“As I wake up this morning, I hoped that it was all a bad dream, nightmare that really didn’t happen. Sadly, that is not the case. It is all real, so very real.”
Stephanie Schmitz, October 2017
December 2016, at a Christmas party in San Bernardino: 14 people shot. June 16, the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando: 49 killed. October 1, 2017, Las Vegas: 59 dead at the Harvest Festival. October 31, Manhattan near the World Trade Center: 8 mowed down, November 1, Sutherland Texas: 26 shot and killed. We mourned the losses, grieved for the families, tried to honor the dead with memorials, donated when we could. But what about the survivors?
There were 80 people at the Christmas party in San Bernardino, 320 in the night club in Orlando and in Las Vegas, 20,000 people endured the terror of round after round of gunshots.
As they walked or stumbled or were carried away, thousands took memories, fear and grief. We owe it to the multitude of survivors to hear their stories.
When we interviewed Stephanie, she sat before a wall of family pictures as if surrounded by comforting memories. She opened her heart and told us what was lost in this weekend that was supposed to be a joyful celebration at the Harvest Festival Concert in Las Vegas.
It had been a tumultuous time for Stephanie Schmitz, an emotional rollercoaster propelled by divorce and separations. Stress levels were kept high with immediate problems of gall bladder surgery and and car trouble. Then Stephanie, a recent convert to country music, was invited to drive to Las Vegas to hear her favorite artists, to destress and recharge and to celebrate with family.
But on the last night of the concert, “It was pop, pop, pop pop…what we thought were firecrackers but they didn’t sound like fireworks…” She thought it was a sick joke. And the singer Jason Aldean continued to perform.
A second round of shots exploded.
“Then I looked up on stage, saw the look on Jason Aldean’s face as he looked out on the crowd and saw people down.” From then it was a scramble for safety.
They headed for a large container bin set up in mid-field as a bar. As masses of people began moving, Stephanie found herself under the serving table that blocked the entrance to the container, as streams of people rushed over and around. Her sister Kimberly dragged her out, badly scraping her legs.
Two more rounds of shots rang out as 20 to 25 people huddled on the floor. At least two had sustained wounds, one man going into shock as time passed, while in the chaos, some of the shots punched through the top of the container.
Time had no meaning. It was a jumble of heart racing moments that seemed to play out in slow motion. After an eternity of ten minutes, and after the last two rounds of shooting, it stopped and the two dozen people who sheltered in the container made their way off the field. Back at the entrance to their hotel, Stephanie sat on a bench and finally broke down crying. After a brief rest, Stephanie and her sister returned home.
Disasters don’t end with the climax of the event. There are after shocks. In the week following, Stephanie ventured out to attend a candlelight vigil sponsored by the country and western bar, The Brandin’ Iron, in San Bernardino. Encircled by warmth and support, she was suddenly startled by a slamming gate. Emotions, memories, tears followed.
At the end of the week, Stephanie found herself losing her voice, then having trouble breathing. She went into the emergency room and then stayed a few more days in the hospital, while her racing heart and struggling lungs were treated. Back home, she still had trouble sleeping wanting just to hunker down in her cozy living room.
The losses continue. The tears and emotions continue to erupt. And a week later, she was laid off from her new job, because she had taken so much time off.
Still, as the weeks pass, there is a determination to honor the dead and injured, to soldier on to find meaning and purpose in her experience.
For the moment, her purpose is just to be there every day.
She tears up as she thinks of the family members of the victims.
“They will forever be with me, in my heart and my soul.”