I did not attend the Route 91 Harvest Festival. That Sunday night, I was already in bed asleep when the first shots were fired. My boyfriend and I woke up at 3:30 AM to the sound of his phone dinging an alert for a new text message received: a cryptic text from his sister, that there had been a shooting but she was uninjured and home now.
We had no idea what was happening. He immediately began searching his phone for news and there it was: a crazed gunman had opened fire on the festival, spraying the festival grounds with bullets from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay 400 yards away. At that point, an unknown number of people were dead and injured.
The final death toll would rise to 58 (59, if you include the shooter), with 527 people admitted to the hospital for injuries. One Facebook friend who works as a nurse in one of those hospitals posted photos of the hallways covered in blood, a scene straight out of a horror movie.
And that’s what it felt like: a horror movie. Something you watch from the safe removal of a screen so you can remind yourself it’s not real.
Except it was.
We live off Las Vegas Boulevard just four miles south of Mandalay Bay. The hotel’s golden towers are not something I see only in panning shots on TV shows and movies. They’re something I see every day when I leave home to go to the grocery store or to get gas. The “Vegas Strip” is not some geographical abstraction.
Vegas is a weird, frustrating, often disappointing, and altogether bizarre place to call home, but it’s home.
After a few hours, the stories started coming and it became immediately clear that most locals in Las Vegas personally knew someone who was affected. 22,000 people were at that concert that night when the shooting started; that’s ten percent of the entire population of the Las Vegas Valley.
I started reading every single article I could find on the incident, staying updated as the information was updated, as the death toll rose and the number of injuries increased and more information became available about the shooter and his apparent lack of “motivation,” which is somehow the most difficult part of this whole thing to digest.
Religious fanatics, we understand. Political extremists, we understand. Paranoid xenophobes, we understand. Terrorists, we understand. White men who “just cracked,” we understand.
But this? A white man — the only consistent calling card of a mass shooter in America, if there can be said to be one — with no known political, religious, psychological, or financial motivation to rain hell down onto a crowd of 22,000 people? How do we make sense of this?
Las Vegas is certainly not a city that you might associate with having a strong sense of “community”, but the people of Las Vegas came together. They’ve so far raised millions of dollars to support victims and their families, with many more fundraising events still planned. They erected a few different memorial gardens for people to pay their respects. They stood in line for hours to donate blood. They offered free meals to first responders for weeks after the fact. They adopted #VegasStrong, which has become a rallying cry for a community that never really had one before.
Lights on the Strip went dark. Casinos suspended digital marquee and billboard advertising, to display words of gratitude for the community support and a very simple #VegasStrong. One local hospital group outright waived all medical expenses for victims of the shooting. The Golden Knights, the first professional sports team in Las Vegas that played their inaugural home opener a little over a week after the shooting, had what simply has to be the most gut-wrenching intro to a home opener in professional sports history, if not flat-out one of the most emotional segments in professional sports ever. We watched it from inside a pub, and the only sounds we heard during the nearly 20-minute segment were clapping and crying.
Eventually things started to get back to normal, as things always do. That’s maybe the worst part of all, experiencing this as a bystander — knowing that, while so many other lives have been profoundly changed, my life and the lives of those closest to me will just move right on ahead just as they were.
Casinos began their rotation of digital advertising again. People began posting frivolous content to social media again. Despite predictions to the contrary, tourism numbers didn’t take much of a hit. The #VegasStrong message has been co-opted by corporate marketing departments. Life in Vegas is pretty much back to business as usual.
But there is just the tiniest bit of difference. There is more of a feeling that, despite all of the ridiculous things about this city, it is held up by very real human beings with very real human emotions. That, in a place that is so dominated by tourism and transience, there is a real community of people who care. Most of us aren’t from here, but right now, in this moment, as we are all here sharing this space, we are a community. A community that doesn’t need to have attended the same elementary schools or grown up on the same streets, that doesn’t need to have decades of shared history to still rally together. These moments that we share, we share them together, both the good and the bad. And, I suppose, that’s what it means to be Vegas Strong.