'You Can Get Through It': Las Vegas Shooting Survivors Rebuild Their Lives

Sep 23, 2018
Originally published on October 1, 2018 8:44 am

Watching Nick Campbell now you wouldn't know what he's been through.

NPR first spoke to Campbell last year when he was 16, a high school student from a suburb of Las Vegas, just after the shooting. He was in a hospital bed, his right lung pierced by a bullet, his ribs broken.

"It's been a long, long road, mentally and physically," he says. "Physically, I'm back. I mean not back to normal, there are still hindrances here and there with my lungs and my ribs."

But Campbell says the physical recovery was easier than the mental.

"I mean because we live here it's everywhere. So you can't really run from it, you kind of have to get through it. So that was the hard part too."

One year ago, a man opened fire from the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino into crowds at a country music festival. It was the single deadliest mass shooting in modern American history. He killed 58 people, injured hundreds more and left this city reeling.

A year on the city and survivors of the shooting are still healing.

'I hid under someone who was dead'

Campbell had been at the festival with his girlfriend. When the shots began he dove on top of her to protect her. He helped her climb over a fence, but he couldn't make that climb himself because of his wounds. He searched for a way to protect himself.

"I hid under someone who was dead," he said at the time. "The shooter is not going to shoot where there's already someone dead."

Campbell is now 17. He played basketball at school last year, ran track and was a lifeguard over the summer.

There are reminders everywhere, the #VegasStrong T-shirts, the rallies, the tributes and the remembrances. So, over the past year, he slowly confronted every reminder of that night and spent months in therapy.

He returned to the open-air venue of the festival a week after the shooting.

"I just sat there for a little bit and I just cried and that helped a lot," he says.

Another time he went back with his girlfriend. They cut off the admissions bracelet for the festival and threw them over the fence.

There are triggers: war movies, loud noises and the most difficult trigger...his girlfriend. She was with him that night and, when together, they sparked tough memories of what happened that day.

"We just kind of decided let's just take a break," he said. "And we didn't speak for six months straight."

They didn't want to bring each other down, he said.

Recently he and his girlfriend got back together and jumped the biggest hurdle so far. They went to a concert a lot like the one where Campbell was shot. It was country music, and it was outside.

"At first I was really anxious because the hotel was right there and it was the same setting, same feeling, she was right next to me. But then once I got into it and I didn't think about it anymore."

There have been mass shootings since. After the February shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., teens reached out to him to ask how he got through it. He didn't join the rallies, he's not political, but he shared his experience with those who asked.

"I just told them don't give up or don't let it affect your day to day life," he said. "It's not your whole life. You can get through it and it gets better ... it actually gets better."

What's changed most in the last year is Nick Campbell.

"I don't sweat the small stuff anymore," he said.

In interviews with survivors there's a common theme, a renewed sense of purpose. For Campbell, its a better appreciation of life. For Las Vegas Police Officer Justin Van Nest, it is using his experience from that night of shooting to train others.

Slaying the dragon

After the shooting, many survivors wanted to know why it happened. But there were few answers.

"The goal of our investigation all along was to provide the public with the clearest picture possible of the events leading up to Oct. 1, as well as motive," Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo told reporters at the time. "What we have not been able to definitively answer is the 'Why Stephen Paddock committed this act?'"

There are hints in the report. One brother said he might have been bored and looking for a way to be remembered. The other said he was "paranoid and delusional;" a Las Vegas doctor said he might have had bipolar disorder. But it is all guesses.

Sgt. Justin Van Nest says a why wouldn't change much.

"People in order to heal and to cope and to rationalize it in their minds they want some kind of reason that they could say ok that makes sense, but what he did will never make sense to anybody," Van Nest said.

Van Nest was assigned to work overtime that day, securing the festival. He was wrapping up around 10 p.m. and the shooting began.

"We were taking gunfire," he said. "Later we learned that gunfire was directed at us not at the crowd at the time."

Police believed the shooter was firing directly at police vehicles at times during the 10 minutes of gunfire. Van Nest and the other officers were pinned down helping civilians find cover. It was chaos. By the time the shooting stopped, one off duty policeman was dead, several others injured and scores of civilians were killed and wounded.

Before that day, Van Nest had never fired his weapon in the line of duty in the nine years he'd been on the force.

Today, Van Nest works to make sure his department is ready to respond to any mass casualty event. He oversees training for things like active shooters. Van Nest tries to use his experience at the shooting last year to teach others.

"I have my own body cam footage and I use it as an example," he said. "You know maybe this was alright, what I did here or there. But look 'why did I do this or why did I do that?' Here's what I could've done that might have been better."

The office where we meet is filled with binders full of police reports of every mass casualty event that occurs.

Van Nest knows now that responding in the chaos of gunfire and crowds is not the same as in a training room. And he hopes he'll never have to respond to an event like the one on Oct. 1, 2017 again.

"You have this vision I think as a cop that you're going to show up on some scene and you're going to go in there and slay the dragon," he said. "I can say that this absolutely wasn't what I had ever envisioned that I would encounter. That I wouldn't know where bullets were coming from. I didn't have my rifle in my hands."

He says he thinks about it every day.

"This is something we can debrief for the rest of our careers and hopefully it's the last one we have to debrief," he said.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

In about a week, the city here will mark a grim anniversary. It was a year ago in October where the single deadliest mass shooting in modern American history took place. A man opened fire on a country music festival. He killed 58 people, injured hundreds more and left this city reeling. We're joined now by national correspondent Leila Fadel to talk about what's changed in the city since then. She's based in Las Vegas and was part of the NPR team that covered the shooting. Hi, Leila.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Hi.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So tell us about that night.

FADEL: Well, it was surreal because this city that's known for over-the-top, crazy fun was scarred, scared and mourning. But really, Las Vegas a year on is back to business as usual, and it's a city that wanted to recover and wanted to recover quickly because...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And it needs to, right? Tourists come here.

FADEL: Exactly. That's the life's blood of this city. They needed people to come back and tell them, it's OK. Everything's fine. And there are remembrances, a memorial garden. But there's also erasing of it. For example, the Mandalay Bay - the 32nd floor, where that shooter shot from - that doesn't exist anymore. They've renumbered the floors.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Oh. And you revisited one of the survivors you met just a few days after the shooting to see how he was doing. Tell us about him.

FADEL: When I first met Nick Campbell, he was in a hospital bed - a 16-year-old that had jumped on top of his girlfriend to try to protect her, and he got shot, his lung pierced, his ribs crushed. And he tried to climb over a fence after helping her get out. And he couldn't get out on his own. And so this is him speaking to me at that time just days after the shooting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NICK CAMPBELL: So I hid under someone that was, like, dead 'cause the shooter's not going to shoot where there's already someone dead.

FADEL: Today, Campbell is 17. He played basketball at school last year. He ran track and was a lifeguard over the summer. And I met up with him at a park near his home in Henderson, Nev.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Nick. Nick.

CAMPBELL: What?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: It's time to play some activities.

FADEL: Watching him now laughing and hanging with friends, you would never know what he'd been through.

CAMPBELL: It's been a long, long road mentally, physically. Physically, I'm back - I mean, not back to normal. There's still hinderances here and there with, like, my lungs and my ribs and stuff like that.

FADEL: Campbell says the physical recovery was easier than the mental.

CAMPBELL: I mean, 'cause we live here, it's everywhere. So you can't really - you kind of have to - like, can't really run from it. You kind of have to get through it. So that was the hard part, too.

FADEL: Slowly, he has tried to heal. He returned to the open-air venue of the festival a week after the shooting.

CAMPBELL: I went back to there and just, like, sat there for a little bit. And I just cried. Like, I mean, that helped a lot. And then another time, I went with Liv, my girlfriend. And we cut off our bracelets and then threw them over the wall or whatever.

FADEL: And when he says bracelets, he means the bands they wore at the festival that night to gain entry. There are triggers, of course - war movies, loud noises and the most difficult trigger, his girlfriend. The pair were reminders to each other of what happened that day because they were together.

CAMPBELL: We just kind of decided, let's just take a break. And then, like, we didn't speak for those six months straight.

FADEL: They didn't want to bring each other down. But recently, he and his girlfriend got back together and jumped their biggest hurdle. They went to a concert a lot like the one where Campbell was shot. It was country, and it was outside.

CAMPBELL: At first, I was really anxious because, like, the hotel was right there. And it was, like, the same setting and the same feeling. And she was right next to me. But then once I kind of got into it, I didn't really think about it anymore.

FADEL: There have been mass shootings since, like Parkland, where teens reached out to him to ask him, how did he get through it? Now, he didn't join the rallies. He's not political. But he shared his experience with those who asked.

CAMPBELL: I just told them, like, don't give up or, like, don't, like, let it affect your day-to-day life. Like, it's not, like, your whole life. You can get through it, and it gets better. Like, you don't have to dwell on the past and everything like that. Like, it actually gets better.

FADEL: What's changed most in the last year is Nick Campbell.

CAMPBELL: I don't sweat the small stuff anymore. Or, like, I don't have any enemies. I don't - like to be friends with everyone and, like, have as many connections as possible.

FADEL: So now, Lulu, he really just wants to focus on moving on. It's his junior year. He's loaded his schedule with AP classes, and he's got his eyes on universities in Arizona, Utah and Colorado.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What a hard road he's gone through. And you've spoken to a lot of survivors over the past year, right? Is there a common takeaway that people have?

FADEL: Yeah. I feel like in - with every person that I've spoken to, people get a new sense of purpose, whether it's to appreciate life, like you heard from Nick Campbell, or activism, like we've seen with the teens in Parkland. A couple of survivors here in Las Vegas and in Reno started branches of the Brady Campaign to stopping gun violence. Survivors have formed support groups. And some are just focused on a new reality because of catastrophic injuries.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Leila, what about the investigation? You know, there was so much speculation at the time about what might have motivated the shooter. Do we know anything more now a year on?

FADEL: No, we do not know why the shooter went up to the 32nd floor and opened fire. The police closed the investigation without a motive. And in that report, the final police report, there are guesses - one brother saying he was bored, another brother saying he may have had some mental illnesses, a doctor saying he might have been bipolar. But he didn't have debt. He wasn't associated with any type of group that would explain an ideology. And so, really, that question is still unanswered.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And, Leila, you actually met recently with a member of the Las Vegas Police Department who was on duty the night of the shooting to find out how things have changed for them.

FADEL: Yeah. I spoke with Sgt. Justin Van Nest of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. And he told me he'd made peace with the possibility that he'll never know what the shooter's motive was. Take a listen.

JUSTIN VAN NEST: People, in order to heal and to cope and to rationalize it in their minds - they want some kind of reason that they could say, OK, that makes sense. But it's - what he did will never make sense to anybody.

FADEL: Van Nest was assigned to work overtime that day, securing the festival. And he was wrapping up around 10 p.m., and then the bangs started.

VAN NEST: We were taking gunfire, didn't really have a lot of room to move around. But, you know, later, we learned that gunfire was directed at us and not at the crowd at that time.

FADEL: The shooter was firing at the police vehicles. Van Nest and the other officers were pinned down, helping civilians find cover. It was chaos. By the time the 10 minutes of gunfire stopped, one off-duty policeman was dead, several others injured, and scores of civilians were killed and wounded. And before that day, Van Nest had never fired his weapon in the line of duty in the nine years he'd been on the force.

VAN NEST: So we have a training door that's set up to simulate an actual barricaded door.

FADEL: Today, Van Nest works to make sure his department is ready to respond in any mass casualty event. He oversees training for things like active-shooter scenarios.

(SOUNDBITE OF BANG)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Come on.

FADEL: In today's class, one officer is breaking down a metal door while the others stand guard. Van Nest uses his experience at the shooting last year to teach others.

VAN NEST: I have my own body cam footage, and I use it as an example of, you know, maybe this was all right what I did here or there. But look. Why did I do this. Or, you know, why did I do that? Here's what I could've done that might've been better, you know?

FADEL: The office where we meet is filled with binders of every mass casualty event they find. They keep adding police reports to the collection. He knows now that responding in the chaos of gunfire and crowds is not the same as in a stale training room.

VAN NEST: You know, you have this vision, I think, as a cop that you're going to show up on some scene. You're going to go in there and slay the dragon. You're going to have your gear on. And I can say that this absolutely wasn't what I had ever envisioned that I would encounter. It was not, you know, set up in this way that I wouldn't know where bullets were coming from. I didn't have my rifle in my hands.

FADEL: Justin Van Nest thinks about it every day, he says.

VAN NEST: This is something we can debrief for the rest of our careers. And hopefully, it's the last one we have to debrief.

FADEL: So, Lulu, the police department is focused on learning from that event while continuing to police the daily crime in the city. And while they've closed their own investigation, an FBI report is expected later this year.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, this took place at a music festival. And we heard earlier from Nick Campbell that he started going to concerts again. And this policeman is saying that he still works overtime doing security after the shooting, so is it a sign that people have started to really recover from this?

FADEL: Well, if it's any indication, this past week, Jason Aldean, the country star that was performing when the shooting started, was back on stage in Las Vegas.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR's Leila Fadel. Thank you so much.

FADEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.