To Ganger, who was working as a bouncer at Ned Pepper’s that evening, the 32 seconds it took for a mass shooter to kill 9 and wound 27, felt a lot longer.
The first thing he remembers was the distinctive sound of the AM-15. It was not a gunshot you’d confuse with a firework left over from Fourth of July celebrations.
After the first shot, Ganger sprang into action, and started pulling people into the bar. Some had already been standing outside, waiting to get in, while others were fleeing from further up Fifth Street.
Ganger recalls seeing the muzzle lighting up as the shooter, later identified as Conner Betts, got closer. He recalled that his face was covered from the nose down, and he wore large sound canceling ear muffs, and a bulletproof vest. It was clear that he intended to do massive harm.
Then he saw a couple people get shot, which pushed his sense of urgency to the extreme.
“Get inside! Get inside!” he yelled on his radio, warning his fellow co-workers at Ned Pepper’s and next door at Hole in the Wall. “Get down and lock the doors.”
After shoving in as many people as he could, Ganger decided in an instant to not take his own advice. He stayed outside to put himself between the shooter and the approximately 250 people sheltering inside.
“I stood there and I was like, ‘I guess I’m gonna die, but you’re not coming in here.’”
When the shooter turned a corner and was just steps away from Ned’s entrance, he paused and made eye contact with Ganger.
“He had a dead stare, like he was off in another world,” Ganger recalled. “Then he stopped for a second. You would think he would keep running, but he hesitated, and that’s when he was shot by police.”
“After he hit the ground that first time he was shot, he fought to get back up,” he continued. After the police fire, Ganger scrambled over to him, pulled the gun away, and made sure he could not get up.
When police took over, Ganger, like many Oregon District employees and patrons, rushed to the street to help the wounded and dying.
“The worst part was aftermath,” Ganger explained. “Bar staff were taking off their own clothes to help stop bleeding and making tourniquets. People were giving CPR.”
“Every employee down here was amazing,” he said emphatically.
Police ushered a shaking Ganger to the Dublin Pub, where they took his statement. They asked whether the blood on him was his own. Turns out Ganger got shrapnel in his leg and was too shocked to realize it.
Ganger was taken by paramedics and hospitalized for three days for the injury, which is treated the same as a gunshot wound.
After sleeping for nearly 24 hours, he remembers waking up to police in the hospital room. He was told that nurses had to watch over him nearly around the clock because of the screaming in his sleep.
Both the nightmares and the shrapnel he lives with to this day.
“I wanted them to leave the shrapnel in,” he said. “We lost 9 people that night. It’s my way of honoring them.”
For Ganger, the road to recovery has been challenging and rewarding in equal measures.
When he first got out of the hospital, he wanted to come to Ned’s immediately to see his friends and coworkers. He wanted to let them know he was okay, but in truth, he wasn’t.
“I couldn’t walk through the front door,” he said.
Ganger was struggling with the onset of PTSD, as well as survivor guilt.
“What could I have done better?” he wonders. “People died at my feet. Could I have got them inside? Why didn’t I pull them inside?”
While Ganger was grappling with his guilt, he started to receive some pretty incredible public honors for his heroism.
A lifelong wrestling fan, and a professional wrestler himself, Ganger was named an honorary WWE champion, receiving an NXT Title belt on stage in Orlando with his hero Paul Michael Levesque, known as Triple H.
“Normally we reserve things like this for Super Bowl champions or World Series champions, but you are a man whose heroism far surpasses anything that can happen on field or in this ring,” Levesque said in a video posted to the WWE on Fox Twitter page.
Becoming part of the WWE family was a real honor, but he was simultaneously dealing with hurtful blowback and jealousy online. Ganger started receiving taunts and threats that he didn’t really do anything and he didn’t deserve the accolades. “It was a lot to deal with,” he confessed.
Ganger found himself pulling away from people, and by Christmas, he was completely alone.
“I didn’t celebrate the holidays last year,” he told us. “How could I?”
The emotional toll was a heavy one. Eventually, Ganger started to see a therapist, and began opening up to the people who witnessed the same horrors he did.
“The first person to reach out was one of the police officers that was there that night,” Ganger shared. “They told me I did a lot more than people gave me credit for.”
At a public event, one of the Dayton police officers told him to stand in line with them. “You’re one of us,” the officer reassured him, but Ganger doesn’t feel like a hero.
”They are the real heroes,” he said. “If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be here.”
As he regained his confidence, the random “thank yous” he received from strangers in the grocery store or out in the street, helped sweep away the negative feelings.
A real highlight came during the final game of this year’s magical season of University of Dayton basketball. During a timeout at the 15:52 mark of the second half, the Flyers were leading by just two points when Ganger was asked to come on court to receive a game ball and fire up the crowd.
The entire arena gave him a standing ovation, and the Flyers came back with a 23-4 run to clinch the historic win.
With time and therapy, Ganger has had a shift in perspective. He’s been inspired to help others, and is currently taking online training to be a peer counselor.
“I’ve always wanted to be able to help people,” he said. “Now I’m redirecting my entire life. This experience has opened my eyes that we need to treat people better.”
Becoming a counselor doesn’t necessarily mean he’s going to stop being a bouncer anytime soon, though.
“I have to be a bouncer. If I quit, then the gunman won,” Ganger said. “He’s taken so much, he’s not going to take that from me too.”
“It’s actually made me more protective,” he adds.
It’s all too perfect, then, that the photos he shows me with the most pride are not the ones from the big public events, or when he met celebrities like Kanye West. He beams the brightest when he shares the photos of the custom ‘For the love of Dayton’ jacket he was gifted, with the words “Dayton’s Protector” embroidered over his heart.