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Five years later, survivors of the Las Vegas shooting struggle with the fallout


On this date five years ago, a gunman in Las Vegas fired bullets from his suite at the Mandalay Bay Casino Hotel into the crowd of an outdoor country music festival. Fifty-eight people died that night. Two others died later from their injuries. He wounded hundreds more. Today, some survivors of modern America's deadliest mass shooting still struggle with psychological damage and unanswered questions. From Las Vegas, NPR's Eric Westervelt has this emotional and hopeful report.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: In the sprawling concrete lot on the Vegas strip where the horrors of that night occurred, there's little sign 60 people lost their lives here. A sign says a memorial is coming. When is unclear. To the anger of survivors, most of the area is now an overflow parking lot for Las Vegas Raiders games. If it were only that easy for Li'Shey Johnson to move on. She's tried all kinds of therapy. None seemed to work. She still hears the sound of gunfire and remembers the scent of a dead woman who was struck by an armor-piercing round and fell in front of her.

LI'SHEY JOHNSON: You know, as of today, I can still smell her. And I - you know, I asked a therapist, (crying) how long do I still smell it? I don't want to smell it anymore. How long am I going to be like this? But, you know, nobody has any answers because time has to heal.

WESTERVELT: But how long to heal is different for every survivor. One thing that makes the Route 91 massacre different from other mass shootings is that it happened in a city built around 24/7 fun and selective amnesia. Survivors still have big unanswered questions. Why wasn't security better at the hotel? Why weren't exits better marked at the concert? They're frustrated investigators say they still don't have any clear motive for the shooting.

CHRIS MADSEN: I really believe most people that visit Vegas for tourism I don't even think realize what happened.

WESTERVELT: Chris Madsen was enjoying the concert near the stage with his then 9-year-old son, Nick, when the shooting began. He covered his son on the ground before both made a harrowing escape. He credits ongoing therapy, as well as his church and son, for helping him learn to live with the scars.

MADSEN: It's virtually impossible not to remember it or think of it or hear the bullets or hear the sounds of people being shot. That's never going to go away. I think it can dissipate. But it's never going to go away. I mean, it's something that's forever, unfortunately, going to be part of me.

WESTERVELT: Five years on, the Vegas Strong Resiliency Center still treats several hundred people a month. The center provides mental health and other support services for survivors and family. Director Tennille Pereira says the number of Route 91 survivors with significant PTSD symptoms is bigger than the 10% experts predict for traumatic events.

TENNILLE PEREIRA: Actually quite higher than that when it's a mass incident, so the impact is much greater. But I can't give you an actual percentage in this event because we still, to this day, do not have a full list of everyone that was there.

WESTERVELT: The city says it continues to support survivors. There's a healing garden memorial. But survivors point out the garden is downtown, several miles from where the attack occurred.

HEATHER GOOZE: You know, now there is a football parking lot where people were murdered. It's horribly upsetting.

WESTERVELT: That's bartender Heather Gooze. She was working the festival that night. Her bar area became a bloody makeshift triage center. For hours, she stayed with several people who were dead or dying, holding one stranger's hand as cell phones in their pockets rang, relatives desperate to reach their loved ones. Gooze is now friends with several of those relatives. Today her condo is filled with Group 91 memorabilia - hats, plaques, a planter.

GOOZE: This is a piece from the healing garden. This is a piece of the broken heart where the tree of life is.

WESTERVELT: They're not just trinkets. For Gooze, they represent a vibrant community - family, she calls them - of survivors and relatives she's grown close to.

GOOZE: The awesome people that I've met - you know, the girl who gave me the plant - I never knew her before this all happened. And now she's one of my closest friends - lives in Havasu. I see her all the time. I honestly don't know if a lot of us would have (crying) survived the last five years if it wasn't for the family that we made because of the tragedy that happened.

WESTERVELT: This weekend, Gooze will spend time with that new family, including the mother of victim Chris Hazencomb, one of the strangers she stayed with that night as he lay mortally wounded. We'll cry, hug and maybe laugh, too, Gooze says of the reunion, and we'll raise a glass to the living and the dead.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Las Vegas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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