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Las Vegas shooting survivor who shielded mother-to-be meets baby

Updated March 18, 2018 - 8:10 am

Wind chimes tinkled in the breeze at the Las Vegas Community Healing Garden as Sue Ann Cornwell added to the tree she tends to there.

Once a week, she adds butterflies and other trinkets to the tree and drops fresh flowers in an old boot at the base in memory of Denise Burditus, who died Oct. 1 in the back of Cornwell’s blue 1994 Ford Ranger.

But this time, Cornwell was also at the healing garden to meet a new life, one that was still forming on the last night of the Route 91 Harvest festival.

“I can’t wait no more,” the 52-year-old said on a recent Friday as she spotted the woman she was waiting for and the nearly 4-month-old boy in the woman’s arms.

The last time Cornwell saw Miriam Lujan, she was seven months pregnant.

Cornwell and her sister had ushered her out of the festival venue after handing her a backpack to shield her protruding stomach.

They smiled as they embraced for the first time. Cornwell picked up the baby, and he cried out.

“I know, I know,” Cornwell cooed.

The retired school bus driver had brought him goodies: books, a yellow toy school bus, tiny cowboy boots.

“Auntie Sue Ann’s got you,” she told him.

The baby hiccuped. Little tufts of brown hair stuck up on his head. He grabbed his jelly bean-like fingers and sucked on his thumb.

“You can cry all you want; we are just happy you’re crying,” Cornwell said. “I’m so glad you found me. I’ve been looking.”

Reunited online

Lujan was scrolling through Facebook comments in one of the Route 91 survivor groups the week before when she saw a post from Cornwell. She tapped on her picture to see if she was one of the women she’d met that night.

She was.

“Thank you both for everything,” Lujan told her. “I really don’t know how it all would’ve happened if I didn’t have you guys to keep me calm.”

At the time of the festival, Cornwell’s sister, Billie Jo LaCount, was visiting from Wisconsin, so the two of them decided to go to the event together.

Lujan was there with two of her girlfriends, but she moved up by herself to be closer to the stage when Jason Aldean came out. She was behind the two sisters when the shooting started.

LaCount took Cornwell’s pink backpack, filled with snacks and other concert supplies, and covered Lujan’s stomach with it.

Cornwell lay on top of her sister and the pregnant woman.

“Stay down, stay down,” she told them. When there was a lull, they got up for help.

“I don’t want my baby to die,” Lujan said.

Cornwell assured her, “Your baby’s not dying on my watch.”

They ducked behind a lemonade stand, and that’s when Lujan saw people performing CPR, tying shirts into tourniquets and carrying out the wounded.

“What are you having?” Cornwell asked to distract her.

“A boy.”

“What’s his name?”

“Xander,” she said.

Connections, distractions

The women eventually escaped through a knocked-down fence, but they never exchanged names.

Lujan decided to go to Hooters to wait for her friends.

While there, she watched the news and focused on her baby. She grabbed her stomach, telling herself she needed to stay calm for him. He had been doing flips the entire concert, but he wasn’t moving then.

It was at least an hour before she felt a kick. Then, a couple of kicks. Then, she knew he was safe.

“I was worried about when we ran and I had to drop to the ground, with a harsh impact like that,” she said.

After the shooting, Lujan was put on bed rest after cramping pains. Every day for three weeks straight, she searched online for the two women who had helped her.

“When you meet people like that, you kind of just keep thinking about them,” she said earlier this month.

Aside from her searches, she did her best to keep the night of the shooting out of her mind and away from her unborn son. She distracted herself with TV and unrelated conversations with friends.

“I was trying to keep it together so it wouldn’t affect him how it did already,” she said. “I already went through it in that moment. I don’t want to do it again.”

‘A story to tell’

Xander Cy Finch was born Nov. 26 at 7:48 a.m. He weighed 6 pounds, 3 ounces and was 19 inches long.

He was a week early. After his mother had been in labor for nearly 11 hours, he went into distress and needed to be born by emergency cesarean section.

“We made it,” Lujan said during her reunion at the healing garden. “That’s all that matters; everybody’s safe.”

The only downside, Cornwell said, was that her sister was back in Wisconsin, missing out on the reunion.

She rocked Xander in her arms, and his eyelids grew heavy, his lashes casting tiny shadows on his face.

“He’s already part of history, and he doesn’t even know it,” Cornwell said. “Out of all the ugly, here’s this child that survived. … One day his mom is going to have a story to tell him.”

Lujan agreed.

“I want him to remember the good moments. I want him to remember those people that did not make it and to remember that people will help strangers to survive,” she said. “And if anything were to happen similar to him like that, I hope he would be able to do the same.”

Contact Briana Erickson at berickson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5244. Follow @brianarerick on Twitter.

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