Fifty-eight doves were released soon after sunrise. They flew high over the anniversary crowd, circling overhead, once, twice, white wings flapping, before disappearing into the sky. Each bird was tagged with the name of a person murdered in Las Vegas a year earlier at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival shooting Oct. 1, 2017. It was the worst United States mass shooting in recorded history.
Anniversaries bring celebration, memories or milestones. In our world of escalating gun violence, however, the anniversaries — while they may bring survivors together in healing — recall a day of fear, shock and devastating losses.
At the first anniversary of the Route 91 Harvest massacre, which killed 58 people and injured more than 500, people spent the day at memorials, a dedication, a survivors-only country music concert, and reconnecting with members of the “family” they inherited that deadly night on the Las Vegas strip. The shooting happened at an open-air venue owned by MGM Resorts International, which also owns the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino. It was from that hotel overlooking the festival grounds where the shooter perched and took aim at his innocent victims 32 stories below.
At the sunrise service Oct. 1, 2018, right before the flock of doves took wing, the crowd heard from Minda Smith, whose sister was killed at the music festival. Neysa Davis Tonks was a single mother of three, out for a night of music when her life ended.
“Our love must motivate us to move forward,” Smith told the crowd gathered at the county amphitheater. “We have the right to feel angry and sad. Embrace those emotions, but don’t let them control you.” She spoke of her sister, and her family’s loss as her — and her sister’s — parents’ wiped away tears. “I refuse to let it take one more thing from me.”
At the sunrise service and other memorials, people wore T-shirts that read Vegas Strong, or Country Strong, or Strong 58, or Country Folks Will Survive. Tattoos were commonplace, many of them with the inked words Vegas Strong rising from the Vegas skyline.
In the heavy presence of law enforcement officers at the sunrise service, pipes and drums played “Amazing Grace,” followed by a choir singing “When You Walk Through a Storm,” “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” and “America, the Beautiful.”
People cried, embraced and spoke of sadness, encouragement and love. A woman police officer hugged a young man and woman holding a baby. A middle-aged couple in jeans, cowboy boots and hats, held hands, looking like they would never let go.
Some survivors braved speaking to reporters as they fought back tears, but others requested privacy to be alone with their thoughts or with the friends who had experienced the deadly rampage alongside them.
Several survivors appeared to find solace while stroking an emotional-support St. Bernard. A woman buried her wet face in the dog’s thick coat.
One cop talked quietly to a man.
“You only have one life to live,” the officer said. “You have to find your path.”
They nodded together.
Gov. Brian Sandoval spoke to the crowd.
“We will never fully recover from that fateful night, nor should we,” he said. “But from that night of Nevada infamy came one of our proudest moments. We become one people, one community, one family. We cried. We grieved. And we resolved to become Vegas Strong.”
The theme of angels was everywhere in the city. In shops, restaurants, and hotels, figures of angels were displayed in memory of those slain, and Vegas Strong signs were taped onto storefront windows.
In the evening, hundreds of people gathered at the Healing Garden, built just days after the shooting. It is located on what had been a vacant downtown lot. People placed 58 roses at the new memorial wall.
Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman recalled how the city was overrun with blood donors that tragic week. People needed something to do with their desire to help. Within hours, the idea for the healing garden was born. Created by volunteers, it opened to the public five days after the shooting.
“Seize the day and make your life. You’re blessed to be alive,” Goodman said. “We saw the sign in the sky.”
Mid-ceremony, a strange and beautiful cloud shadow created a funnel-shaped beam of light, as if signaling joy or compassion to those who had gathered throughout Las Vegas to remember.
Jay Pleggenkuhle, garden project director, spoke.
“We planted a garden not thinking of trees and flowers, but of love, hope and passion,” he said. “Take good care of each other, respect each other, love each other. We’ve pushed back with a very deliberate act of compassion.”
Thousands of people gathered on the Las Vegas Strip at 10 p.m. to witness the dimming of the marquees in honor of those killed and wounded at the music festival shooting.
People stood close to one another, packing foot bridges over Las Vegas Boulevard, waiting. Nearby, dozens of survivors linked arms and created a human chain around the still-fenced-off shooting site.
A year after the shooting ripped into the lives of hundreds of country music lovers, the marquees began to dim just after 10 p.m., as did the famous Welcome to Las Vegas neon sign.
At 10:05 p.m., the Strip went dark.
Mary Tolan is a fiction writer and journalist. Her first published book Mars Hill Murder, a mystery set in Flagstaff, will be published by The Wild Rose Press in autumn of 2023.