Retired bus driver was “guardian angel” for Army veteran, dying wife

Sue Ann Cornwell (right) with Tony Burditus (center) and her sister Billie Jo LaCount (left). (Courtesy photo)
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WACO, Texas (KWTX) Sue Ann Cornwell has driven thousands of miles in her 30-year career as a school bus driver in the Clark County school district in Las Vegas, but nothing prepared her for the chaotic and haunting trip she made to a hospital Sunday night with an Army veteran and his dying wife in the bed of her pickup truck.

"I was helping people get people out. And we had several people that needed rides and we were out of trucks. And I said ‘I have a truck I'll go get it.’"

Cornwell and her younger sister Billie Jo LaCount, who was visiting from Wisconsin, were close to the stage where Jason Aldean was performing Sunday night at the Route 91 Harvest Musical Festival when Stephen Paddock opened fire from a 32nd-floor hotel room.

Sue Ann first lay on top of a group of panicked teenagers.

After she got them to safety as shots continued to ring out, she threw her body on top of her younger sister and a pregnant concert-goer nearby whom neither she nor her sister knew.

"I laid on top of her and the pregnant woman, at least trying to protect her belly. I said ‘if someone is going to take a bullet it's going to be me not you.’ Gunfire started again. They dropped and I laid on top of them again. We had to do that twice."

Cornwell got her sister and the pregnant woman out of the line of fire, and then decided to go back in to try to assist with the wounded.

That's when someone told her more pickup trucks were needed to transport injured victims to the hospital.

"The guys said ‘we have a critical’ and I said ‘put her in my truck, let's go.’"

The “critical” was Denise Burditus, the mortally wounded wife of Army veteran Tony Burditus.

The couple had traveled to Las Vegas from West Virginia to attend the music festival.

Tony was trying to guide his wife of 32-years to safety when she was shot.

He, and a nurse who stopped to help after his wife was shot, placed Denise in the bed of the truck.

And Cornwell says what happened in the next hour or so will haunt her for the rest of her life.

She ended up stuck in standstill traffic as the freeway shut down.

She recalls getting out of the truck, with her sister in the passenger seat, and begging drivers to move.

One by one, she tried to gain even a few more feet in a race against the clock.

She says her heart broke when the nurse in the bed of the truck said time no longer mattered.

"I had to slow down and I just kept honking the horn and stopping and going and the nurse yelled ‘you can slow down we don't need to get there as fast.’ I knew then that Denise had passed.'

Denise died in the arms of her husband in the back of Cornwell’s truck.

Cornwell said that she wanted to make sure Denise was respected and shielded from those on the road trying to take pictures.

"I remember I had a sheet in the toolbox in my truck. And I said ‘Tony I have a sheet. I want to give her some respect. So do you want me to cover up her or both of you and he said both of us. I will not let her go.’"

Tony said at that point, he hoped to sit in traffic all night.

"I didn't care how long we had to sit there. It was time I had with her and I knew once we got to the hospital I would eventually have to leave," Tony said.

Cornwell said though she had never met Tony or Denise, she knew their love was real.

"I knew Tony loved her and that they were very close just be the way he was with her from the moment he got into my truck until the moment we unloaded her at the hospital," Cornwell said.

"He just kept holding her and kissing her and telling her that he loved her and he asked me ‘Can she hear me, can she hear me say I love you?” And I said “Yes, yes I believe God lets our loved ones hear us when they're crossing over that bridge and taking that final step to heaven.’"

Cornwell has had a hard time coping with the tragedy.

She cried as she recounted her experience Sunday night.

Through social media and Tony's interviews about his wife, she was able to contact him and on Thursday she and her sister drove to the hotel in Las Vegas where he was waiting to accompany Denise’s body back to West Virginia.

"I wanted to meet him because I wanted to let him know I was sorry for one because we tried so hard to get her there. And then I wanted to let him know that his going on TV and telling people about Denise and who she was it really helped me as far as being able to know her before I saw her at her worst."

Cornwell and her sister also had something they wanted to show Burditus; new leg tattoos they got that read "Sisters Forever" with the musical festival logo.

Burditus calls them his guardian angels one and two.

"They didn't have to help me, complete strangers, and they were the ones that showed up, right to me when Denise needed it," he said.

"They placed their own safety in jeopardy with speeding and traffic while driving us to the hospital. And now, having to deal with the trauma afterwards."

The sisters say they will attend Denise's funeral in West Virginia after plans are made.

And they plan to honor the woman who died in their pickup truck at another outdoor country concert in Las Vegas.

"We have an outside concert coming up in December and we're going to go,"
Cornwell said.

"And it may be emotional and we may have some fear but I'm going to hold my sister's hand and we're going to walk in there like we own the place and we're going to enjoy it and be thankful."