In times of crisis, strangers find interesting ways to strike up a conversation.
On my flight to Las Vegas in the aftermath of the attack on the Route 91 Harvest Festival that left 58 dead and more than 500 injured, a woman sitting next to me on the plane started a conversation by asking me if I was from nearby San Clemente, California. Later, when I arrived at the perimeter of the attack with a cameraman, a woman named Lori with huge blue eyes walked up to us and asked what type of rig he was using. And as I drove away in a cab headed back to the airport, escaping the bizarre and eery reality of Las Vegas getting back to business after one of the deadliest massacres in U.S. history, the cab driver, upon learning I was a reporter (and not a concert-goer) simply asked me “Are you part of the mainstream media?”
“Uh, probably not,” I managed to reply, before she began explaining her complicated and paranoid conspiracy theories on the attack. Instead of cutting her off, I listened. She had shuttled victims the previous night away from the site, with many pleading with her to take them as far away as possible. Once they were safely dropped off, she would return for more until one patron encouraged her to “not be a hero” and get some rest. She had some crazy ideas, though, about “who was really behind the attacks” — I’ll spare you the details.
As for the woman asking about our camera, it was simply a polite way of her sharing her awful story about being trampled and stuck at the site as the attack was unfolding, buried in a mass of bodies as people climbed over her trying to escape. She ended up being the first to speak on the survivor stories video we produced (watch it here), her huge blue eyes burned into my memory.
And the woman on the plane, the question about San Clemente was a way of finding someone to talk with. Her name was Katrina and she told me that she was traveling to Las Vegas because her 26-year-old niece was killed while attending the festival. Her niece’s father and siblings were headed there as well for an awful family reunion. Katrina was overwhelmed by the pain that awaited her upon landing at McCarran International Airport. For one brief moment, she sipped her coffee and engaged with a total stranger. She didn’t have to be the strong one. In the face of impending darkness, I watched her enjoy a final moment of light before steeling herself for what was ahead. Neither of us knew what the scene was going to be like when we landed on the ground –but we were sure it was going to be awful.
Who is to blame?
About 48 hours after the attack, a radio reporter reached out to me for an interview about my thoughts on how the killings would affect the concert industry. Specifically, he wanted to know, who is responsible in an attack like this?
My gut reaction was to blurt out, “Well, it’s Live Nation’s responsibility since they are the promoter of the event.” As the words came out of my mouth, I started to immediately back-pedal. I pointed out that Live Nation had done everything in its power to protect patrons and that an assault from above a hotel across the street and 32 stories in the air was unprecedented and nearly impossible to predict or prevent.
So who is to blame? Who is ultimately liable? I called attorney Steve Adelman with the Event Safety Alliance, a reliable friend and source I count on to help make sense of these tragedies.
“Who should you blame?” Adelman asked rhetorically. “Blame the shooter.”
Makes sense, right? Here is an individual who managed to fly under the radar of the Las Vegas Metro PD and sneak a stockpile of weapons into a hotel room without anyone noticing, finding a vulnerability in a festival site controlled by one of the biggest casino companies in the world for an event organized by the world’s largest concert promoters. Live Nation and MGM took extraordinary precautions to protect their patrons and still a single shooter managed to find a hole in their detailed security plan and carry out a gruesome attack on music fans.
It was the shooter’s acts that caused the carnage, and in the aftermath, he is the one to blame.
But what about the gun laws in this country? What about the fact that it’s easier to purchase an assault rifle in Nevada than to get a drivers license. There are folks who are appalled by the lack of action around gun violence, while others don’t want any changes. Oddly, one of the survivors I interviewed told me on camera, “This wasn’t the gun’s fault, it was the gun owner’s fault.”
This woman, who was fired upon and watched people die in front of her as she ran from spraying bullets, went out of her way to in a recorded interview to let me and the rest of the world know she was perfectly happy with America’s existing gun laws. If she didn’t change her mind about guns in this country, how could we expect anyone else to be won over?
I interviewed about 25 survivors Monday, many who were wandering around the police perimeter of the festival site, looking up to blown out windows of the Mandalay Bay or down at the blood caked on the sidewalk. Every person I interviewed was convinced they were being attacked by multiple shooters on the ground. The bullets kept getting closer and closer, louder and louder. They felt as though they were coming from all directions, mercilessly chasing survivors. To hear that gunfire had come from a hotel room across the street, 32 stories in the air, was hard to believe. Many had to see it for themselves to accept.
“The sound was so loud that you didn’t know which direction it was coming from, so you didn’t know which direction to run and be safe,” Las Vegas local Anthony Luca told me. “You would run a little bit and take cover, and then run a little more and take cover. So much was happening at once.”
After each interview, I would ask the same question — what’s next? I kept it purposely vague to see what kind of response I would get, to see where the mind wanders after a tragedy.
Everyone wanted to go home and about two-thirds said they wouldn’t be deterred from attending a concert or festival, that they simply could not “let the terrorists win.” Often I was unconvinced, wondering if they believed the words or were trying to bury their vulnerabilities in a show of unity with other survivors. The remaining told me they had serious reservations about attending an event in the future and that they were seriously traumatized by what happened and we’re fairly open about not being ok.
I wanted to tell every one of them to seek counseling – the sooner the better –but that didn’t feel right. I’m here to listen, not offer unsolicited advice. And after a full day of listening to some pretty disturbing stories, the details were starting to bother me. As a parent myself, I’ve always been a big believer that concerts are incredibly safe environments for teens and young adults. I’m not sure I can say that anymore, at least right now.
Do I think this will affect concert attendance and the industry as a whole? Probably not, but I do think we have to wonder how much more carnage and bloodshed will it take before fans stop going to shows. What is the breaking point? We’re not there yet, but we might be closer than any of us think. Sure there are school shootings and workplace violence and attacks at malls and grocery stores. But people have to earn a living and they have to shop for food and clothing. They don’t have to go concerts. There are plenty of other ways people can entertain themselves. Maybe it’s time we ask ourselves some hard questions about what our industry will do when people stop going out for entertainment themselves because the risks are too high. What can we do to make them feel safe again? What can we do to bring them back to the festival? It’s time to start thinking about this possibility and begin a dialogue within our industry and with our fans. The sooner we start talking with one another, the sooner we can begin healing.
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