Recalculating the Route
Life, love, and work went on after October 1, 2017, but what happened that night is indelibly woven into every survivor’s story
So much has happened in the five years since a sociopathic high roller opened fire on the crowd at the Route 91 Harvest Festival from his 32nd-floor sniper’s nest in Mandalay Bay, killing 58 people and causing the injuries of more than 850 others. Two more of the injured died later. Memorials have gone up and been taken down, though the Las Vegas Community Healing Garden, with a tree for each victim, remains a soothing sanctuary. Event promoters and venues canceled or moved shows, tightened security, and then continued business as usual. Law enforcement agencies completed investigations, issued reports, changed their crisis response tactics, and ultimately concluded that no one would ever know why the shooter did what he did. And, along with the rest of the world, Las Vegas has been swept up in the chaos of political turmoil, global pandemic, and economic recession.
Through all this, carrying the colossal weight of acute trauma, survivors have kept on getting their kids to school, showing up for work, and putting food on the table. But now, they say, everything’s different. In the aftermath of 1 October, life is tinted by a purposeful hue — something deeper than the self-indulgent cliché of seizing the day. They’re moving through every moment with the intention of making it count, for their loved ones, for each other, and for those who didn’t make it out. Their existence is a triumph of resilience, a source of hope in a world that sorely needs it. Here are a few of their stories.
Photo: Aaron Mayes
Billy & Kimberly King
On the night of October 1, 2017, Billy King was fighting for his life at Sunrise Hospital after taking a bullet through the chest that missed the now-44-year-old’s heart by half a centimeter. His girlfriend of three years, Kimberly, who helped him escape the nightmarish scene at the Route 91 Harvest Festival, wasn’t allowed by his bedside.
“Even though we were raising children together, I wasn’t his wife,” Kimberly, 31, says. “I had all his blood on me yet didn’t have any rights to even go see him.
“The very first thing we told each other when we saw each other at the hospital was, we needed to get married,” Kimberly recalls. “But it was just an emotional thing. I didn’t think it was actually going to happen.”
Two months later, on December 9, Billy and Kimberly met with Joseph and Paol Nolan, fellow Route 91 survivors who provided first aid and flagged down a Lyft driver to take them to the hospital. The Kings flew them out from Los Angeles to thank them. They dined at Rivea on the 64th floor of Delano Las Vegas, the hotel adjacent to Mandalay Bay, where Billy worked as a bellman. As they reflected on that tragic night, Billy turned toward Kimberly and got on one knee.
The Kings have made beautiful new memories that eclipsed the horrific event, but the physical and mental hardships from 1 October didn’t end there, and life would bring more challenges their way.
“We can probably write a book between these five years,” Billy says.
Billy still experiences physical complications. He’s undergone a series of surgeries, with another slated for mid-October. “Five years later, and I’m still at the drawing board with this situation. (I’m) just kind of used to it now,” he says.
Getting used to circumstances no one should ever have to has become a norm for the Kings. Like when Billy returned to work at the Delano. “Every day is a reminder. I go there, and I think about it no matter what,” he says. “I guess, after time, it’s just gotten easier.”
It wasn’t until this August that Billy gave notice at work, leaving the hospitality industry after 23 years. His new boss? Kimberly and himself.
A paralegal for 13 years, Kimberly found herself helping friends with power of attorney filings during the early months of the pandemic. One suggested she start her own business. She slept on it and quit her job the next day — that’s when King Solutions began. The company offers document preparation services for divorces, taxes, custody filings, and other processes that don’t require representation. Billy oversees their DMV services. “I’m just really grateful I’ve got an awesome wife and best friend in Kimberly,” Billy says. “I’m excited for her and our family’s future.”
Both Billy and Kimberly were previously married with children. Billy has two boys, Enoch, 14, and Eli, 12; Kimberly a girl, Velonee, 12, and a boy, Maximus, 11. They wanted a child together, so Billy had a reverse vasectomy in late 2020. On Valentine’s Day 2021, Kimberly woke up feeling nauseous. Kenzee King was on her way. That, too, wouldn’t be easy.
One day last September, Kimberly was very sick and couldn’t feel the baby moving. She and Billy rushed to the hospital. Kimberly was developing a severe case of COVID-19, complicating the pregnancy. Doctors delivered the baby that same day, but Kimberly had to spend 10 days in the ICU, Kenzee 14 days in the NICU.
The tables turned. Billy was the one praying by Kimberly’s bedside. “I didn’t know whether I was losing both or one,” Billy says. “It could have been a horror story but, once again, God’s miraculous for us. We’re here with our baby and moving forward.”
Today, 1-year-old Kenzee is a kinetic bundle of mischief and curiosity, bringing a renewed energy to the family and focus to her parents’ purpose in life. “She was a missing piece that we didn’t think was missing,” Kimberly says. – Zoneil Maharaj
Photo: Aaron Mayes
"Unless you were there, you would never understand the feelings that we were going through,” Tas Upright says. Upright had just been hired as a bartender, one of her side gigs, the day before Route 91 and got oriented two hours before the concert. She was among the hundreds of bartenders serving in the tents at the back of the concert lot that night. Upright was a yoga instructor who had been teaching classes in Las Vegas since 2013.
Because she grew up in Thailand, yoga is a big part of who Upright is, and its teachings of mindfulness and meditation have infused many aspects of her life. The night of the shooting, being “present and in the moment” helped keep her grounded and allowed her to survive physically and emotionally. Ducked behind the service carts in one of the tents, a strange sense of calmness hit her, while panic and fear ensued all around.
“There was this girl who was holding on to me tightly, so I kept telling her and everyone around me to stay calm and quiet, and that everything will be okay,” she says, “That’s when I thought, ‘Whatever happens, happens.’” It’s not that Upright was ready to give up; instead, she was focused on her breathing and surroundings, determined to figure out her next move. Eventually, Upright got up and walked out, escaping the lot unharmed.
That odd feeling of peace and clarity kept her going through a scene of horror. As she walked out, she noticed a police officer rendering aid to a man bleeding on the sidewalk. She asked if there was something she could do to help, but the officer dismissed her because she was not medically trained. In that moment, she says, a light shined on her true calling: being a firefighter. “I told myself I don’t want to be helpless or useless again. Next time, I want to be able to say, ‘Give me some gloves and let’s get to work.’”
In 2018, Upright started her journey at the EMS Training Center of Southern Nevada, where she took the Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) course to get her Basic EMT certification, one of the state’s requirements for firefighters. She furthered her education at the College of Southern Nevada, where she received Advanced EMT and Fire Science Technology certification. With these credentials up her sleeve, Upright has worked with one of the local fire departments seasonally and is currently a volunteer firefighter. She hopes to get hired permanently and claim her spot in the fire academy.
Upright took a break from teaching yoga as fire training has taken top priority in her life. The pressures of being a full-time professional firefighter may seem at odds with yoga and meditation, but she doesn’t forget her roots. She says yoga still gets her through tough situations, especially in any physical training.
Upright says it’s been years since she’s had to recall what happened that night. Seeing a therapist has helped her, but talking to the other survivors, friends who’ve experience gun violence, or colleagues in the military or police, was what made her feel understood. She’s randomly met other survivors, some even in her yoga classes. Their shared experience has tied them together and evolved into stronger bonds, as powerful as their hands holding onto each other that night. “I’m glad you’re still here,” are the words they end up saying to each other.
As a mother, Upright teaches her daughter what she lives by. “I tell her to not let things or anyone get to her — to think first and to try to control your actions,” she says. “Live your life with compassion … And for me, to focus on serving the community and doing more good.” – Lourdes Trimidal
Photo: Aaron Mayes
Dr. Deborah Kuhls
The ER doctor
Deborah Kuhls still vividly remembers the morning of October 2, 2017 — the day after the Route 91 shooting. After working all day October 1 and through the rest of the night as the calls started coming into the ER, she was ready to get home and sleep. Stepping outside of UMC’s Trauma Intensive Care Unit that morning, where she had served as the medical director for more than fifteen years, to talk to the assembled media, Kuhls was struck by what she saw across the street from the hospital. “There were all of these community members lined up, and there was this temporary blood donation center that was set up,” she says. “My recollection was, there were a thousand people there waiting to donate blood.” Driving home on West Charleston that same afternoon, Kuhls remembers experiencing a similar shock seeing a traffic jam of cars lined up, waiting to get into the city’s main donation center.
Although thousands of people waiting to donate blood would arrest most people’s attention, for Kuhls, a physician who has found renewed purpose in actionable steps to help her community since 1 October, this tangible gesture from Las Vegans was especially meaningful. “We saw the entire community really rise to the occasion,” she says. “A lot of lives were saved.”
Since the shooting, Kuhls has retired from her role as medical director of UMC’s Trauma Intensive Care Unit to focus on teaching the next generation of physicians at UNLV’s Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine. “I have a tremendous appetite to be trained well and to train others in disaster management,” Kuhls told Desert Companion five years ago. And train others she has — since the fall of 2017, Kuhls has delivered 50 speeches about Route 91 and how other hospitals can respond if a similar event happens near them. And as the newly minted assistant dean of research at the medical school, Kuhls’ recent research has focused on similar themes to that of her public speaking engagements: She and other healthcare professionals from around the United States just published an academic paper on lessons learned from America’s six biggest mass shootings, including 1 October. Currently, she is conducting a national survey on gunshot wounds, which is slated to publish soon. “Sharing what we learned and what the experience was like (in order) to help others gave me a sense of satisfaction,” she says, reflecting on how she has used research to process the shooting. “I think for me personally, it must have been therapeutic.”
All this research is intended to help healthcare professionals respond when the next mass shooting happens — and there have been many more since October 1, 2017. Since COVID-19 cases have tapered off, Kuhls has noticed a return to pre-pandemic levels of gun violence. “Those of us who were sensitized to shooting, we realized that they stopped during COVID,” Kuhls recalls, “but once the really serious portion of the pandemic started to improve, the shooting started again. And the rapidity in which they are occurring is really alarming. Our society somehow has the need to express some feeling or dysfunction as violence. And that continues to be very, very alarming.”
In this landscape of continued shootings, Kuhls emphasizes the importance of remembering what happened Las Vegas, even five years later. “The reflection has to be just recognizing the pain and suffering that happened, and in that, that pain and suffering can go on,” she says. Yet Kuhls has hope that her continued research and advocacy since then will help others in the future. “We’re optimistic that we can make progress, but it will take a lot of hard work, perseverance, and, I think, a lot of money to do that.” – Anne Davis
Photo: Aaron Mayes
The festival insider
Craig Nyman is doing great. But it took him an awfully long time to get to that point: four years, one month and six days, as he reveals it. That’s nearly 1,500 days of getting back the everyday joy he’d felt before that tragic night at Route 91, which he attended with a group of friends. The day before his epiphany — November 6, 2021 — he’d gone to the Rolling Stones’ concert at Allegiant Stadium with his brother and parents. It was a full-circle celebration: Nyman’s first-ever concert was a 1989 Stones show, also experienced with his family. The next morning, he woke up and said to himself, “I feel genuinely happy.”
If you know Nyman even casually, the first thing you envision when you hear his name is his perma-smile. Even before 2013, when he landed his dream gig as head of music and programming for Life Is Beautiful — the annual festival in Downtown Las Vegas — his face always suggested his very life was a dream gig. But October 1, 2017, dimmed the light that naturally emanated from him.
Improbably, the road to recovery began exactly one week after the shooting, at the very same resort from which the gunfire rang out. Nyman attended a House of Blues concert headlined by Billy Idol, mostly to reunite with managers associated with both Idol and Tom Petty, the latter having suddenly passed away five days earlier. Grief hung in the air that night, but Nyman miraculously steeled himself and regained his purpose. “That moment, for me, was just like walking right back into things,” he says. “Like, I can’t be fearful of stuff, as much as it may be hurtful, painful stuff like (the shooting). It was just, my path is to move forward collectively to heal people and bring joy and bring happiness.”
Which meant throwing himself into two things: therapy and work. The former came from a professional who specialized in trauma and offered her services at no cost to the festival’s survivors. (“That one gesture saved my life,” Nyman says through tears.) The latter was possible because his Life Is Beautiful colleagues shielded him from any security concerns — which now included added exits and law enforcement, helicopters and police drones — so he could focus on the event offerings. The 2018 edition went off safely and violence-free.
The same can be said for most other entertainment events in Las Vegas since. Venues have been paying closer attention to security, as well as audience capacities. Nyman nowadays stands outside crowds and looks for anything suspicious. Mostly what he sees, though, is a culture and industry that seems ambivalent to violence at public events; even the see-something-say-something warnings have all but disappeared.
“It shouldn’t be something that, when an October 1st anniversary comes, we’re just moving (along), and there’s a plethora of entertainment and concerts in the city,” Nyman says. “And I get that we’re a city that’s open for business … But it’s not something that should be lost or forgotten, especially in the city, let alone in our country.”
If there’s a silver lining for Nyman, it’s that 1 October solidified his resolve to renormalize large gatherings and experience the elation that comes with communal music experiences. “I knew there was no way that night that person was going to take away the joy I have from attending live music and putting on events,” he says, defiance in his voice. “It’s one of the things in this world that I believe connects all of us … And that part doesn’t happen if I give up. There was no chance that I was going to give up.” – Mike Prevatt
Photo: Aaron Mayes
Ray Spencer was working overtime at Route 91, something police officers commonly do to make extra money providing security at large public gatherings. Then a lieutenant, Spencer was supervising a team of 50 officers, and thus became the de facto incident commander once the shooting began.
Spencer’s wife of 12 years, Gena Spencer, had traveled that day with her mother to their hometown of Reno to visit another family member. Ray and Gena’s two sons were staying with Ray’s mother in Las Vegas. The family of four was scattered as the tragedy unfolded.
Ray remembers: “I stopped counting after 20 victims that I encountered at the main stage. And one of the things I remember about that is, people had cell phones in their pockets. And you could see the phones ringing — ‘Mom,’ ‘Dad,’ you know, their loved ones calling, looking for them. And they’re never coming home again … I’ll never forget that.”
Meanwhile, Gena was processing a phone call of her own — with Ray: “I was getting ready for bed. And I had called him ... And he picked up his phone, and I could hear it’s like chaos … It didn’t seem really unusual, because I knew he was at a concert … And then I hear him yelling something, and I’m about to hang up. And then all he says is, ‘There’s an active shooter. Love you, bye,’ and just hangs up.”
That would be the last time Gena talked to Ray until early the following morning. She spent the night glued to her stepfather’s police scanner trying to hear her husband’s voice, scouring news reports for some sign that he was alive. When he was finally able to text her, she was overwhelmed with relief.
Ray and Gena have always been close. He describes her as his “best friend.” She says they simply love each other’s company, whether they’re on an Alaskan cruise (such as the one they took in August) or just hanging out at home. After the Route 91 shooting, though, that closeness took on a new dimension. Gena helped talk her husband through some of the most difficult moments, eventually prodding him into therapy. He became more present in their sons’ lives, making sure not to miss a single school event or personal milestone. He retired this May, after 20 years with Metro, so he could spend more time with his family.
“I could have stayed working several more years in the police department,” Ray says. “I loved my job. But I also love my wife. I love my kids. … And I told myself, I don’t want to miss my kids growing up, because you don’t get a take two, right?”
Hockey has also played a huge part in the family’s healing. Gena and Ray attended the Vegas Golden Knights’ inaugural-season opener game along with other 1 October first responders that the NHL team invited as special guests. The couple knew so little about hockey that, before the game, Ray had a Metro sergeant on his team explain the rules to him.
“We just fell in love with the whole thing,” Gena says. “With everything that was going on, just so many heavy emotions, to be able to be distracted was incredible. And hockey is so much fun!” Soon, they were attending games whenever they could, sometimes with their sons, who also took to it.
“And next thing you know,” Ray says, “here we are, almost five years later, and I’m on my third year of my kids playing travel hockey, and literally my life, five to six days a week, is hockey.”
The sport reflects the deeper dedication Ray found for his family, Gena says, giving this example: In the summer of 2021, their two sons were playing in two different Southern California tournaments, one in Valencia and the other in San Diego. So, they split up, each parent taking one son to respective tournaments. But during one long break in their older son’s schedule, Ray left him with fellow hockey parents and drove all the way to the other city to attend one of his younger son’s games.
“He’s just so dedicated and purposeful now,” Gena says. “He doesn’t want to miss anything.” – Heidi Kyser