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One year later: Las Vegas dims the neon and pauses to reflect on its darkest hour

Mynda Smith’s sleep was restless. Normally, she would have had a protein shake for breakfast, but on Monday all she could do was sip water.

A year ago her sister was killed. Neysa Tonks, 46, was one of 58 people gunned down at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival on the Las Vegas Strip — the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history. The tragedy was big and public, but within Tonks’ family, the loss was also private and constant.

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It was still dark when Smith drove to the Clark County Government Center Amphitheater from her Las Vegas home early Monday. A large crowd would be there for a sunrise remembrance for the victims.

Smith, 43, had her “Vegas Strong” T-shirt on. She wore a necklace with her sister’s fingerprint on it, which she touched for strength. She stood at the podium, thankful there were tissues placed there. Her voice cracked.

“I look out and see so many who have been through so much,” Smith said. “I am truly grateful to be standing here with so much love in my heart.”

In the crowd, Mary Rivera, whose 21-year-old daughter, Jordyn Rivera, was killed in the shooting, teared up. So did Mary Jo Von Tillow, whose husband was killed by the gunfire. The family of Brian Fraser, also killed, put their arms around one another — most wearing black T-shirts with angel wings on them along with the words, “Tomorrow is not promised, live every day with intent.”

Throughout the year, Las Vegas has been honoring those who died. There have been concerts and fundraisers, and the Clark County Museum worked on a display that features items left by mourners at the city’s famed “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign.

On Oct. 1, 2017, a shooter sprayed the Las Vegas Strip with more than 1,000 rounds of gunfire, killing 58 and injuring hundreds at an outdoor concert. Video and 911 recordings captured the horror as it happened.

Within that year, the Vegas Golden Knights hockey team retired the No. 58 to commemorate those who died. Portraits of all 58 victims are on display at the County Government Center. And it is nearly impossible to drive around the city without seeing #VegasStrong bumper stickers, billboards or T-shirts.

But on Monday, the 24-hour city of glitz and gambling was subdued. Different. In downtown Las Vegas, a prayer vigil began at 11:30 a.m. and late Monday evening — near the time when the shooting began a year ago — the marquees along the Strip went dark while the names of those killed were read aloud at the newly established healing garden in downtown Las Vegas, a candle lit for each victim. The sobs were audible.

Some marquees throughout the day had the words #VegasStronger — including the Mandalay Bay, which is where Stephen Paddock opened fire from his 32nd-floor hotel suite.

Mandalay Bay, which is owned by MGM Resorts International, was quiet in the afternoon. The Las Vegas Village site, where the Route 91 concert was held, was surrounded by fences and a flier urged people not to leave items there, but instead to visit a healing garden and pay respects there.

MGM Resorts Chairman and Chief Executive James Murren issued a statement on Monday thanking emergency responders for their efforts during the shooting while acknowledging the frustration of not knowing why Paddock shot up the festival.

“Today, we remember the 58 innocent victims and grieve along with survivors and countless loved ones,” the statement read. “We share the sorrow of those who mourn and continue to search for meaning in events that lie beyond our understanding.”

The company was also allowing employees to participate in community events throughout the day, retreat to quiet rooms if they needed to reflect on the day, and was providing comfort dogs at several properties.

During the morning service, Gov. Brian Sandoval said that even though it’s been a year since the shooting, the pain has never fully lifted.

“Today, we remember the unforgettable,” Sandoval said. “Today, we comfort the inconsolable. Today we gather in mind and body and we never left each other in spirit and heart.”

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Throughout the day, people gathered at the famous Las Vegas sign at the south end of the Strip to leave flowers at white crosses laid out along the green turf behind the sign. People approached a heart-shaped display that included portraits of all 58 victims. Some called and did video chats in front of it. A few cried.

Gloria Gonzalez placed roses at the cross of Doreen Anderson and said she and her husband, Jess Gonzalez, happened to be on vacation in Las Vegas for the events commemorating the victims of the shooting.

Anderson was her niece, and Gonzalez said she still remembered getting a text saying that she had died. Gonzalez said her children were very close to Anderson and that the loss hit them hard.

“She was such a family person,” Gonzalez said. “She loved her family more than anything.”

She carefully straightened the flowers and then took a picture and sent it to her children, who she said had asked her to leave flowers in Anderson’s honor.

Small gestures were also seen around the city. Some stores gave free coffee all day to first responders. A church handed out free water to people at the Las Vegas sign.

But it was the morning ceremony that seemed to carry a lot of the emotional heft for the city.

A line of uniformed police officers, firefighters and members of a multi-agency honor guard stood rigidly as the speakers spoke of courage, sadness and resiliency at the morning remembrance. On balconies overlooking the amphitheater, government workers who arrived before their shifts watched quietly.

Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo said he knew when he woke up Monday that the day would be different. Yes, he said, they still had a job to do — crime doesn’t stop for anniversary events, he noted — but Lombardo said he and his deputies would also be attending memorial services throughout the city.

“We want to move forward, but sometimes we lose sight of that reflection,” Lombardo said after the ceremony. “I think it was important for me to be grounded this morning and remember what had occurred.”

Chris Davis spends time alone at a cross made for his daughter, one of the 58 people killed in the Las Vegas mass shooting.
Chris Davis spends time alone at a cross made for his daughter, one of the 58 people killed in the Las Vegas mass shooting. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Smith said in the first weeks after the attack, the sense of loss was so overwhelming that it was sometimes even hard to remember to breathe.

She told her story of waiting to find out about Tonks’ fate the day after the shooting, realizing that she and her family weren’t alone after seeing all the people at the Family Assistance Center waiting to hear the same terrible news. She recalled the outpouring of generosity. She remembered sensing the scope of the tragedy when she saw the long lines of people waiting to donate blood for the hundreds who were injured.

The last year, she said, had allowed her to turn her “anger into passion” and support children who lost parents in the shooting by establishing a scholarship fund.

Still, Smith said, there is much work to do. People are still being treated for injuries. Families are still mourning losses. Depression haunts survivors.

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“I can’t say we haven’t had our fair share of sucker punches,” Smith said. “We will continue to have obstacles we will have to tackle. For me, I know Neysa would have taken them head-on with strength and confidence to conquer it all, and that’s what I’m choosing to do — hold my head high and use her determination and strength when I feel mine is weakened.”

The 45-minute remembrance was capped with bagpipes playing “Amazing Grace” and a choir from the Las Vegas Academy of the Arts singing “America the Beautiful.”

Smith also led the crowd in 58 seconds of silence. Through it, some sobbed. Then 58 doves were released. People wiped away tears. A few huddled, arms wrapped around one another, as the birds circled in the morning sky.

Von Tillow said she was moved by the music and that her husband, Kurt, had a fondness for patriotic songs.

“He would have loved all of this,” she said, her voice breaking. Waving her hand, she added, “All of it.”

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