“I Wish I Could Erase It From My Head”: Las Vegas Survivors Try to Move Forward

Tens of thousands of concert goers confront what happened on Sunday, and how it changed them.

Christie White, 46, smiles thinking of her last peaceful memory. It was a girls’ weekend. It was Sunday night. Christie and Dani and Beth were hanging out in the perfect late-summer weather under glimmering Las Vegas lights with some cocktails, and their favorite country bands. 

“So Jason Aldean came on and he’s singing all his new tracks. He sounds even better than he did the last time,” says Christie. Early in the set, Dani Mallas, 47, turned around and saw the Mandalay Bay looming magnificent behind them. She thought: Wow, look how beautiful. She snapped a photo.

“We were all just hanging out, enjoying, and we heard a pop, pop-pop-pop-pop, pop-pop,” says Christie. “We look at each other and we’re all like, ‘What the hell was that?’”

“Like someone was setting off fireworks,” adds Dani.

“And then all hell breaks loose.”

Everything happened fast. They dropped to the ground. They could hear bullets flying. Their eyes were clenched tight, hands covering their heads as a volley of gunshots rang out.

“And as I open my eyes—and I will never get this image out of my head,” says Christie, “I am seeing a guy laying at my feet, back up. I saw a bullet hole and blood coming out of his back. I saw his girlfriend on the ground. I didn’t know if she was hit or not. There was another guy right next to me, and he’s screaming, ‘Oh shit! Oh shit! I’m hit! I’m hit!’”

Dani and Beth’s line of sight fell on a different man; he’d been shot in the head.

Christie stayed on the ground. Dani and Beth rose, and in a split-second break in the shooting, Beth screamed, “Christie! Get up! Get up and run!”

Two days after the deadliest mass shooting in American history, Christie and Dani are sitting side-by-side on a couch in Dani’s home in northwest Las Vegas. Christie’s eyes widen, she says, “I will never forget those words. And—”

We ran,” Dani finishes her sentence.

The friends had purchased their tickets for the concert in January—eight months in advance. They were excited for every mainstage lineup the three-day festival had announced: Big & Rich, Sam Hunt, Jason Aldean. There were five women in their group. Two were from out of town, staying in the Mandalay Bay in a room overlooking the concert venue. Those two had already gone upstairs for the night, and as Christie, Dani, and Beth faced a volley of gunshots, they felt their room shake, they stood horrified watching the massacre unfold from their window.

While the gunman, 64-year-old Stephen Paddock, fired as many as nine rounds per second into the crowd over the course of approximately nine minutes, Christie, Dani, and Beth can only remember hearing three sets of fire.

“The first one: get up, run,” remembers Dani. “The second: dodging and diving.” Then they were separated. As the third set of shots rang out, Christie remembers thinking, It’s harder to hit a moving target. It’s harder to hit a moving target.

She remembers running on her own until she found shelter on the second floor of the Tropicana hotel, where six strangers piled in to someone’s hotel room, including one, she says, who had a bullet lodged in his head: “Right here above his eyebrow. And there’s just a little blood trickling down. He’s fully conscious, talking, and I look, there’s no exit wound. It’s still in there.” Within a half hour, police secured the room, took the man to an ambulance, and told the rest not to leave. She was there until five in the morning, when authorities gave them the all clear.

Dani and Beth had managed to stay together. They ran and ran until they, too, reached the Tropicana. Dani soon called her husband, who hopped in his truck and sped towards the strip. He arrived, picked them up, and left, all before the streets surrounding Mandalay Bay were closed off. “I still don’t know how my husband did that,” she says. “Said he ran every light. Didn’t even give a shit. Ran every light and got down there.”

Aside from some bruises, they were all unharmed—physically, at least. Now that the adrenaline and shock have faded, Dani and Christie are starting to come to terms with their brush with extreme violence. “I don’t think it hit me really hard until yesterday,” says Dani.

“I keep seeing the guy dead at my feet,” Christie adds. “I keep seeing blood-soaked grass, and people down. Just—bloody. And down. I wish I could erase it from my head…I think I’m going to need to talk to somebody. I need to get some help.”

They wonder, like many who escaped, why they were lucky when others were not. When the shots rang out, the women thought of their children. They’ve heard stories, as Dani puts it, “of those lost who were moms too. And I’m just—I can’t even believe we were that lucky.”

In a matter of minutes on Sunday night, thousands of lives were broken apart and rearranged in unwanted ways. Jack Beaton died protecting his wife, Laurie, on what was their 23rd wedding anniversary. Richard and Mary Berger lost their only son. Dani and Christi and Beth thought they would surely die as they ran past bodies, bullets whizzing by. In the end, 59 were killed, more than 500 were wounded, and tens of thousands were traumatized. “22,000 people were in attendance Sunday night,” said Samantha French, a Las Vegas native who spoke at a Tuesday vigil. “That’s 22,000 people who experienced war.”

Psychologist Michelle Paul, a professor at UNLV who was among a small army of volunteer mental health professionals and trauma counselors who mobilized after the shooting, says that trauma is sure to follow these kinds of events. Paul says she counseled survivors who were quick to undermine their own experiences. “People would say, ‘But I’m okay. This thing happened, but I am lucky.’ Almost implying: ‘I can’t complain.’” Paul tells survivors that any range of emotions is reasonable, and that the first step towards coping with something like a mass shooting is acknowledging that even the living endured a traumatic experience.

The mental and emotional harm could be long-lasting, and Paul worries about victims needing future care. “In Nevada, we are in a mental health shortage,” she says. “We don’t have providers for the need, and that was before this happened. Are people going to be able to find a therapist without a long waiting list? Are they going to find somebody who takes their insurance?”

Paul also, however, is optimistic. “There will be acute trauma, yes, but we know that most people do not develop PTSD. The vast majority are going to be okay, they will actually rise resilient: There is something called post-traumatic growth, too,” she says. “People can find new meaning from that experience. They can reconnect with friends and loved ones in that shared experience that they would have never had otherwise.”

Already there is some evidence of this in Dani and Christie. “I spent six-and-a-half hours in a room with perfect strangers who were the kindest human beings,” Christie marvels. They’d all run for their lives and in each other found safety. “We all wrote our contact information down and took pictures of it so we could check in with each other. We were worried about the guy who had the bullet in his head. They got him into surgery, he was going to be okay.”

When asked whether Dani would go back to the festival, she said maybe not next year, but before long, yes. “It’s like any tragic happening in our world—the Boston bombing, people still ran it the next year. Life goes on.”