PHOTOGRAPHS BY ZACKARY CANEPARI
OCT. 1, 2018
Dana Stout-Wilson, Jason McMillan and Jennifer Campas are three of the more than 400 people who were struck by bullets or shrapnel.
The clatter of dishes as they’re being washed still puts Janie Scott in a tailspin. Her anxiety goes up, her heart starts pounding, and she has to leave the kitchen because the clink of metal reminds her of the sound the bullets made as they hit the festival ground pavement around her.
Oct. 1 marks one year since the Las Vegas massacre, in which a gunman perched in a hotel above a country music festival killed 58 people, wounded hundreds and linked more than 20,000 music fans together on a night that they will never forget.
It was the worst shooting in modern American history — and for those who survived, the last 12 months have been about finding a new normal, about building lives that can accommodate wheelchairs, flashbacks and a painful sense of fragility.
The last year has also involved watching the rest of the nation move on.
“Survivors have been forgotten,” said Ms. Scott, 42, a preschool teacher and mother of seven who has earned a reputation as the “mom” of a Vegas group she manages on Facebook. Concertgoers, she said, have become each other’s biggest support. “Because nobody else is doing it for us.”
‘I’m doubting myself’
A bullet hit Jennifer Campas in the forehead.
Jennifer Campas was in her front yard in Whittier, Calif., on a recent evening when her son Leo left the house, slapping his flip-flops on the pavement.
“Ay, mi hijo!” she said, whipping around to find the source of the noise. “You scared me.”
When the gunman opened fire last year, one of his bullets struck Ms. Campas, 41, in the forehead. When she woke from a coma, she had to learn to breathe again, to talk again, to walk again. She is now blind in one eye, and bullet fragments remain in her nose and neck. At night, she dreams about being shot.
She wears a single angel wing around her neck.
Notes that Ms. Campas wrote at a hospital after recovering consciousness.
In May, she went back to work as the head nurse at an assisted living home. But she is slower now, less able to multitask. In her kitchen recently, she said she was thinking about stepping down and taking a lower position. Leo, 16, looked on.
Juanita Campas holds a photo of her daughter Jennifer Campas during her recovery.
“You know, I’m doubting myself,” she said. “And I don’t want to, I don’t want to be able to not carry it out, to fail. At this time in my life, do I really want to be so overwhelmed with work? I just kind of want to — maybe — live more.”
While the scale of the violence was unprecedented, detailed information on the hundreds of people who were wounded is not available in the official reports documenting the tragedy.
The New York Times reached out to Abraham Watkins, a law firm in Houston that is representing survivors, to understand the scale of the impact of the shooting on survivors. The firm described a range of injuries sustained by 50 victims who were wounded by the gunfire.
Of those 50 people …
20 were shot in the legs, arms or feet.
12 were shot in the torso, buttocks or spine.
2 were shot in the head.
Because the gunman used high-velocity bullets, many of the victims had small entrance wounds but tremendous internal damage or exit wounds.
“Normally your jaw is pretty resilient, but it just shatters like glass when it’s hit by a high-velocity bullet,” said Dr. Steven Saxe, a Las Vegas-based oral surgeon who treated seven patients after the shooting. “The actual injury only takes fractions of a second to occur, but it’s a lifetime of rehabilitation.”
‘I’m just not the same shape’
Karen Smerber was wounded in the stomach.
At her home in Beaumont, Calif., Karen Smerber lifted her shirt to display the red scar running down her stomach, jagged as a map’s edge. “I’m the same size, technically,” she said. “I’m just not the same shape.”
Ms. Smerber, 48, a produce buyer at Stater Bros., was shot in the hip. The bullet pierced her intestine, and her husband, a retired fire captain named Matt, spent six weeks stuffing an incision in her side with gauze, then pulling out the infected material a few hours later.
“I don’t even know how he could still love me,” she said. “It was just something else, poor guy.”
Her stomach has taken on an uneven shape, and she feels like there is a hard shoe stuck inside. On her back patio, she winced as her dog leapt onto her lap and hit her stomach. It is difficult to sit, she said. She has started taking Zoloft, and she has returned to work part-time.
She can even line dance, a bit.
But the hardest thing is looking in the mirror. “My friends are so good,” she said. “They always reassure me that I’m beautiful and such. It’s just, people don’t realize that I feel bad about myself. And so then I feel — like with Matt — I feel disgusting most of the time.”
Nearly all of the 50 survivors documented by Abraham Watkins reported depression, anxiety, insomnia, fear of crowds and loud noises — hallmarks of post-traumatic stress disorder.
On a recent day, Dana Stout-Wilson, 54, stood on the blacktop at her middle school, her P.E. students in gym shorts in front of her. “Two laps, go!”
“These itch constantly,” she said, scratching at the purple bullet wounds on the back of her leg.
Ms. Wilson is back at work, the word “survivor” now inked on her arm. But the shooting is a perpetual shadow. She has nightmares; she is scared of sirens and helicopters.
The field where she teaches is a particular anxiety. It is frequently filled with children. It is also surrounded by hills and homes. She is constantly scanning for snipers.
The school is just miles from the 2015 shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., and already the staff has turned it into a fortress.
“You wonder when you’re going to be normal again,” she said. “I always feel like I'm going to break, like I’m going to fall apart.”
A far-flung community of survivors
Many of the wounded got tattoos honoring the 58 killed in the shooting.
Country music fans from almost every state attended the Route 91 Harvest Festival. Most people returned to their homes to face recovery far from the festival grounds, the memorials and other survivors.
Many have connected and found support online. Connie Long, 42, a probation officer, runs a support group on Facebook under the motto “happy, healthy, and healing.”
It has more than 4,500 members from all over. “We have Switzerland and England. Everywhere from Hawaii to Maine,” she said. Members post daily, sharing uplifting quotes or seeking to connect with others who are experiencing similar arcs of struggles and recovery.
No. of festival
Ms. Long is from Riverside, Calif., and has also hosted “meet and supports” gatherings every month since October. She rattled off a list of events including line dancing at a family-friendly country bar, a hockey game, a bonfire on the beach, a paint night and a dinner at a local restaurant with a candlelight vigil and music.
Her 11-year-old daughter did not attend the festival, but she has been to every survivors’ gathering and has come to know many of them well.
“She’s named them all aunts and uncles,” Ms. Long said. “It’s like a new family. When it’s weeks or days and we haven’t seen them, we’re texting each other to get tacos or do something else.”
At the end of therapy, he is exhausted
Jason McMillan was hit in the spine.
Jason McMillan wheeled himself across the floor of his home in Menifee, Calif., to a spot near a police flag on the wall. A rehabilitation bike sat in the corner. “Still in a wheelchair,” he said, “still paralyzed.”
Mr. McMillan, 36, a sheriff’s deputy, had been trained to save others, but on Oct. 1 he became the victim when a bullet pierced his body, hitting his spine.
Now, his job is on hold, his fiancée, Fiorella Gaete, 23, does most of the housework, and their relationship has changed, she said. A lot. “It’s put me in a big mom role,” she said.
These days, Mr. McMillan is trying to walk. In November, he was able to move a toe. Then he could flex a thigh. Now, he can move two steps with a walker, as long as he thinks like this: “Make sure my ankles are nice and secure. Make sure my knees are locked out. Make sure my thighs are flexed. Make sure I stay level to my hips. Keep my hips under my shoulders.”
Mr. McMillan’s tattoo covers a scar on his torso, from a tube placed at a hospital on the night of the shooting. At right, physiotherapy equipment he uses at home.
When he tries to stand alone, his knees often buckle, and he falls to his rear, he said. At the end of therapy, he is exhausted.
Some people have found comfort in Route 91 support groups. But Mr. McMillan mostly stays away. He cannot take the physically fit people crying in front of him. “I try not to think about the chaos that went on that night,” he said. “I don’t want to be mean to these people or anything like that, but they’re standing in front of me telling me how much it ruined their lives — and I’m sitting in a wheelchair.”
‘We’re going to take back October’
Billy Bob Mason was shot in the foot.
Billy Bob Mason carried a plastic-covered wedding dress across his driveway in Bodfish, Calif. “The dress is in,” he yelled, laying it in his truck cab.
He’d already packed up his brown leather boots, the ones with the bullet hole in the left toe.
Like others at the concert, Mr. Mason and his fiancée, Regina Harris, fled the Route 91 festival in a panic. But a year later, they were planning to return to Las Vegas — this time to get married on Oct. 1, in a new memorial garden off the strip, surrounded by survivors.
Regina Harris is set to get married in Las Vegas a year after the shooting.
“We’re going to take back October,” said Mr. Mason, 47, a certified nursing assistant. “So that every year we don’t look back at Oct. 1, and say, ‘That’s the year that that son of a bitch shot me in the foot.’ It’s so that we look back and say, ‘That’s the day we got married. And it was beautiful.”
Ms. Harris, 51, came out of the house carrying five bouquets of purple and orange silk flowers and stacks of cowboy hats. She had been less sure that getting married on Oct. 1 was the right idea. Her own tattoo marking the event is a purple tattered ribbon.
But she had come to the conclusion that she and Mr. Mason were "strong-willed people" equipped for the task. And that this would be part of their therapy.
Ms. Harris, who coordinates addiction treatment, is hoping to go back to work soon. “If I’m supposed to help someone else heal,” she said, “and I’m not healed, how can I be there for them?”
Ash Ngu reported from Houston, and Julie Turkewitz reported from Whittier, Beaumont, Highland, Menifee and Bodfish, Calif. Reporting was contributed by Serge F. Kovaleski from New York.