USA Today: Las Vegas vigils chime for lives cut short in mass shooting

Oct 2, 2017
In The News

LAS VEGAS — Fifty-nine times the gong sounded, each bellow echoing off the sharp white walls of the Guardian Angel Cathedral on the Las Vegas strip. Some beats were harsh, like there was anger in the mourner’s swing. Others were faint, as if they could barely muster the strength.

But every beat of the gong, loud or soft, represented the same thing – a life cut short.

“This evening, I am grateful to all who we have all come together,” said Bishop Joe Pepe, of the Diocese of Las Vegas, as he wiped away tears Monday night. “In the face of this tragedy, we need each other.”

This gong was sounded over and over in front of about 300 mourners at a multi-faith vigil in Las Vegas just one day after the deadliest mass shooting in American history. Gunman Craig Paddock, 64, opened fire on a country music festival from a hotel room window on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay resort, killing at least 59 and injuring over 500 people.

At least a few of the people at Monday’s vigil had been at the festival when the gunshots began, and most knew someone who had. Through dozens of conversations with Las Vegas residents, it became clear that most everyone knew someone – a loved one, a co-worker, a friend of a friend – who had been hurt in the attack.

A motion graphic explaining how the events unfolded when Stephen Paddock opened fire from his hotel room on concert goers at the Route 91 Harvest music festival near the Mandalay Bay resort and casino on the Las Vegas Strip. Ramon Padilla, Janet Loehrke George Petras, Jim Sergent USA TODAY

“It was a 50-50 chance we could’ve been a that concert last night," said Tobi Thomas, whose daughter had a friend that narrowly escaped. “It’s devastating. It’s sad. It’s scary. I’ve just been in bed all day.”

The vigil offered a comfort to residents like Thomas. Mourners sat among tall stained glass windows and colorful murals as they listened to religious leaders from the city’s Catholic, Jewish, Protestant and Muslim communities.

The cathedral sits sandwiched between the massive Encore casino and a strip mall with a hookah lounge, a souvenir shop and an all-you-can-eat buffet. An all-gold Trump tower loomed across the street, glistening in the sunset as the vigil began.

This was Las Vegas in a nutshell, and community leaders urged the mourners not to let it change.

Stephen Sisolak, Clark County Commission chairman, insisted that the heavy-armed gunman could have attacked anywhere, but it was preparedness of Las Vegas Metropolitan police and casino security had prevented a tragedy far worse. Sisolak praised the city’s first responders, but also its everyday folk, who had responded so generously that “now you can’t get an appointment to donate blood until next week.”

But Sisolak drew the largest applauds of the night when he announced that a Go Fund me page designed to raise money for the families of the shooting victims had raised more than $1.8 million as the time of the vigil.

“Las Vegas will never be quite the same as a result for this,” Sisolak said during the vigil. “But it doesn’t matter if this is Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Little Rock or Lansing, Michigan. This could have happened anywhere. … We cannot let the heinous acts of one individual effect our lives.”

Another vigil, this one at City Hall, opened in prayer.

"It's a heavy heart we are gathered today," began Pastor Troy Martinez. "We combine strength and salvation and look to Jesus. He is the Shepard that will carry the sheep."

Surrounded by various city, religious and public safety leaders, Mayor Carolyn Goodman addressed her city and the dozens who had come out weep together and pray for those who had been killed and injured in the shooting.

"Our city has a broken heart," Goodman said. "Everyone in his community has been touched by the loss of these lives and the horror at Mandalay Bay by a sick, horrible human being."

She said she is grateful to see the citizens give back in the dire times, along with leaders from across the country, including the governor of Connecticut where the Sandy Hook shooting occurred and the Mayor of Orlando where the shooting at Pulse nightclub had happened.

"These are my folks," said U.S. Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nevada, telling the crowd that her office will continue to act as a clearinghouse of information to the public.

The community will "grieve today" before moving forward and "start talking about why we don't need one more moment of silence in Congress for victims of gun violence," Titus said.

Clark County schools Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky said the decision to hold school Monday was to make sure students had resources available to them.

A woman working at the Route 91 Harvest in Las Vegas describes the scene as shots rang out, turning a country concert into the deadliest mass shooting in recent U.S. history. USA TODAY

"It was about not having students sit at home alone watching TV and not having someone to talk to, ... not having an adult to which they could come to grips with the tragedy," Skorkowsky said.

The district has offered counselors to the community, he said, to assist victims to process the events that unfolded at Mandalay Bay and to also help parents speak to children about what happened.

Maria Aguilar, 59, watched as the leaders spoke. Though she is originally from Mexico, Aguilar said Las Vegas is her home. Her niece works at Mandalay Bay but was luckily off on Sunday when the shooting happened.

"Words can't explain my relief. But of course, I am still devastated," Aguilar said, adding that she had come to city hall to show respect for those who were not as fortunate as her family.

Her granddaughter, she said, had tried to buy tickets for the festival. She was unsuccessful. It was "another blessing."

Chelsea Maidman was working at Planet Hollywood when she suddenly saw droves of people running by the hotel. Then they went into lockdown, she said.

Las Vegas shooting leaves more than 50 dead at Mandalay Bay

Rumors swirled. There were two shooters on the loose. There was a bomb. People were repeating unverified information they heard on police scanners, causing chaos, Maidman said. While hiding in the basement, she texted all her friends who could have been on the strip during the time of the shooting.

"I felt sick to my stomach. We had no idea what the truth was," she said.

One by one, Maidman received texts from those who said they were alright.