Vegas Is Strong. But Still We Weep.
On October 1, 2017, what happened in Vegas didn’t stay in Vegas. From the glitz and glamour of the nightclub scene to the high-end shopping, spas, and renowned dining, with every musical genre at your fingertips, our city provides superior quality entertainment. The Route 91 Country Music Festival alone features some of the best performers like Big and Rich and Jason Aldean. For my 47th birthday, that weekend was a toss-up between celebrating at home with close friends and family or attending the festival. My gut told me to stay home that day, so I did. Thank God I did.
My longtime friend, Jacqueline Walsh informed me that her 27-year-old, daughter, Alexis Donnelly and her husband both attended the concert. The tremor in Jacqueline’s voice revealed an agonizing fear of a loving mother and her vulnerability of not knowing if her child was alive or dead. “When it was time to see Jason Aldean we made our way to the front [right side] of the stage,” Alexis remembers. “We were dancing and singing, having a blast.” Nothing could prepare them for the bloody nightmare waiting under the neon glow.
Across from the fairgrounds, a madman on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay booby-trapped his door and crushed his hotel window as if he were playing a sick video game. As Jason Aldean performed on the stage, the lunatic aimed his enhanced, semi-automatic from a thousand feet and fired, showering 400 bullets per minute over the unsuspecting crowd. “I didn’t realize the gunshots at first [but] my husband Chris did,” Alexis said. “Then I saw Jason Aldean run off stage. Chris grabbed me and said, “that’s gunfire we have to run.” Like a turkey shoot, 22 thousand victims including Alexis and Chris, tried escaping a hunter’s wrath, ducking behind concession stands, bathrooms, climbing over bodies, in search of the exit to get the hell out. For eleven minutes the madman fired continuously terrorizing tourists, and locals. Pop, pop, pop, his gun went off, impaling 527 people to fall like toy soldiers. “As we [ran] a girl in front of me got shot and fell to the floor. I tripped over her, but my husband said to keep running,” Alexis remembers. “Once we got out we found people carrying a barrier to get across Las Vegas Blvd. So, we ducked behind it and ran to the Luxor sign. There were two police officers with 20 people crouching under the sign. We thought the gunman was in the crowd, so we felt safe.” But that sense of security came to a screeching halt. “We heard more shots fired and realized they were coming from above,” Alexis said. “Then we heard over the police [radio] that the gunman was headed our way. I just threw up. I wanted to stay with police, but once again, my husband grabbed me and said, “We gotta keep running.” They ran inside the Luxor Hotel and hid behind one of the bars. Feeling safe, they started calling loved ones. While on the phone with her dad and her stepmom, police were yelling to evacuate. “There’s a bomb,” one officer said. They ran again.
A text message from Alexis’ stepmother informed them to head north so, they made their way toward the Hacienda bridge. “It was like something you’d see in a movie,” she recalled. “A line of cars on the other side of the bridge [were] waiting for loved ones. We spotted my dad’s truck, and I just ran to him.” For Alexis and Chris, their night of terror had finally come to an end. But for first responders, they were fraught with unspeakable odds.
Due to the high volume of casualties, there weren’t enough ambulances or paramedics to accommodate. Police officers worked in unison with firefighters transporting victims into the back of black and white police cars. Their fellow brethren kept moving throughout the night unaware that some of their own amongst the crowd, used their bodies as shields, and laid down their lives protecting and serving until the end. Inside hospitals, emergency rooms all over the city were at full capacity causing a shortage of doctors, nurses and a depleting blood supply. Pandemonium and desperation set in as news reports flooded television, and social media. Cell phones blew up with frantic text messages from family members inquiring about where to find their loved ones. Jacqueline was one of them. The thought of losing her child became her worst nightmare. By the grace of God, Alexis and Chris survived, but the rest of the city still unable to catch their breath, was at the mercy of a news update.
By dawn, as many unsuspecting residents woke to start their morning commute, they discovered 527 loved ones fought for their lives, and 58 precious hearts stopped beating. 58 souls with hopes, visions, and dreams, left behind parents and children, husbands, and wives, friends and loved ones. Rest in peace, Neysa Tonks. I am blessed to have known your light and energetic spirit. Sixteen days later, many survivors struggle with day-to-day activities, endeavoring to feel a sense of normalcy once again. My daughter, who resides in Calabasas, California, shared with me in a text that two of her friends survived life-threatening surgeries, and are expected to make full recoveries. “But they have a long road,” she stressed. Another friend wasn’t so fortunate. “She’s facing paralysis, Mom. She’s only 22.” As for Alexis, “I had lost my shoes so, my knees and feet were pretty banged up,” she recounts. Alexis, a champion barrel racer, competes in the rodeos. She is currently in physical therapy for her knee and psychological counseling for her emotions. But it was the fear of never seeing her seven-year-old, daughter Kristen, and the strength in her husband’s voice that gave Alexis the will to survive. “I kept telling him I need to call Kristen and tell her I love her but he said [to] “Just keep running so you can tell her in person.” Seeing [her] was joyful. She ran to me and jumped into my arms. I just held her and cried [telling] her how much I love her.”
Friends I’ve known since junior high school became police officers, nurses, paramedics, and yes, even fire captains. They are our Las Vegas first responders, and although some express moments of courage, others are still coping with the psychological trauma. From the piercing sounds of gunfire, voices crying out in horror, visuals of blood-stained concrete, and friends and loved ones gunned down in front of them, continue to haunt them. As for myself, it is a bit of a balancing act.
I spent October 2 in bed, eating gluten-free orange blossom birthday cake that my daughter had made me and reflected on the tragedy. The surprising death of Tom Petty allowed the bottom to fall out. So, I played every Tom Petty song I could think of, and then got stuck on “I won’t back down,” and “Last Dance with Mary Jane.” Both just seemed appropriate. On a day where I was to celebrate my life, instead, I dwelled on the fact that I lost a friend to a mass shooting and wondered . I am grateful that I listened to my instincts, and celebrated with my friends two days earlier. I couldn’t read another ‘Happy Birthday’ text whether it was on Facebook or Twitter. So, I continued viewing first accounts of the shooting.
Then I felt guilty.
I am a gun owner with a CCW. I enjoy target shooting with my friends, and I own a firearm for three reasons: protect my home, my loved ones, and myself. I continued reflecting in between bites of the orange liqueur frosting and sipping my sprite. Even had I brought my gun into a sea of 22 thousand faces, I still wouldn’t have survived. I have Multiple Sclerosis and cannot run like my friends. Moreover, I have the worst sense of direction, so I probably wouldn’t be able to find the only exit so, it is a safe bet I’d been either shot or trampled to death. By the end of the week, I was in my doctor’s office bawling over my self-discovery while being prescribed a z-pack for bronchitis. According to her, I wasn’t alone. So, I thanked God again. Thank you, God.
But I still feel guilty.
From the moment we leave our homes, Americans are vulnerable whether we carry our firearm or not. It is just a fact. The bump stocks the shooter used out-number us all. Gun manufacturers build firearm accessories that put law enforcement, first responders, and our innocent Americans at risk. Congress has a moral responsibility to protect all Americans rights and liberties from those profiting off manipulating and skirting our laws. I believe in the freedom of our 2A, yet still, after this tragedy I sense an imbalance. Nothing is regulated, and common sense and moral responsibility are abhorrently ignored. Our victims deserve better, and so do we. Every time I leave my home with my gun, I have a moral obligation not to impede on another person’s rights nor interfere with law enforcement doing their job. As long as Congress allows Americans full accessibility the average citizen will always remain outnumbered whether he owns one gun or fifty. 22 thousand Americans discovered that truth. If it weren’t for the loophole granted by The ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms) during the Obama Administration, declaring bump stocks legal, Neysa would still be alive and because of that, I feel our lawmakers especially Nevada’s, have serious soul searching to do. In the meantime, Alexis plans on receiving her CCW, on Nov.4. She too, has her own opinion on the subject. “If they make stricter gun laws criminals will still continue to buy guns, and the rest of us will be defenseless.”
For Neysa’s family, her three sons, and for the 57 families here and across America, grief like a black cloud, looms over our country. They were robbed another minute, another hour, and another day. Another hug, another kiss, another smile, another precious moment. Another halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christimas. Birthdays without their loved ones. Pray for them during yours. Under our “Welcome to Las Vegas,” sign, Neysa’s beautiful cross, made by Illinois resident Greg Zanis, stands with the remaining 57 as a tribute. https://twitter.com/i/moments/916076540806389760?lang=en Their crosses will be moved to the Clark County Museum in Henderson on Nov. 12. Currently, under construction downtown in our Arts District, tourists can visit the Memorial Healing Garden. https://lasvegasweekly.com/news/2017/oct/12/downtowns-memorial-garden-serves-emotional-point/ The city park will become a permanent landmark featuring 58 beautiful trees surrounded by lush landscape, and hand-painted tile stones to honor the victims and heal our broken-hearted community.
Vegas is safe. Vegas is loved, and yes, Vegas is Strong. But still, we weep.