Las Vegas Sun

September 25, 2021

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It’s a wound’: Survivors still struggle two years after Las Vegas shooting

Oct. 1 Survivor Leslie Collis

Christopher DeVargas

Oct. 1 survivor Leslie Collis poses for a photo at the Vegas Strong Resiliency Center Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019.

Just after the two-year anniversary of the day that irrevocably changed Leslie Collis’ life, the native Las Vegan will say goodbye to the city she has called home for 15 years.

Traumatized by what she saw and lived through while attending the Route 91 Harvest festival on Oct. 1, 2017, Collis is moving to Reno to start a new life with her husband.

Collis was one of 22,000 concertgoers on the Strip two years ago when a lone gunman on the 32nd floor of Mandalay Bay fired over 1,100 rounds into the crowd. Within 11 minutes, he shot more than 400 people. Fifty-eight would succumb to their injuries.

Collis wasn’t shot. But her old self, she says, is gone.

“I’m scared every day,” said Collis, a 15-year employee of Clark County, now with the Department of Social Services. “I’m moving Oct. 3 because I can’t live here anymore.”

The experiences of the thousands of people who survived what was the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history are varied and multifaceted. Anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, insomnia, nightmares, memory loss and survivor’s guilt are some of the psychological symptoms survivors have felt.

For Collis, 39, most of her lingering trauma seems to stem from what happened once she and her friends fled the concert venue. As soon as they realized they were in danger, they ran into the Tropicana.

There was chaos and confusion, as people were running every which way, some screaming that there was a shooter inside. Collis and her friends couldn’t locate any staff or emergency personnel.

They eventually ran into the MGM Grand, only to find the same terrifying sight and no reassurance that they were safe. At one point, Collis got separated from her friends by a “wave” of screaming people.

“At that point, I’m like, ‘I need to call my mom. I’m not going to make it out alive,’” Collis said, her eyes filling with tears. “So, I called her. I was like, ‘Mom, there’s been a shooting. I don’t know what’s going to happen.’”

Collis has developed anxiety and PTSD, sparked nearly every day when she drives near the shooting site on her way to work. For over a year and a half, she also suffered nightmares.

Through therapy, she has learned to identify her triggers and healthy coping outlets, such as exercise classes. She also says she has become a kinder and more empathetic and grateful person.

Nonetheless, Collis and other survivors say the healing process is unpredictable and nonlinear. Some days are easier than others. One survivor likened having lived through the Route 91 massacre as a wound that never heals, constantly getting reopened whenever another mass shooting occurs.

It is common for those who survive traumatic events like the Las Vegas shooting to display a range of reactions and heal at different paces, said Daniel Mosley, a psychologist and longtime volunteer with the American Red Cross’ disaster mental health services.

“People’s recovery process can go in starts and stops and starts and stops. Various symptoms and reactions can appear over a long period of time,” Mosley said.

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Oct. 1 survivor J'Anna Hendricks poses for a photo in her home Monday, Sept. 23, 2019.

Survivor J’Anna Hammond Hendricks says it took more than a year after the massacre for her to realize just how deeply it impacted her.

Oct. 1, 2017, was her son’s eighth birthday. Although Hendricks and her family threw him a party that day, he was annoyed that his mom was going out that night.

“My son asked me, ‘What is more important, our family or a stupid country music concert?’” Hendricks said.

When she was huddled on the ground during the shooting, bullets flying past her head, all she could think about were his words.

She and her best friend were on the left side of the venue, about 10 feet from the stage, when the first round of shots went off. Concertgoers around her initially ascribed the rapid popping noises to fireworks, but as soon as Hendricks saw country singer Jason Aldean stop singing and duck backstage, she knew there was an active shooter.

Hendricks and her friend got low to the ground and stayed there, even as people ran by and over them and a woman directly behind them got shot. Eventually, they managed to get up and flee.

Within days, Hendricks sought professional help to cope with PTSD symptoms. Through therapy, she was able to gradually get out of the house and start going to concerts again, something that was initially difficult. Within seven months, she felt stable enough to end her therapy sessions.

But around the one-year anniversary, Hendricks realized that she still needed help.

“I had such a disconnect. I couldn’t figure out why, because I have a very beautiful life,” said Hendricks, 38. “I have wonderful children and wonderful friends, but it’s like I couldn’t feel it.”

Hendricks was diagnosed with depression in December and has been taking medication since.

Reflecting on her terrifying experiences inside the venue and initial relief for having survived, she never would have imagined that the worst of her ordeal was yet to come.

“I thought trying to stay alive was the hardest thing to do. But that was just a natural reaction to get yourself out of there, to run. ... (The hardest thing) was the aftermath of my emotions,” she said.

Lack of compassion

Hendricks has a supportive family that is sympathetic to her struggles. Not everyone is as fortunate in their support system.

Those who haven’t lived through a mass shooting don’t always grasp what it’s like. This can worsen their recovery process, said UNLV psychology professor Stephen Benning.

“If you’re going to interact with (survivors), don’t assume that they should be over it,” said Benning, who conducted research on the psychological effects of Route 91 survivors after the shooting. “That is a very damaging assumption. People are really, truly, genuinely hurt by this kind of thing.”

One common misconception is that survivors should heal from “an initial intervention” immediately following a traumatic event, Mosley said, or that they should be grateful for not having been killed.

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Oct. 1 survivor Cody Jones poses for a portrait in her home Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019.

Survivor Cody Jones saw firsthand the damage that type of thinking can cause when she returned to her classes at College of Southern Nevada after the shooting. Not having slept the night of Oct. 1, she skipped class the following day.

When Jones came to class on Thursday, she said the professor refused to make an exception for a late assignment. “From that point, it was downhill for all my classes,” Jones said.

She was at the concert with her mother, who she said felt compelled to stay at the venue during the shooting to aid victims. Jones, who was 19 at the time, got low to the ground while her mother helped the wounded and the dying.

She isn’t sure how long she waited there, but it felt like an eternity.

“If I saw anyone on the ground, they were like me, hiding or trying to get to a spot of cover, or they were already dead,” she said.

Jones developed PTSD symptoms in the coming weeks and months, often triggered by noises at her college, such as heavy, banging doors. She had trouble concentrating; her grades slipped, and a request for disability accommodations was denied.

About six months after the shooting, Jones lost her CSN scholarship, she said. Two other students in her major who were at Route 91 ended up dropping out as well, she added.

“There were a lot of voices for the family of the victims and the people who have 9-5 jobs and all that. No one was really out there for the students, and neither were the schools,” Jones said.

Inspired by her own struggle, Jones started a nonprofit, Route 91 Nation, that grants scholarships to students who have been affected by violence or have given back to their community.

“I learn that I heal by helping others,” said Jones, who has since transferred to UNLV’s ROTC program.

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Oct. 1 survivor Terri Davis poses for a portrait at the Las Vegas Community Healing Garden in Las Vegas on Monday, Sept. 16, 2019.

It’s the same thought process for fellow survivor Terri Davis, a 48-year-old teacher who is also involved with Route 91 Nation. On the evening of the shooting, Davis had a chance encounter with the mother of Bailey Schweitzer, a 20-year-old victim from Bakersfield, Calif. Davis spent the night of Oct. 1 with Bailey’s mother, Crissy, at the Tropicana, helping her try to locate her daughter, who they later learned died that evening.

Davis is still in touch with Crissy and her family and tends to Schweitzer’s tree at the healing garden in downtown Las Vegas.

“They lost their daughter. Nothing I can do, nothing I can say is ever going to make it any better. But for them to know I wasn’t just there for her mom in that moment ... I feel like there’s a connection,” Davis said.

In the months after the shooting, Davis started to connect with other survivors, some of whom she now considers close friends. They not only understand what happened at Route 91 but are also there for her when yet another mass shooting takes place, bringing up all the painful and terrifying memories of Oct. 1, Davis said.

“A lot of my social time is spent with them,” she said. “It’s not because I don’t enjoy my other friends — I do spend time with them — but I don’t have to explain the way I feel when other shootings have happened.”

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Oct. 1 survivor Lacey Tucker poses for a portrait at O Callaghan Park in Henderson Monday, Sept. 23, 2019.

Dealing with survivor's guilt

Two years after the shooting, one of the biggest questions that haunts survivor Lacey Tucker is, Why?

Why weren’t she and her cousin, who hid behind a plastic trash can that was shot at dozens of times, critically wounded? Why did a bullet only graze her leg and another one kill her friend’s son, 20-year-old Quinton Robbins?

“You think about it every day,” said Tucker, 29. “You play scenarios in your head.”

Tucker attributes those questions to survivor’s guilt, a persistent feeling common among those who live through a traumatic event. Typically, those who experience it are plagued by thoughts about how they could have done more to help others, or about why they made it out alive while others didn’t, Mosley said.

“You’ll never know if there’s something more you could have done. You’ll never know if you would’ve been killed if you’d done something differently,” Mosley said. “You have to accept that uncertainty and forgive yourself.”

Tucker also struggles with anger. Her most vivid memory from the night was minutes before the shooting started. Aldean, her favorite singer, had just started his set, and Tucker felt joyful and carefree.

“That’s what I remember the most and what I miss the most,” Tucker said.

The Henderson native still goes to concerts, but the memory of the shooting is always in the back of her mind. How unfair to have that happy, carefree feeling taken away from her, she said.

“That’s when I start to think about it, when we’re having the best time. (That’s) when something bad is going to happen,” Tucker said.

Survivor Ralph Reyes of Ventura County, Calif., also misses the way he felt right before the shooting started at 10:05 p.m.

“Leading up into the 10:05 mark, it was probably one of the best times of my life,” Reyes said. “I rank that up there with the birth of my children and probably the marriage to my wife of 16 years.”

Reyes’ wife attended Route 91 with him. As soon as bullets started flying, striking people right in front of them, Reyes sprang into action. His wife, by contrast, was paralyzed with fear.

“I grabbed my wife and said, ‘We gotta go,’” Reyes said.

Reyes describes himself as a “wounded healer.” Talking about his experience that night, especially if it could help others, is therapeutic for him. His wife prefers not to talk about it.

“I’ve had to respect and understand the way she’s dealing and coping with it, as she has had to understand the way I’m dealing and coping with it,” he said.

Other couples who were at the concert have faced similar challenges, Reyes said. Some haven’t been able to make it work.

“I know of three divorces and six break-ups,” he said.

Tucker’s husband wasn’t at the venue, but she says he “has his own tragedy” from that night, which was two days before their second anniversary.

“I think it’s sad for him, too, because he couldn’t protect me from that fear,” Tucker said. “We definitely went through two different events that night and had to find a common healing.”

The Las Vegas community was psychologically impacted by the massacre for weeks and months, regardless of whether they were at the concert, according to Benning’s study. However, those who did attend Route 91 continued to show signs of depression and PTSD six months to a year after the event, Benning said, while the rest of the community appeared to recover.

A major takeaway from the study is that people can heal after a traumatic event, especially if they have a strong social support system, Benning said.

Other takeaways: Healing takes time. Don’t question survivors’ healing process. Know that sometimes, listening to them is enough.

“If you’re providing social support to someone after a trauma like this, you may not expect them to get better psychologically immediately,” Benning said. “But providing that support to them will help them feel like they can go on, have meaning in their life, are connected to people and can experience gratitude.”

Having been told by a coworker three days after the shooting to “get over it,” Reyes, 43, urges people to have sympathy.

“Being sensitive about anxiety, being sensitive about a lot of these things that people push off to the side, really helps,” he said.

For many of the survivors interviewed, it’s hard to say whether things have gotten easier for them as time has gone by. But they have found silver linings in the new friendships and connections they’ve made through all the grief and pain.

Surviving the shooting has brought at least one blessing to Collis’ life. In March 2018, she traveled to Reno to get a tattoo commemorating Route 91 and her experience as a survivor. There, she reconnected with a childhood friend.

On Aug. 31, she and that old friend got married.

“One of the only positive things has been that,” Collis said. “He’s been my rock.”