Tina Cartwright took a good look at the site of the Route 91 Harvest festival as the sun set before her. She wiped her eyes, glassy with tears.
It had been nearly three months since the carnage.
“It looks totally different when you’re not scared,” she told friends Kimberly Yeazel and Michelle McGinn.
The three Summerlin women were a part of a group of five friends who‘ve known each other for years from the gym or their time as neighbors. They rented a room at Mandalay Bay and attended the weekend-long concert every year.
The group also included Yeazel’s two sisters, who were separated from the group the night the shots rang out.
They saw the hedges they jumped over to get to the Tropicana Las Vegas, where they hid in the Oakville Steakhouse kitchen.
Squinting through the holes of the fence surrounding the festival site, McGinn and Yeazel heard their boots crunch on the dirt. They stood on their tiptoes.
“Look, girls. That’s it,” said Yeazel, a fourth-grade teacher at Staton Elementary School. On the Tuesday after the shooting, she came to school with scraped knees. She wanted to tell her students she was safe.
As they peered into the venue, a security guard in a bright green shirt greeted them.
“You’re here with all the ghosts,” McGinn said.
“I’m glad you made it out safely,” he responded.
They wished him a Merry Christmas.
“To me, this is a memorial, a sacred ground,” said Cartwright, who like McGinn is a stay-at-home mom.
“It’s healing,” Yeazel said. “It’s like putting the pieces of the puzzle back together.”
They walked past the fence, laden with yellow flowers and blue stars, and Yeazel looked toward Mandalay Bay.
“If we would have ran this way …” Her voice trailed off.
Tears welled in McGinn’s eyes.
That night, they knew the shots were coming from the direction of the stage. They said they ran the opposite way, fearing there was more than one gunman.
Looking at the bright lights of the Strip, the women recalled how, just minutes before the gunfire, they considered themselves lucky to be in such a beautiful place.
“It went from total euphoria to the scariest thing in our whole life,” Cartwright said. She wore a black Vegas Strong shirt. The other two wore Route 91 Survivor shirts, one purple, one black.
They also wore silver bracelets made from their festival wristbands. Engraved in the center is the word “Survivor.”
At the corner of Giles Street, overlooking the venue, they smiled.
“We’re lucky we have each other,” Cartwright said.
Wounds that won’t heal
But there are wounds they will carry for the rest of their lives.
For Yeazel, it’s the sound of helicopters, the screaming she heard while walking in Downtown Summerlin, or the sound of casino machines.
For McGinn, it’s the popping of balloons, or when she went to a Halloween event with her daughter and zombies were imitating the sounds of machine guns.
Days after the shooting, she pulled out of her driveway to take her daughter to school. She heard Jason Aldean playing on the radio. Aldean was performing on the Route 91 stage when the gunman opened fire on the crowd.
She parked the car and cried.
“It just hurts so much,” McGinn said.
When Cartwright visited her daughter at the University of Nevada, Reno, for parents’ weekend, the cannons that went off during the football game brought her back to Oct. 1.
“That’s something I think won’t ever go away,” Cartwright said.
In the weeks after the shooting, the women would text one another at 10:08 p.m. every Sunday. They replayed their memories of that night.
Yeazel struggled with the guilt of surviving.
“Where were the angels for all those 58 lives?” she asked herself. At first, she feared that something bad could happen in the future.
McGinn worried she didn’t help enough people that night.
In the months since, the women have looked to one another for comfort. They remembered the first time they laughed after Oct. 1, when they got their appetites back, when they first had a drink after weeks of not wanting to lose control of any situation.
“We have to take it day by day, one foot in front of the other,” McGinn said as they sat outside the Tropicana restaurant where they hid for hours that night, scared for their lives. “The thought of not being able to get out of bed in the morning is scarier,” she said.
The women say they have tried to stay strong for themselves, the seven children between them and their husbands.
“That’s what saved me,” Cartwright said. “The strongest support system.”