessed. I researched who made them. I stalked online thrift sites. I ordered a pair from eBay that were two sizes too small. Deep down I knew that we walked away with the gift of survival. Why couldn't I let this go?

Six months later, I was sitting in my office working when my email chimed. There in my inbox was a link to the promised catalog. Titled like online shopping tabs, I held my breath and clicked on "shoes": 77 pages, five pairs on each page, representing 385 people who knew what it felt like to run barefoot for their life. It was the first time I felt like there was anyone out there who might understand how I felt. I was blown away by the meticulous listings. It was clear to me that this organization was doing everything in its power to make these items identifiable knowing that they could be someone's closure, the flag of survival, or a memento from a loved one lost.

I scanned the pages and there, on page 56, were my boots. A couple of months later, an FBI agent delivered them to me. She asked me if I wanted company while I opened the box and something about the way she asked made me answer, "yes." As I lifted the lid, a wave of clarity hit, and I knew why I hadn't been able to let go of those old boots. They were the last part of me that was in that field, part of my miracle, and they were home. In an instant, a chapter of my life closed and a new page in my healing journey opened.

Ashley's boots
Ashley's boots were returned months after the shooting. Ashley Hoff

As a journalist, I began to ask the agent, Debbie, about her job. She explained that a group was created within the FBI to deliver items from mass acts of violence back to survivors and loved ones. They recognized that in the blink of an eye these items went from ordinary to extraordinary. The FBI is often portrayed as cold and mechanical, but I cannot tell you how much it warms me to know that this initiative exists. It is led by the bravest and kindest group of agents who volunteer their time to be with people in very vulnerable, emotional moments.

Later, as I sat sobbing at my kitchen table, I found myself back inside the catalog. As I looked at the thousands of items within – shoes, shirts, jackets, jewelry, hats — I thought, these aren't just items. They are representative of an incredible human being's journey. They are stories of loss, survival, heroism, resiliency, and connection. My stomach turned, and I felt a pressing on my heart… maybe I was there because I am a storyteller. Maybe I'm still here because I am supposed to tell the story. And it was at that moment that the journey to create "11 Minutes" began.  

Watch the original 4-part Paramount+ docu-series "11 Minutes." Through emotional firsthand accounts and never-before-seen footage, viewers are immersed inside the largest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. It's a story of humanity and survival at what was to be a festival celebrating country music. Streaming Sept. 27 only on Paramount+.   

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