MIGHTY 25: Richard Fierro saved countless lives during mass shooting

When Army veteran Richard Fierro hung up his uniform, he thought he was done fighting in battles. But everything he learned in war would help him jump into action when a gunman went on a shooting rampage. 

“I was born and raised in San Diego. My wife and I had our first child pretty young and we were only 17 years old at the time. I honestly shouldn’t be where I am today,” he shared. 

A family of immigrants, money was scarce and struggle was part of his everyday life. As high school graduation loomed, a recruiter encouraged him to apply to West Point. Fierro turned it down when he was told his rights to his child would have to be signed away because he couldn’t have a dependent while at the Academy. 

“I decided to attend San Diego State University and they offered me an ROTC scholarship. I used a typewriter because I couldn’t afford a computer,” he shared. “I graduated in 1999 and married my wife. I was the first person in my family to graduate from college.”

While he was attending school, his wife was opening multiple Starbucks stores. Fierro joked that if he hadn’t chosen the Army, she probably would have been a millionaire if they hadn’t had to move. 

“We spent 15 years moving all over the place. I had four deployments and the last one in Afghanistan was pretty rough,” he said. “Those years were hard; I was either deployed or in the field for at least 10 of those years. My son was getting older and it wasn’t going how I wanted it to. We made a decision as a family to preserve what we had or we knew we were going to lose it.”

Richard Fierro while on deployment with teammates.
Fierro with some of his former teammates.

In 2013, he left the Army as a Major and Fierro took on a contractor job teaching, settling in Carson, Colorado. He worked his way up the ranks and now works for the U.S. Space Force in academic engagement and his wife opened a brewery as the head brewmaster, called Atrevida. Things were going wonderful.

Until tragedy struck. 

“I always say 9/11 was the day that I went to war and changed my life forever. November 19, 2022, would be my second 9/11,” he shared. 

On that night, a gunman entered the nightclub he, his family and friends were celebrating in. 

“When the shooting started, I heard the noise and smelled the gunpowder immediately. I flattened myself to the ground and looked over at my friends. Joanne had been shot, and her husband Chip, who was also shot, was holding pressure on her wounds, trying to keep her alive,” he explained. 

Fierro said he fell back when he stood up and from his prone position he could see the shooter start to sweep the patio where people were screaming and trying to get away.

“I honestly thought we were all going to die because there was heavy, intense fire and none of us had a weapon. I didn’t think I just ran towards him and grabbed him from the back,” he shared. 

Also engaging with the shooter was Thomas James, U.S. Navy 2nd Class Petty Officer. 

“He grabbed the shooter’s rifle and was fighting with him. The shooter pulled out his nine millimeter and shot him with it. We dragged him to the ground and just spent the next six minutes fighting him. He kept trying to shoot me but eventually I was able to grab his nine millimeter and was beating him with it,” he explained. “It felt like old school ground war stuff. I just remember I kept telling him I was going to kill him. I didn’t know where my family was and if they were alive or dead.”

Richard Fierro wearing a medal.
Richard Fierro.

The shooter only fired his weapon for less than a minute but was able to put 60 rounds through the building and into the people in it. He was wearing a flak jacket with a grenade. Fierro believes the pistol he carried was to finish himself off after he killed everyone in the club. It was a known LGBTQ club, so the motive was determined to be a mass hate-fueled shooting.

When the dust settled and the police arrived, the veteran and sailor turned the gunman over to them. Five people had been killed, including the boyfriend of Fierro’s daughter. A young man who’d been in the family’s lives since his daughter was in second grade. 

“It was chaos and I started directing everyone – including the cops. I’d been in this kind of situation before and could tell for many of the officers this was the first time they’d seen someone shot,” he said. 

Fierro was arrested and brought to the jail, where he spent hours being questioned by police. And despite being hailed as a hero, he sees everyone who played a part in keeping people safe the real heroes. 

“Chip keeping his wife alive, Jonathan hiding my daughter in a closet and Michael with my wife keeping it all together. Some of us didn’t know each other before and now we’re bonded by tragedy,” he said. 

Though humble, the investigation proved that without Fierro’s quick reaction alongside James – the death toll would have been catastrophic. Knowing that the attack revolved around sexuality was hard for him, he added.  

“If I could say anything it’s that inclusivity is vital to this nation. We started as castoffs and I think it’s vitally important that we learn to come back together. I met with the president of Minority Veterans of America and he shared with me that one in five adults that identify as trans have served this country,” he said. “Guess what? They’re being marginalized but they’re the first to raise their hands to defend everyone else.”

When he reflects on all of the significant moments in his life, good and bad, Fierro is reminded of his father’s advice to him decades before. 

“He told me I just needed to make an impact on at least one person during my life. I’ve been fortunate enough to have done that as an officer in the Army, with my kids and hopefully now,” he shared. “I don’t want to leave a legacy but an imprint. Hopefully folks learn something and can carry it through on their own journey forward.”

CHECK OUT THE REST OF THE 2023 MIGHTY 25 HERE

Jessica Manfre is an author and freelance writer for multiple publications. She is a licensed social worker, earning her Master of Social Work degree from the University of Central Florida in 2020. She also holds a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from Northwestern State University. Jessica is the co-founder and CFO of Inspire Up, a 501c3 nonprofit promoting global generosity and kindness through education, empowerment and community building. She is the spouse of an active duty Coast Guardsman and mother of two. When she isn't working, you can find her reading a good book and drinking too much coffee.
Jessica Manfre is an author and freelance writer for multiple publications. She is a licensed social worker, earning her Master of Social Work degree from the University of Central Florida in 2020. She also holds a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from Northwestern State University. Jessica is the co-founder and CFO of Inspire Up, a 501c3 nonprofit promoting global generosity and kindness through education, empowerment and community building. She is the spouse of an active duty Coast Guardsman and mother of two. When she isn't working, you can find her reading a good book and drinking too much coffee.

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