Many kinds of heroes emerged on the night of October 1. A year later, victims and rescuers find themselves redefining heroism in post-tragedy Las Vegas.
Clinical counselor Dan Ficalora somehow manages to both lean in, perched urgently on the edge of his desk chair, and yet convey a bottomless well of patience: “There’s nothing positive about this,” he says. “Even the person who maybe saved 15 lives — he’s happy he did it, but he’s not happy that he had to do it. To find a silver lining is very difficult, because it’s overall a very negative situation.”
The remark snaps me out of a soothing stupor induced by the soft light and overstuffed couch of Ficalora’s standard talk therapy space. I’ve come to his office at Bridge Counseling Associates, next door to Metro’s sprawling police headquarters on Alta Boulevard, to get a psychotherapist’s perspective on rescue and reunion, a prevalent phenomenon resulting from the Route 91 Harvest Festival shooting a year ago. Like many journalists covering the massacre, I’ve heard countless stories of victims reconnecting with the people who saved them that night, sometimes forging strong bonds. I’m curious about the role that those connections have played in both individual and communal recovery. Ficalora reminds me that, no matter how you frame it — and despite the alluring impulse to just move on — this is not a feel-good story.
So, let’s start there.
‘I wish I could’ve saved more’
On October 1, 2017, Stephen Paddock used an arsenal he’d assembled in a 32nd-floor suite of Mandalay Bay casino to fire on a crowd of 22,000 people who were enjoying the festival’s final act on the concert grounds below his window. He killed 58 of them and injured 869, creating a horrifically chaotic scene that has since been replayed in myriad interviews and videos.
By the following day, a narrative of heroism amid the chaos had emerged. In the news media, witnesses described how first responders, security guards, event staff, and laypeople carried victims to safety, drove them to hospitals, used articles of clothing to bandage their wounds and stanch their bleeding, performed CPR, and even stayed with them while they died — accounts similar to those summarized in FEMA’s After-Action Report, issued two months ago:
Civilians were heavily involved in providing first aid to victims — making makeshift tourniquets out of belts and transporting patients to local hospitals in privately owned vehicles. They provided festival attendees with food, blankets, and offers to house people. … The high numbers of wounded, as well as the volume of fleeing concertgoers, created challenges for first responders trying to quickly access the scene. Without emergency medical care, the first aid provided by concertgoers served an essential life-saving function for some victims.
During press conferences following the shooting, Metro Police Chief Joe Lombardo also mentioned civilians’ considerable contribution to the rescue effort; officers’ body-camera footage, released during the eight months after the shooting, confirmed it. In a video titled “The Ordinary Heroes of the Oct. 1 Las Vegas Shooting,” the Las Vegas Review-Journal compiled a selection of moments from that footage showing non-uniformed individuals approaching officers and asking how they could help.
One such person was Devin Gray, who was at Route 91 with his mom, brother, and a close friend. A well-trained gun owner, Gray recognized more quickly than many others that they were being shot at and what to do. Keeping everybody’s head down, he shepherded his family out of the venue and into the parking lot where his truck was parked. Along the way, Gray and his family encountered a young woman, Taylor Barr, and her parents. Barr was shot in the arm and bleeding badly. (The father was also shot in the foot, although they didn’t notice it until later.) After getting his own family to his truck, Gray drove back around to where Barr and her parents were. Gray’s family helped them into the back of the pickup, drove through snarled traffic on Interstate 15, and — with the help of a State Police escort — to UMC. Although they waited at the hospital for some time, Gray and his family had to leave before learning Barr and her parents’ fate.
In the wake of the shooting, private social media groups for Route 91 survivors sprang up. During the week following October 1st, Gray started getting an unusually high number of friend requests and messages on Facebook. In a survivor group, someone tagged him #LVHero. A mother had created a “Wanted” poster looking for the person who’d saved her stepdaughter’s life. The poster found its way to Gray, who recognized himself in the description: This was the family he drove to UMC that night. Soon his and Barr’s families were talking on the phone.
“That was a huge relief,” Gray says. “I was having serious emotional problems until then. After I got the news from them, it was like a huge weight had been lifted.”
The two families now check in with each other regularly. They had their first in-person reunion at Barr’s home in Southern California in February, and they’ve gotten together a couple other times since then. They’re planning to meet up in Las Vegas for the events marking one year since the shooting. Gray says it was easy for the two families to mesh, and he feels bound to Barr for life, as if she’s the sister he never had before.
According to Ficalora, who specializes in treating trauma, uplifting stories like these can help to disrupt PTSD’s painful memory loop. People can’t delete memories of their trauma, but they can teach themselves to invoke positive memories related to the trauma and substitute them for the bad ones.
In Gray’s case, for example, having saved Barr helps diminish the guilt he feels for not saving more people — a form of survivor’s guilt that Ficalora says is widely shared among his October 1 patients. Here’s how that thought process plays out:
Gray: I know I could have helped other people if I’d taken my time, but bullets were flying. If I could go back, I’d help other people, but until I made it to the truck, I couldn’t risk my family getting hurt. … I feel like I was being selfish. I could’ve done more, I should’ve done more.
Me: But you saved seven people, including yourself.
Gray: I guess. But there were other people who could’ve used a ride to the hospital. There were people who bled to death. … But for Taylor’s sake, we had to get out. She could’ve been No. 59.
The connection between Gray’s and Barr’s families continues this process: Those who survived horror and death together reunite to remember those who weren’t so lucky and to remind one another that they’re okay. In doing so, they reaffirm life.
‘I feel bad about that all the time’
Gray insists that he’s not a hero. The rest of society insists that he is. By October 2, one day after the shooting, cable and TV news networks were already airing tearful encounters between the rescued and their rescuers. Many used words like “guardian angel” and “savior.” In one such segment, on The Today Show, anchor Savannah Guthrie says, “A story like this makes us remember who we really are.”
Is that who we really are? I asked cultural critic and University of Massachusetts professor Kirby Farrell, who recently wrote the article “A Psychology of Rescue,” excerpted from his latest book, A Swim in Denial, for Psychology Today.
“Humans are the only creatures who, as far as we know, are aware of the limitations of life,” Farrell says. “We’re all, as it were, destined to die. One way we cope with this is to devise cultures that seem to protect or shelter us. So, for example, everywhere you look you see monuments to special or larger-than-life meaning. You can see it in politics, in religion, in law, and so on.”
In other words, rescue is mutual. The person who is saved slips the bonds of mortality, and the one who does the saving is immortalized with a statue — or, according to current custom, in the media.
But, Farrell adds, there’s a dark side to heroism, too. For instance, in Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, a caregiver attributes an imaginary sickness to his charge in order to justify administering care. In the case of October 1, it’s subtler. The emphasis on heroism can inadvertently suggest a contrasting class of villains. Think of it this way: If heroes restore our faith in humanity, then do those who run for their lives diminish it?
“I saw a different type of humanity that night,” says Route 91 survivor Kimberly King. “I saw guys climbing over their wives to escape, and I saw other guys taking bullets for their wives. People react differently, you know.”
Like everyone who was there, Kimberly King has complicated feelings about what happened that night. She and her husband, William King, were about 100 feet from the main stage when the shooting began. During the sixth volley, a bullet struck William in the back and exited his chest below the collarbone. The couple fled the concert grounds and made it to the Tropicana Hotel, taking refuge in an open back-of-house department along with many others. A stranger named Joey Nolan, an ex-Marine, came to their aid, plugging the hole in William’s chest with his thumb. Nolan’s wife, Paola, calmed Kimberly as she frantically looked for help. This came in the form of a Lyft, driven by Paloma Solamente, who got the group of four to Sunrise Hospital. A client of Kimberly’s also helped carry William to safety.
The Kings have kept in touch with their rescuers and gone to great lengths to thank them for helping to save William’s life. They flew the Nolans from Southern California to Las Vegas and spent a weekend together celebrating their new lease on life. They arranged to have Solamente, who suffers severe PTSD, treated to a restorative trip overseas by her employer. But there’s more than just heroics to this story.
“In the beginning, no one helped us,” Kimberly remembers. “When I was finally able to speak — because I wasn’t able to speak until William was shot and he needed help — I started grabbing people and asking for help. When they saw the blood, they would run because they saw it was real.”
She’s not proud of her own behavior at times that night, either. After a Tropicana worker brought the Kings a first-aid kit, William suggested that Kimberly give it to a nearby young woman with an injured leg.
“I threw that first-aid kit at her,” Kimberly says, through tears. “I feel bad about that all the time. William told me, ‘Babe, give that first-aid kit to her. We can’t use it.’ I did it because my husband is such a good-hearted person, but to me, it was her taking something away from my husband. There were so many people stopping to help other people, and all that I was thinking about was helping my husband. I don’t hold it against anyone who didn’t help me, because I don’t know what they were going through. You never know.”
Was someone running for his life because without him a child would be parentless? Was he running to a car so he could come back for a loved one? Was he simply in shock? As Kimberly points out, no one truly knows how he would respond in a crisis until he’s there; nor does he know what’s in the hearts and minds of others as they respond. This insight into the subtleties of human nature can get lost in conversations about heroics.
Asked what determines who stops to help and who saves himself, Ficalora says both are natural reactions. “The more unnatural thing would be to run toward danger,” he says. “Those who did that or stopped to help others, that would be less natural than those who ran for their lives.”
Ficalora adds that the impulse to stop and help may come from past training — as with the many October 1st rescuers who were ex-military, off-duty law enforcement, and first responders — or from a sense of duty, as with the security guards and event staff. But not everyone has that experience to draw from.
This, he stresses, is the critical thing to remember: “There’s one person who’s responsible for what happened that night. Everyone else was a victim or tried to make the situation better however they could.”
‘I can tell you what each person was wearing’
Not everyone who rejects the hero label does so out of humility. For others, such as Jason Price, the specter of loss looms so large that it overwhelms everything else.
Price is a Gulf War veteran and former police officer. Because he and his girlfriend work in the entertainment business, they were backstage when the shooting began. Price rushed his girlfriend and a couple acquaintances they were with into one of the production trailers parked behind the stage. As the group huddled under tables inside the truck, Price connected to a police scanner app and learned that towels and tape were needed under the stage, where victims were being treated. He grabbed an armful of concert T-shirts and a couple rolls of industrial tape from the trailer and ran out, through gunfire, to deliver the makeshift bandage equipment. In less than a quarter-hour, he’d make another trip back to the bus for more T-shirts and tape, and end up, with his girlfriend, in an impromptu triage set up on Giles Street. EMTs divided the more than 30 wounded people who were being lined up on the street among the volunteers who’d stepped up to help with triage, including Price. He assisted four people, none of whom survived.
“It’s something that I’ll never forget,” he says. “I can tell you what each person was wearing. I can tell you what the ones who were still alive were saying to me. You can never take that away. … Nobody lived, but later on — it sounds crazy — but if you were the last voice that they heard and they had somebody there who was talking to them, there’s some comfort in that. I was holding hands, trying CPR, but also talking to them and looking in their eyes. I don’t know if I’ve come to terms with everything personally ... I wish I had a good feel-good story for you, but I don’t.”
Price says October 1 shook him much more than anything he encountered in the military or law enforcement, where he was prepared for and expected danger. Seeing revelry suddenly turn to carnage has robbed him, like countless others, of his sense of security. In December, a therapist told him he was showing 11 of the 12 signs of PTSD. Slowly, though, he’s recovering. He says the faces of those he tried to help haunt him less. He sleeps better. Counseling has helped, but the best support comes from his girlfriend, because she lived through the ordeal with him and can truly understand what he’s going through. The couple joined a local hiking group, resisting the urge to isolate themselves and, instead, finding refuge in nature and the company of others.
Price says he never joined one of the Route 91 survivor groups, however. He felt the less he heard or talked about the situation, the better. I ask, “What if a loved one of someone whose hand you held while they were dying is looking for you to say thank you?” He says he honestly hadn’t thought of that. What he did, in his mind, is not heroic.
“You talk to people and, of course, they have your best interests in mind, but they’d be like, ‘Oh my god, you’re a hero!’” he says. “And I’d tell them I appreciate them saying that, but please don’t say it again. Initially, that was my mindset: A hero saves somebody.”
We can be heroes
In a way, it’s not too late for Price — or anyone else — to rescue someone or be rescued from the nightmare of October 1. There are people in need of help everywhere you look in Las Vegas. They may not be bleeding, but they’re suffering in other ways, unable to work, get counseling, or pay the rent; paralyzed by fear, grief, and guilt.
“It’s sad that there’s so much going on right now, so much negativity,” says William King. “I don’t know if the world is smaller because of communication, but it seems like there’s always a shooting. Every day is a roller coaster. There are a lot of triggers. … But so many people have done great things for us and our family. When I get down I think about that.”
The Kings point to survivor Shawna Bartlett as an example of someone who’s shown her heroism in the aftermath of October 1. Bartlett is vice president of the Love Wins nonprofit that helps families affected by the shooting. She’s also an administrator of the Route 91 survivor social-media groups and has organized several IRL reunions. There was a big one planned for September 29, marking one year since the shooting.
“When I looked around (at the first reunion) and saw everybody laughing and enjoying each other’s company, I realized that at that moment, we weren’t thinking about what he did to us that night,” Bartlett says. She chokes up, continuing: “When people ask why we want it to be just us, it’s because others don’t realize what we’re going through, that we’re jittery and looking for a way out wherever we go. … Other friends and family who knew us before that night don’t understand. It’s easy to be with people who get it. When it’s just us you can say, ‘If you need a hug, I’m here for you.’ Our family and friendships have grown so much. It was a night that strangers became friends, and heroes became family.”
Given the one-year reminder, mental health professionals are urging the community to be extra aware of and sensitive to the strong feelings that may come up.
“As the date comes back, we want to encourage people to prepare,” Ficalora says. “Recognize that it’s coming, prepare for the stress and the memories, and find a way that you can commemorate it, whether that’s lighting a candle or going to a rally or being on the news. Do what it takes to make you feel like you’re making a difference.”