Route 91 survivors find healing in 'Country Strong' community

The worst mass shooting in US history took place at the Route 91 country music festival in Las Vegas one year ago. Survivors have formed communities online and in person to support each other, and continue to enjoy country music. 

Mark Humphrey/AP
Heather Melton sits by the grave of her husband, Sonny, who was killed during the Route 91 mass shooting in Las Vegas on Oct. 1, 2017. In the past year, survivors have formed communities to support each other and heal together.

They have the date 10-1-2017 tattooed on their bodies and have memorial walls of pictures in their homes. One woman made a bracelet out of her Route 91 Harvest festival wristband, while many others can be spotted at concerts wearing shirts that say "survivor." They fly flags from their RVs and have stickers on their cars.

About 22,000 people gathered in Las Vegas a year ago with a shared interest in country music. But as the festival's final headlining act Jason Aldean was performing last Oct. 1, gunfire erupted and chaos ensued. By the end of the night 58 people were killed and hundreds more injured: the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history.

Now a year later, 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."

Why not me?

Sonny Melton, a nurse from Big Sandy, Tenn., loved Eric Church. When Church sang "These Boots," Melton would take off his boots and raise them up in the air with all the other die-hard Church fans. He was at Route 91 to see Mr. Church play on Friday night, but stayed until Sunday to see Aldean.

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, Mr. 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 shrine to the passions of her late husband, including guitars, a baseball jersey, 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 traveled 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," Melton said.

Peer support group

Linda Liewsuwanphong, of Rosemead, Calif., was such a fan of country music she would go to concerts by herself. By the end of the night, she often made new friends. That same thing happened after she and her husband attended Route 91, but now she calls them family.

"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 wasn't going to let it stop her from going to concerts, so she started a Facebook group to organize a meetup of Route 91 survivors at Stagecoach, a country music festival held 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," 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 were 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 favorite band.

Connie Long, from Riverside, Calif., 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, ages 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 to Stagecoach with her husband months after the shooting, it wasn't the same. "We were on edge so much," she said. "It was just too much for me to handle."

Other survivor groups hold monthly meetups, plan outings like attending sporting events, raise money for families that needed assistance, create Christmas card lists, and share potluck dinners. They perform what they call "random acts of kindness," where they will do something nice for a stranger, or leave a $58 tip in honor of those who were lost.

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

"The music makes us stronger," Long said. "The music is what brings us together."

Survivors helping survivors

Only those who experienced that night could understand the triggers and fears that many survivors share.

Janie Scott, of Bakersfield, Calif., along with her husband and a friend, were about 15 feet 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."

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. 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 hometown, completely broken with no support," 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 counseling through this group," Scott said.

A weight lifted

Michelle Rodriguez, of Eastvale, Calif., met her husband while line dancing at a country music club about 14 years ago. Married for a decade, now their kids listen to country music, too. But Route 91 almost took away those fond memories for her.

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

Rodriguez and her husband were about 10 feet 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," Rodriguez said. Many people that were near them didn't.

This past Saturday, Rodriguez went to see Mr. 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," Rodriguez said. "But afterward, the weight that was lifted off my shoulders was something that I'll never experience again."

This story was reported by The Associated Press

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