At the start of a recent weekend, four visitors filled Michele McKean's East Anchorage kitchen with food, friendship and a unique understanding of one another's struggles.
McKean and Anchorage residents Jaimie Farrell and Chris Holman are longtime friends. They were joined by a married couple from Wasilla, Chrissy Braniger and Erik Ross. The groups met less than two months earlier and bonded in the days after all of them returned from Las Vegas, each a survivor of the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. None had been hurt physically, but each carries the psychological turmoil that follows traumatic stress, and they lean on each other as they heal.
They are a few of the dozens of Alaskans who were at the Route 91 Harvest Festival on Oct. 1, the country music event where Stephen Paddock targeted the crowd from a nearby hotel with rifles equipped to fire relentlessly. He killed 58 people and injured more than 500. Fifty-three people joined a Facebook group created for Alaskans who were there in the months that followed.
Though the media coverage has faded in the many news cycles since that night, it's far harder for those who were there to move on. These five people around the kitchen table remember more than the sound of the gun in the tower across the street. They know the sound that the bullets made as they cut the air beside them and ricocheted off metal as they hid. They felt the terror of not knowing what direction the gunfire was coming from or if it would ever stop.
"It's part of us," said Ross, 41, a supervisor for the state Division of Public Assistance in Wasilla. "It's not just a story."
Before they met at a crisis support gathering hosted for them by the Anchorage Police Department five days after the shooting, each felt they were living in a similar fog.
Ross and Braniger left lights on at night, bedroom doors open, and checked locks on external doors three and four times. Sleep, when it came, lasted just a couple hours at a time.
Holman, 49, tried to return to her normal routine quickly. Exhausted after going to her job as a mortgage loan processor for just a few hours, she remembers driving home and sitting in her parked car, not wanting to go inside, where she'd be alone with her thoughts.
"I am so tired of thinking about it," she said. "But I couldn't shut it off."
Farrell, 53, an administrator for an oil field chemical company, recalled pulling into traffic once that week with no awareness of her surroundings. It was a close call, but an oncoming car barely avoided her.
Braniger, 39, a dental office administrator, said she wanted to watch every video on the internet of the incident in those days. She was seeking an explanation.
"I needed to understand what it was I felt," she said.
Before they attended the APD meetup, each thought some comfort might come knowing others felt it too.
Farrell said, "It's nice to have people that were there and understand, and don't think you're exaggerating or making things up or …"
"Wanting attention," McKean said, finishing her friend's thought.
One couple's path
As the evening wore on, lighter moments were braided into conversation, but heavy topics were discussed openly. Braniger wondered if her friends had felt like she did in one way.
"I feel like, not I wish I had been shot, but like if I had (been) physically harmed, it would make sense why I feel the way I do."
Braniger said she's coping with waves of anxiety still, but there has been some improvement since the day after the shooting, when she walked around Las Vegas feeling like an alien, a visitor from Mars.
That day, she remembers spotting a woman with a new, spendy handbag, and thought that shopping no longer seemed like a reasonable activity for herself.
Later that day, she and Ross went to a hotel bar, unable to sit still in their room. Seated near them, a man talked about the shooting with his friends boisterously, describing all the bullets and all the bodies in a way she felt was insensitive. Braniger turned and faced him.
"I watched a guy get shot in the head right next to me," she said. "You want to talk about it more?"
Ross, her husband, called it "holy-shit lucky" that they escaped. They watched the performance from a section of the audience hit hardest by the murderer's firepower, beginning when country singer Jason Aldean was wrapping up "Any Ol' Barstool." Like many, they assumed the noise they heard was fireworks.
As Aldean sang "When She Says Baby," the crowd dropped low as the reality of the situation began to set in. Braniger said it sounded like a helicopter as the gunman unloaded.
Once in motion, Ross led Braniger toward the stage, using the catwalk as cover. Along the way he helped a few others over the gate, and passed a pool of blood before he reached backstage.
On his way out of the venue, the gunfire seemed to get louder. That fed his suspicion that they were at the center of a terrorist attack from multiple gunmen on foot who wanted to kill everybody. From that point, each decision was made with that assumption in mind.
East of the concert venue was pandemonium, Ross said. In the rush of people, he saw four people carry a woman with a head wound toward a pickup.
A few blocks away, Ross and Braniger came to a dead end on a street lined with airplane hangars on the perimeter of McCarran International Airport. All doors were locked, except for one. "It had the light of God himself coming out of it," Ross would later write in an account of his experience he posted on Facebook.
Once inside, they hid in a closet and attempted to barricade its door using a rolling cart and a unicycle. It was funny in retrospect, especially considering the door opened away from them. But at the time, any hiding place was better than none.
"It worked about as well as a rolling cart and a unicycle would work," he told the group over dinner this month.
Eventually, a hundred people joined them inside, many struggling to reach their families and get news updates with dying mobile phones. Others formed a prayer circle. Ross spoke with a woman who was covered in blood she said wasn't her own. He regrets not helping her rinse it off.
They boarded a plane the day after the shooting — a day earlier than they had planned to return home. The concert was supposed to be just part of a celebration, both of Braniger's birthday and their first year of marriage.
"I have a dress that I haven't worn because it was for our date night that we never got to go on," Braniger said.
Farrell spoke to Ross across the dinner table at McKean's place. "Thanks for taking care of the both of you," she said. "I'm glad you guys are here."
What friends are for
Farrell and McKean, who have been friends for more than 20 years, attended the Route 91 festival for the third time this year. At Farrell's urging, Holman joined them for the first time. At the dinner party in December, she teased Farrell about showing her a good time. The comment seemed to touch a nerve.
Farrell said she has no regrets about getting out of the venue as quickly as she could, but she feels guilty about influencing her friends to come to the concert at all.
"I kept pushing them. 'You got to go. You got to come. I need you there,' " Farrell recalled, emotion welling as she spoke. "I'm just glad you're OK," she said to her friends.
McKean, 51, owner of a residential contracting business with her husband, said she didn't need any arm-twisting to attend and leaned into Farrell for a hug. Holman said she carried guilt of her own, for reaching a safe place before her friends did that night, after the three split up in the chaos.
Once the shooting began, Farrell headed toward an exit along Las Vegas Boulevard with her 22-year-old son, Joey, who was also at the concert. A portion of fence was knocked over, allowing them to pass. Holman raced to a bar area at the center of the venue, thinking she'd take cover by the tables. Many others had beat her to the spot, but she squeezed in.
"I could hear the bullets hit the metal above my head. And at that thought, (I) was just like, 'Am I going to feel it when I get shot?' " Holman asked.
McKean made her way to an exit on the east side and lost her flip-flops on the way, leaving them behind for fear of slowing down. On the street, she jumped in the back of a pickup while it was in motion and kept a low profile as it traveled. It had a cab full of fleeing concertgoers.
After the truck traveled a few blocks north, she jumped out and continued running barefoot, eventually making her way inside a golf driving range. Inside, she discovered a bizarre sight: people acting normally. News of what was happening must not have reached many of them yet, she later realized. Thinking back on it, she must have looked crazed, standing there barefoot and frightened, with blood running from her cut knee to her foot. She has no memory of how the cut occurred.
Eventually, McKean reunited with Farrell and her son, who had been searching for her. The group returned to the Tropicana, the hotel where they were staying. There rumors swirled, first that a shooter was inside her hotel, then that he was outside it. As it was for Ross and Braniger, the threat seemed to be everywhere at once.
Seated on a flight the next day, McKean and Farrell saw a man who seemed to struggle to keep his composure before the plane left Las Vegas. Nearby, a woman watched a video of the incident on a device. The recorded sound of gunfire could be heard.
Another passenger barked.
"Turn that off right now," he said at the start of a very long trip home for the two Alaska friends.
A new normal
As the night wore on at the start of December, two months to the day since the shooting, the conversation drifted away from the painful recollections. Farrell picked up a scalp massaging device and the group howled at the reaction to the tingle it sent down Ross' spine. They joked about their own absent-mindedness and the small, daily-life tasks they've completed.
It was the third time the group has gotten together. The first was when McKean invited them over to watch an hourlong news program about the shooting a few weeks after it happened. On Thanksgiving, some Alaska survivors and their family members gathered for a "friendsgiving" at the Northway Mall.
McKean said she had been feeling angry at how many little things she had changed in her life as a result of the experience — leaving room between vehicles in case she needed to escape the area quickly when she stopped in traffic, and checking and rechecking the locks on her vehicle, for instance.
"You know what? I'm going to strive to get my normal back," she told herself a couple weeks ago. Recently she felt empowered when, at a restaurant with her husband, she allowed herself to sit with her back to the door.
The group talked about charm bracelets Farrell made from the concert wristbands attendees wore. Ross and McKean said they planned to get tattoos that memorialized the experience. Some examples they've seen online incorporate the festival's Route 91 logo. Others reference Psalm 91 from the Bible, which now holds a special significance for many survivors.
"He shall cover you with his feathers, and under his wing you shall take refuge," Braniger read. McKean continued. "A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand. It shall not come near you."
As comfortable as they seemed in one another's company, several described a different vibe with friends and family who weren't in Las Vegas, well-meaning people who don't always seem to pay attention, or cut them off when they discuss the impact of that night.
"Why do you even ask me if you're not going to hear me," McKean recalled thinking once.
Braniger finds people sometimes want to change the subject quickly. That makes her feel minimized, she said, like it's a cue to let her know she's not welcome to talk about it anymore. Holman can relate.
"I've had people say, 'I miss the old Chrissy.' And I'm like, 'You think you do?' " Holman said.
As someone reheated enchiladas that had gone cold after hours of talking, the group talked about getting together again. McKean hopes they'll meet once a month.
"We love each other," Farrell said in a sing-song voice. "It's gross, really," Braniger teased.
Holman said she sometimes feels like she's moving through life as a cartoon character above whom a dark cloud follows with rain only for her. This group helps push the clouds away, if only for a bit. These are the people in her life who need no backstory nor additional details to understand how she feels.
"I love that we have this," Holman said, looking at the people who surrounded her before they left into the darkness of a December night. "But I hate how we got it."