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Las Vegas will never forget: Tears, tenderness flow on 5th anniversary of massacre

Updated October 3, 2022 - 10:35 am

A day of remembrance on the fifth anniversary of the Route 91 Harvest festival shooting concluded Saturday night with a solemn reading of the victims’ names at the Las Vegas Community Healing Garden.

Mayor Carolyn Goodman and David Riggleman, the city of Las Vegas director of communications, alternated reading the name, age and hometown of each person killed on Oct. 1, 2017. As each name was said aloud, a candle was lit in the person’s honor and a bell was tolled.

Survivor Elaina Maldonado, of Orange County, California, attended the Route 91 Harvest festival with her fiancee, brother and friends. Her friend Carrie Barnette, 34, of Riverside, California, was killed that night.

“We weren’t all together. We were split up in different groups and so when it all happened we were all just trying to find each other and call each other,” Maldonado said.

It was the first time Maldonado marked the anniversary of the shooting in Las Vegas. She called the ceremony “super emotional.”

“It’s not something that gets easier. It’s just something you kind of learn to deal with a little better each day,” Maldonado said.

In the years since the tragedy, Maldonado has met other survivors and affected families.

“We have built a huge community and family from what’s happened, and it was a horrible thing that happened… We’ve also gotten to meet so many people and build so many great relationships,” she said.

That community started gathering for the ceremony more than an hour before it began. People clustered in groups around memorials for loved ones. Some wore shirts with the face and name of someone who was killed.

Jasmine Decoste drove from Arizona for the ceremony. Her cousin Melissa Ramirez, 26, of Littlerock, California, was killed in the shooting. Decoste stood in front of a memorial for Ramirez.

“I just wanted to come here tonight to pay my respects and be here with Melissa in spirit,” Decoste said. “She was an amazing, strong woman.”

Decoste hadn’t been back to Las Vegas since the night of the shooting when she came with family after hearing what had happened.

“I tried calling her phone and she didn’t answer. It went straight to voicemail,” Decoste said.

Ramirez and Decoste grew up next door to each other in Littlerock.

“It feels like it just happened yesterday. Like it just feels very surreal,” Decoste said. “Still hard to believe that this is actually real sometimes.”

The milling around the garden slowed to a standstill around 10 p.m. As the names were read, some bowed their heads, others put their arms around someone standing next to them and many wiped tears from their eyes.

A breeze blew through the garden during the reading, causing the wind chimes hanging from a tree near the entrance of the park to jingle in unison with the bell that was rung after each name.

After the last name was read, “Taps” was played on a trumpet to close the ceremony.

‘We will never forget their light’

The remembrances began Saturday morning with a teary Sunrise Remembrance Ceremony at the Clark County Government Center amphitheater.

“We rose from the ashes of our tragedy,” Clark County Commission Chairman Jim Gibson said. “We confronted hate with love, darkness with light. That light shines as brightly today as it did when we emerged Vegas Strong.”

Gibson sat among commissioners Justin Jones, Tick Segerblom, Marilyn Kirkpatrick and Michael Naft at the annual ceremony, which remembers the 60 people killed and hundreds injured in the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. The massacre unfolded in Las Vegas on the last night of the Route 91 Harvest festival, across from Mandalay Bay.

Rep. Susie Lee, Sen. Jackie Rosen, Attorney General Aaron Ford, and Lt. Gov. Lisa Cano Burkhead also were among the guests who sat quietly on stage.

“Five years ago today, a heinous act of violence rained down on our city, our state and our country,” Gov. Steve Sisolak said. “Fifty-eight plus two people were killed that night, but five years later we will never forget their light.”

Sisolak, Gibson and Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo remembered the strangers who cared for their neighbors and the worldwide support for Las Vegas amid tragedy. Gibson recalled the letters he received from around the globe and the way Las Vegas residents emerged in the aftermath: resilient, selfless and strong.

“Those who took care of the person next to them despite not even knowing their names, those who banded together to escape the hail of bullets, they too were heroes in the face of evil,” Lombardo said. “Together, as a community, we can remain resilient. Together, as a community, we will remain Vegas Strong.”

Remembering the helpers

Angela McIldoon told the story of her son, Jordan McIldoon, who was among four Canadians killed. He had attended the festival with his girlfriend of two years, and he was days from turning 24 when he died. The heavy-duty mechanic was honored by the Vegas Golden Knights, the Las Vegas Raiders and at a 2018 NASCAR race in Las Vegas.

On Saturday morning, Angela McIldoon remembered those who helped her family in the days after her son’s death. Hundreds silently sniffled away tears while she told the story of bringing her son back to Canada through the former McCarran International Airport without a death certificate.

“By now, I’m carrying Jordan’s clear bag with his belongings in it,” she said through tears. “I’m horrified at the thought of opening it up. The TSA agents not only opened a private lane for us, they didn’t make us open anything. They cried and hugged us, too.”

‘I still look for him’

The late entrepreneur Tony Hsieh helped pay for Jordan McIldoon’s burial service, and the Vegas Strong Resiliency Center paid for Angela McIldoon’s therapy, she said. Her family has set up a scholarship at Jordan McIldoon’s high school and trade school, and the Jordan McIldoon Legacy Bike Park recently opened near their home.

“I still look for him, and I sometimes see him in the scruffy red beard of a young man in line, or a well-worn pair of boots and jeans on someone,” she said. “I look for his bright blue eyes and the shape of his chin and his big smile. It’s never him, but I’ll never stop looking for him and yearning for him to come home.”

The amphitheater hosted the Remember Music Festival later Saturday, with performances until 10 p.m.

The festival featured a lineup of artists including Midland, Dylan Schneider and Meghan Patrick.

The event was organized by the Country Strong Project, a charity formed after the Route 91 Harvest festival shooting to support survivors. The charity worked with Clark County, Stoney’s Rockin’ Country, Ghost Energy and the 95.5 radio station. Proceeds from the event will be donated to the 1 October Memorial Committee, according to Connie Long, a co-founder of the Country Strong Project.

‘Music is just healing’

Shawna Bartlett, co-founder of Country Strong, said that artists signing on to them is meaningful in multiple ways.

“For us, I think it says two things,” said Bartlett. “One, it tells us that not only are the artists supportive of this, that we still come out and support them, but they still want to do this for us. They’re not afraid to come to Vegas, they’re not afraid to do this show, they’re not afraid to do all of that. They want to be around us. They want to be able to do all of that. And that right there just brings joy to my life.”

The patrons themselves, many of whom are survivors of the shooting, brought a mix of tears, hugs, smiles and laughs. Some of the survivors said that events such as the festival help them heal.

“Dealing with grief and everything and meeting other survivors,” said Adrian Pitts, 45, who was working onstage at the Route 91 Harvest festival when the shooting happened. “I learned through therapy for five years that talking about it with other people helps coping with things, to deal with things. You know, when you’re having a hard time you could call a survivor and discuss things and be there with people. It’s really therapeutic.”

Pitts talked about a police officer that he worked with to help save people in 2017 that he was separated from on the night of the shooting. They reunited a year later at another event they both worked at and have been friends ever since.

An army veteran, Pitts received therapy through Veterans Affairs. He said that this is the first year since the shooting that he is spending the anniversary sober.

Tracy Samanszy, 55, was at the Route 91 Harvest festival during the shooting and helped facilitate support for the victims and their families in her job as Sunrise Hospital’s director of support service. She is now also the head of a volunteer program to supply music and therapy dogs to those who need them.

“Music is just healing, it doesn’t matter what it is,” said Samanszy. “Yeah, just music in general, and the country music scene, the people, the ages, the genres.”

The Remember Music Festival also had booths for vendors, food and support resources for survivors.

One of those booths was for Countryfied, a merchandise vendor run by Julie Craig, 61, that sells at country music concerts and rodeos. Craig said that she is the last vendor who was at the Route 91 Harvest festival shooting that still attends all of the memorial events. She said that her husband wasn’t with her when the shooting happened, but now he accompanies her for every event Countryfied attends.

“It’s just the family and the support, it’s unbelievable,” Craig said through tears. “Maybe it’s just, it’s so hard to explain. I mean, when we see survivors, it’s almost like you, you feel it. It’s crazy.”

One of the support resources for survivors at the festival was the Heart Peer Support Program, a part of the Vegas Strong Resiliency Center. The program trains survivors and anyone affected by the shooting to properly provide support for their fellow survivors.

Many survivors said they appreciate the festival and events like it. One survivor called Long and Bartlett “unsung heroes” for organizing them.

“Every year we get people that weren’t strong enough last year, and this is what makes them stronger. Every year,” Long said through tears.

Contact Sabrina Schnur at sschnur@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0278. Follow @sabrina_schnur on Twitter. Contact Mark Credico at mcredico@reviewjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkCredicoII. Contact David Wilson at dwilson@reviewjournal.com. Follow @davidwilson_RJ on Twitter.

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