Las Vegas massacre survivors supporting each other one year on

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Survivors of the Las Vegas massacre have shared how they are coping one year on from the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history.

About 22,000 people gathered in the city last October 1 with a shared interest in country music, but as the festival’s final headlining act Jason Aldean was performing, gunfire erupted and chaos ensued.

By the end of the night, 58 people were killed and hundreds more injured.

Many survivors, who were already bonded through the music, have formed a tight-knit, encouraging community as they heal, support and remember. They call themselves Country Strong.

Here are some of their stories:

– Why not me?

A picture of Sonny Melton, autographed by Eric Church, and a guitar from the Eric Church fan club
A picture of Sonny Melton, autographed by Eric Church, and a guitar from the Eric Church fan club (Mark Humphrey/AP)

Mr Melton died when a bullet hit him in the back as he wrapped his arms protectively around his wife Heather that night at Route 91. Just days after the shooting, Church got on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, fighting back tears and his voice cracking with anger, pointing out the empty seats where Sonny and Heather Melton were supposed to be sitting that night.

“The reason I am here is because of Heather Melton, her husband Sonny, who died, and every person that was there,” Church said before performing Why Not Me, an ode to the fans that were lost.

“The next thing I know, every Eric Church fan in the country was contacting me,” Heather Melton said. “At first I felt a little uneasy, but they were just so genuine in their compassion, in their sorrow for me that it was impossible to ignore. Those people have become some of my best friends.”

Ms Melton now has Church’s lyrics tattooed on her arm along with a sun, a nod to her husband’s name. Her home now is a shrine to the passions of her late husband, including guitars, a baseball top, a pair of boots that Church signed, concert tickets, posters and records.

Church’s fan club has adopted her, has raised money for a nursing scholarship in her husband’s name and travelled to concerts with her.

“I’ve just never seen anything where a group of people who are virtual strangers have wrapped their arms around each other in the way this group has,” Ms Melton said.

– Peer support group

A guitar autographed by the country music duo Big and Rich
A guitar autographed by the country music duo Big and Rich (Mark Humphrey/AP)

“The country family has always been strong, but now there’s the Route 91 Country Strong family that has a different and special connection because of what we went through together,” Ms Liewsuwanphong said.

She decided a month after the shooting that she was not going to let the gunman stop her from going to concerts, so she started a Facebook group to organise a meet-up of Route 91 survivors at Stagecoach, a country music festival in California in April.

“It was an open venue. It was a huge crowd. There were so many of us that were unsure if we could even handle it,” Ms Liewsuwanphong said. “You get tickets to a weekend festival. You never think you’re not going to come out of it.”

At Stagecoach, the survivors gathered together, most of them wearing matching T-shirts with the words Route 91. They posed for pictures, behind banners that said Love Wins and Country Strong with a bright orange ribbon. Many wore smiles, in cowboy hats and jeans, holding their hands up in the air as if they were watching their favourite band.

Connie Long, from Riverside, California, and her family often saw multiple country concerts a year. That country music community she was already a part of became both closer and a lot larger after she and her husband survived Route 91.

“I can’t imagine my life now without those people in it,” Ms Long said. “It’s like one big peer support group.”

While going back out to concerts or into big crowds again has been helpful for some survivors, not all have recovered enough to enjoy the experience like they used to.

Stacie Armentrout, of Las Vegas, and her husband had been to Route 91 before, but decided their daughters, aged 12 and 15, were old enough to attend last year. They were sitting in chairs when the gunfire started and her husband laid down on top of the three of them. They ran from cover to cover every time the gunfire paused throughout the festival grounds looking for an escape.

When Ms Armentrout went back to Stagecoach with her husband, months after the shooting, it was not the same. “We were on edge so much,” she said. “It was just too much for me to handle.”

Other survivor groups hold monthly meet-ups, plan outings like attending sporting events, raise money for families that need assistance, create Christmas card lists and share dinners. They perform what they call “random acts of kindness”, where they will do something nice for a stranger, or leave a 58 dollar tip in honour of those who were lost.

When Ms Liewsuwanphong found out she was pregnant shortly after the shooting, a group of survivors came to her baby shower. Ms Armentrout’s husband broke his rib during the shooting and he has been out of work and she only works part-time. Another survivor brought her Christmas presents to give to her daughters.

“The music makes us stronger,” Ms Long said. “The music is what brings us together.”

– Survivors helping survivors

A tattoo bearing a lyric by country singer Eric Church
A tattoo bearing lyrics by country singer Eric Church (Mark Humphrey/AP)

Janie Scott, of Bakersfield, California, along with her husband and a friend, were about 15ft from the front of the stage when they heard a popping noise and then a pause before the first volley of gunfire started.

“With the sound of the ricocheting and the speakers picking up that sound of the bullets, you could not tell what direction they were coming from,” Ms Scott said. “A lot of people have a hard time with the music, listening to Jason (Aldean) sing. I have more issues with the sound of metal being hit.”

Ms Long had a visceral reaction when she was at a different concert and she saw the same green artificial grass that was at Route 91.

“I couldn’t stand on it,” she said of encountering the turf again. “That was where everybody died. That was what was in my brain.”

Survivors have mostly found each other through Facebook groups, many of which have turned into informal, comforting forums as they share everyday struggles and progress through grief and recovery. Ms Scott, a daycare owner and mother of seven, decided to start a Facebook group to find people she met while at the festival, hoping to hear they were OK.

“We came home to our home town, completely broken with no support,” Ms Scott said. “I had to find other people who were also broken.”

The Facebook group she administers now includes more than 4,000 people.

“You see survivors giving other survivors counselling through this group,” Ms Scott said.

– A weight lifted

American footballs given to Heather Melton by the Tennessee Titans
American footballs given to Heather Melton by the Tennessee Titans (Mark Humphrey/AP)

“When I came home, I said I would never go to Vegas again, never go to a country music concert,” Ms Rodriguez said.

Ms Rodriguez and her husband were about 10ft away from the stage that night when the gunfire started. They lay on the ground for what felt like six or seven rounds of persistent gunfire before they jumped behind a bar.

“I thought we would never make it home,” Ms Rodriguez said. Many people that were near them did not.

Last Saturday, Ms Rodriguez went to see Aldean’s concert in San Bernardino, the first time she had seen him perform since Las Vegas. She had an anxiety attack as she waited in line to get into the concert, but once inside she started seeing all the other Route 91 survivors with their T-shirts and their orange ribbons like herself.

“One of the hardest things I think I have ever had to do is face that again,” Ms Rodriguez said. “But afterwards, the weight that was lifted off my shoulders was something that I’ll never experience again.”

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