If Susan Zahler is out for a walk and hears roofers using nail guns, she has to go home. The “pop-pop-pop” of bubble wrap being crushed sets her on edge. When fireworks crackle and boom, she’s like our pets — looking for a place to hide.
“We thought the shooter was in the concert with us,” said the Bothell woman, who two years ago was in Las Vegas with her daughter and friends for the Route 91 Harvest Festival.
On Oct. 1, 2017, near the end of the three-day country music event, a gunman firing from the Mandalay Bay hotel’s 32nd floor killed 58 people in the outdoor concert venue. The gunfire wounded more than 400 others. Hundreds were injured in the stampede to escape.
Neither Zahler, 59, nor her 33-year-old daughter Alicia Lochrie were physically hurt. Lochrie’s friend, Jessica Zetterberg, also fled unharmed. But Zahler’s neighbor and friend, Patty Reutzel, broke her ankle while running to safety.
In the quiet of Zahler’s suburban home Wednesday, the mother and daughter described the mayhem, and the lasting effects of being among 22,000 concertgoers when gunfire rang out during Jason Aldean’s performance of “When She Says Baby.”
When crackling began and the music stopped that Sunday night — the shooting started at 10:05 p.m. — some suspected a blown speaker. Others were sure it was fireworks.
Zahler and Reutzel were several rows back from the stage. They lay down and stayed put, in terror as the shooter fired, then paused, then fired some more.
Lochrie wasn’t with her mom. She and her friend were very near the stage. “I could see Jason Aldean’s face,” Lochrie said. “People were all lying on top of each other. I had blood on me. Directly in front of me a person was shot, and to the right of me a person was shot.”
Like her mom, Lochrie recalls gunfire stopping, then starting again. “It wasn’t over even when we went out,” said Lochrie, who climbed a fence to escape, then ran.
Zahler and her friend eventually got up and out after the crowd pushed down a chain-link fence. They ran a couple of blocks, and took shelter in a building where a policeman from California kept others calm. It wasn’t until dawn that police escorted them out of that building.
Reutzel was hurting, but didn’t learn her ankle was broken until she saw a doctor back home.
There had been frantic cellphone calls to reach family and each other. Zahler said cell service was spotty as thousands of people tried to reach loved ones. Messages of “we’re out!” were a relief, the mother and daughter said.
Until gunfire shattered the night, it had been a wonderful weekend at the Las Vegas Village and Festival Grounds. “We were having so much fun. It was 90 degrees,” Zahler said. “By Sunday morning we were saying, ‘Oh my gosh, we will be back next year.’ ”
They did return to Las Vegas in October 2018, but not for fun. They attended memorial events, including the release of 58 doves, one to represent each person killed.
Now, they live with what they saw, heard and survived. The tolls of deaths and injuries from mass shootings don’t tell the whole story. Some victims bear unseen scars.
In August, Zahler and her neighbor went to the Taste of Edmonds to hear The Beatniks, a classic rock band. “They’re fun, they draw a crowd,” Zahler said.
From the Edmonds venue, Zahler said they could see the balconies of apartments. As the concert crowd packed in, “Patty just lost it” and started to cry, Zahler said. They ended up leaving. And during their exit “these women were laughing at us — they were laughing when Patty was crying,” she said.
“People don’t understand, and need to be a little more sympathetic. You have no idea what other people have been through,” Zahler said.
When her plane took off from Vegas the day after the tragedy, Zahler looked down and saw the concert venue — covered with tarps. “We could see the window busted out of the hotel,” she said. “There’s just too many triggers.”
Lochrie had a reaction a week after the shootings. She and her friend, Zetterberg, are devoted Seahawks fans. At the first post-Vegas game they attended, they cried at the sound of the team’s traditional touchdown cannon fire — and not from happiness over a Hawks score.
“It’s changed my life hugely,” said Zahler, who skipped the Puyallup Fair this year and added “I can’t go to the movies.”
Zahler can’t imagine how students whose schools have been hit by gun violence ever return to class. Her understanding of military members who experience post-traumatic stress has grown. She turned to a counselor after finding herself crying all the time a month after the Vegas shootings.
One irony, Lochrie said, is how safe the Vegas venue seemed. The crowd was thoroughly screened coming in, and security officers were highly visible inside. A gun owner herself, Lochrie said “I don’t have a desire to take away people’s guns. But what we’re doing right now is not working.”
A heart-shaped decal on Zahler’s car window has a Highway 91 symbol. It says “10.01.17” and “Survivor.”
“We’re thankful to be here, and we’re trying to lead lives that are positive,” said Zahler, who treasures her children, grandchildren and friends. “That’s my joy.”
In Las Vegas Tuesday, the shooting’s second anniversary will bring tributes to the victims, a memorial motorcycle ride and other somber events. Zahler won’t be there.
“Patty and I took Tuesday off,” she said. The friends are planning a drive and lunch together, “to celebrate life — we did make it.”
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; firstname.lastname@example.org.