Seeking normalcy after Las Vegas shooting

Amanda Lee Myers and Sally Ho
Associated Press
Vegas shooting survivor Chris Gilman, right, puts her arm around her wife, Aliza Correa, as they as they talk about the 2017 shooting.

Bonney Lake, Wash. – Every time Chris Gilman leaves her home at the foot of Washington’s Mount Rainier, she fights the gnawing urge to turn around and check that someone isn’t about to shoot her.

Sometimes she wins the battle. Sometimes she loses.

In the year since the 48-year-old was nearly killed in the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history, Gilman has had to get used to living with fear: She has nightmares about family members getting shot, she only sits in spots in restaurants where she can see the exits, and she has to mentally prepare herself for movies that might include rapid gunfire.

And then there are crowds, the toughest new obstacle Gilman must brave since surviving the Oct. 1, 2017, massacre in Las Vegas, which killed 58 people and wounded hundreds of others. Gilman was shot in the back; the bullet punctured a lung, lacerated her spleen and a kidney, broke two ribs and lodged 2 millimeters from her spinal cord.

“There are times I’m at the grocery store and I feel that desire to turn around and look and see who’s behind me,” Gilman said. “I try to fight it, to just keep walking, and I think, ‘You’re at the grocery store. There’s no one behind you with a gun.’ But I always feel like I’m looking behind me.”

That feeling turned into panic at one of Gilman’s first concerts since the shooting.

Gilman and her wife of 18 years, Aliza Correa, were with friends at Seattle’s KeyArena following an Aug. 11 concert when the surge of people around them became overwhelming.

“All of a sudden I felt like the Tasmanian devil, where I was spinning in circles trying not to have anybody behind me,” Gilman said. “I tensed up and thought, ‘Here it comes, here it comes, I know I’m going to get shot. Who’s behind me, who’s behind me?’ In your mind you know it’s crazy to think that way, but when the visions come up it’s hard to control.”

Gilman grabbed her wife’s hand and told her she was freaking out, “but it was too late.”

“I was hyperventilating, and I ended up laying on the ground,” said Gilman.

Correa is struggling with her own trauma. She was at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Vegas with Gilman when a lone gunman busted out the windows of his 32nd-floor hotel room and launched an 11-minute barraged of gunfire on the crowd below.

The women were helping a wounded friend when the bullet tore through Gilman.

They made it. Out of the chaos, to the hospital and eventually, back home to the idyllic community of Bonney Lake, an hour southeast of Seattle. Gilman and Correa live in a recently developed, well-kept and tight-knit community that borders between suburban and rural, offering crisp mountain air and lots of grassy open spaces.

There are many dark moments that remind them of things they can’t forget. The physical nerve pain Gilman feels when Correa affectionately puts her arm on Gilman’s hip out of habit. And though she has largely recovered and even had the bullet removed from her body in a subsequent surgery, she proceeds gingerly when she has to bend down and is frustrated that she struggles to exercise like she used to at the gym.

There are waves of depression, the loss of freedom from fear, but also overwhelming gratitude for little things, like when Gilman got a card from an 8-year-old she never met who wrote: “I wish this never happened to you.”

Amid the struggle, the couple strives for normalcy, for experiences most people can enjoy without a second thought.

Though they weren’t regular concertgoers before the shooting, Gilman and Correa force themselves to get out in large, busy gatherings to face their fears. They also made themselves return to Vegas last month for a previously planned trip for Correa’s mother’s 70th birthday, a journey that induced panic for Gilman but became therapeutic by the end of the weekend.

“Something bad happened in our life. It completely changed, and we’re finding a new normal,” Gilman said. “We can’t ever go back to the way we were before.”

Not pressing pause

Jason McMillan has spent a month in a hospital, more than a month in a rehabilitation facility and countless hours in physical therapy trying to regain the use of his legs while coping with stares from passers-by.

The 36-year-old Southern California sheriff’s deputy was shot at the Route 91 Harvest Festival while trying to shield his girlfriend from the gunfire raining from a nearby high-rise. He suffered liver and lung wounds and has a bullet in his spine.

Jason McMillan was shot at the Harvest Festival while shielding his girlfriend.

Seemingly simple things can be onerous, like finding a parking spot and a table with enough space for a wheelchair so they can go out to dinner. But McMillan hasn’t let these hurdles stop him from living.

Since the shooting, the father of two got engaged to his girlfriend, bought a home, got a puppy, traveled to Hawaii and learned to scuba dive off the California coast through a program for wounded veterans and law enforcement.

“I’m not going to push the pause button,” McMillan said. “It could have been so much worse – I could even be dead, or I could be completely paralyzed from my neck down. It could be a lot worse, and that’s what I tell myself all the time.”

‘He was my best friend’

A small home in Las Vegas has become a shrine to Erick Silva, who was killed in the shooting.

Photos of the young man wearing security guard uniforms cover the window on the front porch. Newspaper cutouts, handwritten signs and a T-shirt with his photo are visible from the sidewalk, while flowers, a white wooden cross and other mementos make a makeshift altar next to the front door.

Angelica Cervantes cries as she talks about her son, Erick Silva, who was killed.

Inside, poster-size portraits of Silva hang in the living room he shared with his mom, brother and stepfather.

Oct. 1, 2017, transformed this house and the family that calls it home. That day, Silva was working as a security guard at the Route 91 Harvest Festival and was shot while helping people climb over a barricade to escape the gunfire.

“He was my best friend. … He was my right hand. I wouldn’t do anything without telling him,” Silva’s mom, Angelica Cervantes, said on a recent evening, leaning against his bed.

Cervantes has tried hard to find a new normal. She and her husband, Gregorio de la Rosa, are back at work. She goes to therapy and talks with church pastors. She even underwent a spiritual cleansing.