The Route 91 Harvest Festival shooting on Oct. 1, 2017 — the deadliest mass shooting by a single person in America — claimed the lives of 58 concertgoers and injured nearly 500 people. In the following hours, UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center became a temporary shelter for those fleeing the shooting, campus resources were tapped to offer crisis counseling throughout the city, and students began planning a campus vigil, donating blood, and raising funds to help victims.
In this essay, communication studies major Rachel Glaze and staff member Raegen Pietrucha share their observations of life on campus the week following the event.
RACHEL: Monday, I lay in bed in the last remains of the morning’s dark. I’d spent the last 20 minutes staring at my ceiling, thinking about what my mom had said about the night before: A mass shooting on Las Vegas Boulevard—just a short jaunt from my campus—had become the worst in U.S. history.
I didn’t know it was possible to feel at least as many emotions as minutes I’d spent staring above all at once, but it was happening; the knots in my stomach confirmed that.
What are you supposed to do when the mass shooting occurs at your city's front door? I decided to skip breakfast but not school; chose to leave my belly rumbling.
RAEGEN: When my phone alarm, set to vibrate, went off at 6:30 Monday morning, it woke both me and my partner up. Even after I turned my alarm off, the vibrating continued. I grabbed my phone to see what was wrong and realized the short, uneven pulses were coming from his phone, not mine.
“There was a shooting last night. Look at this.” He showed me the basics of what the media knew at that time: 50 dead, hundreds more injured.
I took my phone off airplane mode. A barrage of notifications flooded my screen. People I hadn’t heard from in years, in some cases, had reached out through the night and into the next morning to ask if I was OK. And I’d slept through the whole thing.
I wrote people back to let them know I was OK, then checked my work email. Wait—there was a colleague in my unit who’d told me the week prior about her plans to go to Route 91 with a group of friends. I dashed out an email to her supervisor: Did we know if she was OK?
I got in the shower, nervous about the reply I might find in my inbox once I got out and checked.
My co-worker had made it out uninjured, her boss said. Unfortunately, though, her friend and two bystanders next to her — a young couple — weren’t so lucky.
RACHEL: My drive in to campus was about 30 minutes that morning — partly because of traffic, partly because I drove slowly. Not one person honked at a fellow driver the whole ride in.
I parked my car and walked into the Flora Dungan Humanities Building. The lobby was empty and quiet, except for the CNN screen blaring the terrible news. I kept looking over my shoulder, though I wasn’t sure what for.
My boss made his way into the elevator with me. Today, he hadn’t seemed to notice he was wearing two hats on his head, a baseball cap worn by another baseball cap.
Later that day, I ate lunch with my friend Maddy, but other than us and a few people scattered at a couple tables, the Student Union was a ghost town.
Maddy had brought four sandwiches with her. When I asked why, she said, “In case anyone hasn’t eaten.”
She opened one. The remaining three sat in her bag. We ate for the most part in silence. Occasionally she would reminisce about her time in Connecticut, how it felt during the Sandy Hook shooting—how similar this day in Vegas felt.
“I’m good in traumatic situations,” she said. I nodded, though I wasn’t really sure what she meant. The only thing that made sense at the moment was why the air smelled like mustard; it was coming from Maddy’s extra sandwiches.
RAEGEN: I’d assumed that most people wouldn’t be on campus that day, let alone at our morning meeting, but I grabbed two dozen donuts and headed there anyway.
People looked tired, had stories of morning mishaps they attributed to their inability to focus on anything besides the night before. How it happened. Why it happened.
I’ve always found that occupying my mind with work helped me cope with things, but I said nothing, ended the meeting early, and headed back to my office.
My inbox had notes about drop-in counseling services UNLV was offering; processing spaces where our students, faculty, and staff could connect or engage in quiet, reflective self-care; even a temporary home for Route 91 attendees in the Thomas & Mack.
The best I could manage was staying in my office, keeping my mind focused on work until the end of the workday.
RACHEL: I was running on four cups of coffee and snack crackers, but I managed to make my way to UNLV’s candlelight vigil Monday night. The mood, at first, seemed more like shock than anything else. No one seemed to know what to do with themselves, had no way to guess how they should’ve prepared.
So many people came to the vigil that those staffing the event ran out of candles. I said I didn't need one so another could have it and used my phone for light instead.
Friends were wrapping their arms around one another. Professors were checking in on the mental states of the students. Speakers attempted to put the pieces of our community back together word by word. One speaker, Randy Dexter, commented that, just as he wore UNLV proudly during his time in the military, we too, uniting as a campus community, could wear it with pride.
We would wake up Tuesday to a different world, but we still had each other and UNLV.
I looked around and noticed one of my friends who’d been at Route 91 the night of the shooting. A flood of relief surged through me. She’d worn her pajamas to the vigil. Her boyfriend was doing his best to keep her from crying.
Candles flickered in trembling hands as we shared a moment of silence.
It was this silence that filled the air completely and sat in my car next to me on the drive home.
I had some milk and a chocolate chip cookie before I crawled into bed. I buried myself under my blanket head to toe so it covered my body like a shield. Then the sizzle of tears came—for those lost; for the way our community had come together in defiance of a completely horrific act; for the blessing of knowing that at least for tonight, my family was safe.
RAEGEN: By Tuesday, most of my out-of-state friends’ social media feeds had returned to “normal”—memes, cat videos, witty banter. Those who were still talking about Route 91 had moved on to what have now become the standard trains of thought post-mass shootings: gun rights and gun control, conspiracy theories, etc.
For those of us in Vegas, it was another story—or more to the point, it was the same story it had been since Sunday night. The local TV and radio stations kept telling us they were “with us” as we grieved Route 91 and told us what we could do to help: give blood, donate food and clothing, etc.
Many of the conversations among UNLV staffers began with, “Did you know anyone?” And nearly every time I asked it, I found out about another person who’d known someone or knew someone who did. Everyone at UNLV had been directly or indirectly affected by the shooting.
What’s impossible to grasp about Vegas until you live here is how truly interlinked the people who’ve stayed are. In Vegas, instead of Kevin Bacon’s six degrees of separation—the concept that we’re all connected to the actor through no more than six acquaintances—it’s more like three.
And at UNLV, it’s more like two degrees of separation. This is part of what makes our campus a living, breathing thing unto itself—each of us here a cell that keeps this organism healthy. And when something happens to one or more of these cells, the rest of us know it and feel it.
In many ways, the world was already carrying on without us. Here, we were trying to figure out how to carry on. A colleague teared up in the middle of a meeting. One demonstrated a zen-like acceptance of how little control any of us have over our lives and counted her blessings. Another wondered what any of us could really do, knowing that if we ever found out what the shooter’s motive was, it wouldn’t undo what had happened; there was no real difference that knowing would make.
Many were struggling to make sense of something that just wasn’t and isn’t going to make sense.
Others noted that the whole thing felt at the same time surreal yet inevitable. Since the initial shock of 9/11 to the American system, they found it hard to be surprised. Some even admitted feeling numb, though they felt ashamed doing so. But no one expected that it would be this particular concert on this particular evening.
RACHEL: UNLV continued to offer a variety of mental health services to the campus throughout the week. I decided to reach out to Michelle Paul, director of The PRACTICE (The Partnership for Research, Assessment, Counseling, Therapy, and Innovative Clinical Education), to see what others had been saying, to see if what I’d been feeling was common.
The campus community was traumatized on many levels, both directly and indirectly, she said, though the predominant feelings of shock early on had now transitioned to attempts to process why and how something like this could’ve happened and how we all were supposed to go on.
“UNLV is a microcosm of Las Vegas,” Paul said. “It reflects the trauma that has hit the city.”
Although the staff of her clinic are not first responders but instead caregivers, Paul was gratified The PRACTICE could help by providing a space where everyone could process the tragedy and start healing. And she marveled at how much the entire Las Vegas community had stepped up to lend helping hands. The PRACTICE and several other UNLV mental health clinics would be open for anyone who needed help coping with the Route 91 tragedy in the coming weeks and months for free.
A lot of different emotions are being expressed that may take considerable time to get through, Paul said. More importantly, she added, all of these emotional responses are normal, and she hoped that those who were struggling with coping wouldn’t hesitate to reach out for the help that professional mental health caregivers can provide.
RAEGEN: On Friday, I visited a processing space in Tam Grand Hall. To the left were coloring and crafts areas, including a letter-writing station with an already full basket of thank-you notes to first responders. To the right were snacks as well as pamphlets and one-pagers detailing resources available on and off campus. Directly ahead was a black makeshift cubicle with one open door; this was labeled “Reflection Space.”
No one was there but me and the volunteer staffer that early in the morning. I made my way around the room, spending most of my time at the Wall of Reflection, where people had written their answers to questions written big on poster paper.
Some of the answers to “How are you feeling?”: “Survivor guilt.” “On autopilot.” “Not OK.”
All resonated with me. Guilt for being alive at all — check. Autopilot — check. Anything but OK — check.
And to “How can we support each other?”: “Be the space for folx (sic) to come exactly as they are, and exactly as they are not.”
How many of us were feeling that we were somehow doing, feeling, and being the wrong things right now?
As for Question 3 — “What do you need right now?” — none of the answers seemed to express what I too had been unable to put my finger on.
On my way out, I noticed a sheet of paper on the back wall, nearly covered by the door. “Take What You Need” was written in silver across the top, and removable tags including “hope,” “courage,” “love,” “peace,” and more hung on it.
There was that question again: What did I need? “Aren’t the families of the victims and the victims who survived truly the ones in need?” I thought to myself.
When I came back to my office, I headed to the office of my co-worker who’d been at Route 91 that night. Flowers dressed the front and back desks of her office. She was sitting behind her computer just as she had before, just like she had as if it were any other day.
I was relieved to see her there, to hear her voice. I sat down, and she told me her story.
RACHEL: When I think of all I’ve seen, what strikes me most is what I see UNLV students realizing: It is OK to cry, and it is OK to laugh. It is OK to decide to go to school, and it is OK to take a mental health day at home. It is OK to tell the people around you that you love them, and it is OK to say nothing at all. It is OK to have no answers, and it is okay to have no questions.
RAEGEN: We must be permitted, by ourselves and by others, to feel shattered for those whose lives were lost and for those whose lives will never be the same again. We must be permitted to feel numb or utterly hopeless, even if it is unpopular. We must be permitted to feel one thing or many things, even if those things are seemingly conflicting. And we must be permitted to feel anything we feel … and for as long as we feel it.
Nevada isn’t known as the Transplant State for nothing. No matter how divided we feel and will continue to feel as a country and a planet, this community is you, and you are us.
If things don’t change—if we don’t let these things change every single one of us for the better—I believe you will be in our position someday, if you haven’t been already.
What happened at Route 91 was an intentionally hostile and hateful blow to us all. I’m proud of the Vegas community for coming together the way it has, but truly, this is the kind of community I’ve known Vegas to be all along.
The same goes for UNLV. Our body is ailing but healing — hug by hug, helping hand by helping hand, Rebel by Rebel.
RACHEL: For those who were comfortable taking action, being able to witness your kindness and compassion has filled me with hope in a time I thought there could be none. That is what I’m keeping with me for however long it takes for our campus and community to heal.