On the night of Oct. 1, 2017, the nation's largest mass shooting occurred at the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas. As the first year anniversary approaches, Jennifer Gray and Nissa Tzun of the Division of Student Affairs explore the impact the shooting had on members of the UNLV community. These students and staff offer their thoughts on what’s most important to remember now.
Leslie Rafalovich, a program coordinator in the Division of Research and Economic Development, was attending her third Route 91 weekend that night with her friends. “We always take a photo of our boots before the show,” Rafalovich said. “We have so many pictures from all the concerts we’ve attended.”
When the shooting began, Rafalovich and her friends ran. By the time they found help and a ride home, Rafalovich had lost her driver’s license and a friend had lost her boots.
A year later, she’s found herself listening to other music genres more; Frank Sinatra has become a favorite. “It took me a while to listen to the [Route 91] artists again, or go to an outdoor festival,” Rafalovich said. “I’ve been hypervigilant, but functioning. Sometimes it feels like I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. There are some places I won’t go, but I can’t avoid my life.”
Many sources of support have been present for Rafalovich in her family, church, and coworkers. “At work, we all made homemade baked goods to take to the first responders at Firehouse 11 and the emergency management team at the Las Vegas Metropolitan Counter-Terrorism Center. This was hard, but it helped a lot.
“I am trying to come out on the other side of it. I am trying to change my memories of these places [associated with the shooting], and create a new memory about the last time I was at a certain place or the last time I saw a specific artist.”
And she looks for silver linings where she can find them. Her best friend was able to reclaim her lost boots from an organization that collected personal items from the scene. And much to her surprise, a neighbor she had not known before, returned Rafalovich’s lost license. “She lives just around the corner from me,” Rafalovich said, “It’s such a small world, and now we’re connected.”
Listening to Luke Bryan’s “What Makes You Country,” gives her optimism. “Life is still so good,” she said.
Reaffirming Life’s Choices
Joshua Ryan Abellera is studying secondary education with a concentration in the biological sciences. He works as a substitute teacher in local schools and for the Clark County Library District. He also tutors for America Reads/Counts program.
He’s also an avid line dancer who performed as part of a team at a related event at the Luxor the night of the shooting. Once he was done, he wandered back to the festival and met up with a friend. As they tried to escape the shooting, Abellara fell, breaking his fibula and dislocating his ankle. He was in excruciating pain, but because he was wearing tight leather boots, enough pressure was being applied to inhibit bleeding and swelling. With the help of fellow concertgoers, he was able to find shelter in a nook of the Tropicana lobby before he was eventually transported to for medical care.
As he recovered, Abellera said he was grateful for the support from the UNLV and Las Vegas community, particularly Stephanie Reahm from the Division of Student Affairs, America Reads/Counts Program, Rebel Support Group, the Vegas Strong Resiliency Center, and College of Education faculty and staff. They helped him figure out his academic and financial situation through that semester’s withdrawal process and guided him on the best ways to ensure he completes his degree.
The process of physically healing has been arduous and Abellara will soon have another surgery to remove the titanium plate in his leg, but he’s happy he can line dance once again.
In February, the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, happened. “That struck a chord,” he said. “I was scared because it happened in a high school and I’m going to be a high school teacher.” He hopes to see a greater emphasis on mental health and education in the debates about gun violence.
In August the school where he works experienced a power shut down. He assessed the situation and took steps to keep the students calm and quiet. Though it wasn’t an emergency, the moment reaffirmed Abellera of his own abilities to lead in the classroom.
Instead of attending memorial events this Oct. 1., he will go to work like any other day. “I know it’s going to be a hard day but I’m going to just have to push on. My call is to become a teacher, so I need to be teaching these kids about what happened, teaching these kids about respect, honesty. All of the principles that my parents have taught me, plus more.”
Likewise, Trevor Milazzo, a graduate student in social work, said he knows he’s chosen the right career. He was working at the Cosmopolitan that night. The daughter of his girlfriend at the time was at the concert. When they found her, she was distraught; she had not been injured, but her boyfriend did not survive the shooting. A close friend of the boyfriend committed suicide a month later.
Milazzo also has vivid memories of the September 11th terrorist attack. He lived in New York City as a child and his mom who worked downtown had to walk through the site to get home.
Such experiences have influenced his choice to become a licensed clinical social worker. He is especially interested in trauma response and in supporting African American men and the issues they face in society.
Sociology senior Robert Evans was hanging out in his residence hall with friends that night. The former Residence Hall Association (RHA) president and current CSUN officer quickly got together with fellow RHA and CSUN members to plan a student-led vigil for the following night. “You could feel how quiet everywhere was,” he said. “I knew we had to do something.”
By Monday night, he said he was completely exhausted. “When you’re trying to help in a crisis, you don’t get much time to take care of yourself. I am still processing.”
Evans said he received the most support from UNLV Dining, RHA, and his mentors on campus. “One of my mentors offered me wise advice as I prepared to speak at the vigil. He said to just speak from the heart.”
Now, with his graduation approaching, he said he will carry the experience into his future career in higher education. “For me, it was a turning point,” he said. “The impact of Oct. 1 is that we have real work to do. It means more transparency in leadership and keeping an ear to the ground to understand students. This is the kind of Student Affairs professional I want to be.”
Reflecting on Campus Improvements
Karintha Fenley, a Journalism & Media Studies graduate student and academic advisor for the College of Urban Affairs, was safe at home that night but spent hours worrying about close friends who were there. She went to work the next day relieved they were safe. Not surprisingly, most of the advising appointments didn’t show.
Fenley, her fellow advising colleagues, and units across campus prepared to help students who were directly affected. Some would need help with the withdrawal process as they contended with physical recovery. The process for medical withdrawals is much clearer than in case of traumatic life events. Fenley hopes that those policies and services will continue to be improved.
Over the last year, the Vice President for Student Affairs office directly assisted with almost 40 student cases, collaborating across campus to process registration and housing refunds; address scholarship issues; and connect students with counseling services. Student Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS) provided walk-in crisis services, including over 200 crisis counseling sessions. CAPS also developed a guide for talking about trauma for the faculty. In addition, the Disability Resource Center and advising offices across campus helped students that needed academic accommodations after the shooting.
Alicia “AC” Monrroy, a 2007 alumna and current residential life coordinator for Dayton Complex, was among the staff and students who helped turn the UNLV campus into a temporary shelter that night. While the Thomas & Mack Center served as a refuge for hundreds of displaced concertgoers, a small group made their way to the residence halls.
“One of the individuals ran so hard and far her shoes fell off and bottoms of her feet were black and dirty,” she said. “I ran over to my apartment and grabbed a pair of socks and shoes to give her. They are still sitting in my office in the exact same spot I left them the morning of Oct. 2. I can’t seem to find the strength to move them, take them home, or give them away.
“Whenever I think about that night and everything that happened in my building afterward, I feel incredibly sad and wonder about what else we could have done.”
Monrroy added, “Luckily when I need to talk with someone about it, I have a lot of great folks around me who are understanding and nonjudgmental when the tears flow.”
She encourages the campus community to take advantage of the campus safety training available whenever it’s offered and to continue efforts to expand student support services. “Many things have been put in place on campus by the administration and Police Services, but I would love to see opportunities for responder support groups or sessions [so anyone can] find healing with and from others whenever they have assisted a tragedy or significant event.”
Meanwhile, Fenley draws on a sentiment shared by one student who did show up for her advising appointment on Oct. 2. The social work major had come in despite the fact her brother was critically injured and in the hospital. He was also a first responder.
“When I asked her why she showed up to her appointment with her brother was in such critical condition, and she replied, 'It's more important now more than ever for me to graduate so I can help people.’”