After Las Vegas shooting, a city known for sin bands together in kindness

Dan Hernandez and Brittany Bronson in Las Vegas
A woman lights candles at a vigil on the Las Vegas Strip. Fundraisers, food donations, and blood drives are taking place across the city. Photograph: Chris Wattie/Reuters

Mario Montemayor struggled to describe his experience at the Route 91 Harvest festival. But he was grateful, he said, for the friends, grief counselors, and hundreds of other students at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, encircling him at a candlelight vigil on Monday night.

Speaking one day after the shooting that left at least 59 dead and scores injured, Montemayor said he didn’t realize that it was an actual attack on Sunday until after the third burst of gunfire, when he saw a girl get shot. At first, he stood frozen. People were fleeing in panic, others dropped to the ground. But then Montemayor began helping injured festival goers get to makeshift clinics that arose on the edges of the site, out of harm’s way, where they loaded people onto trucks that sped to hospitals.

“I just tried to carry as many people as I could,” Montemayor said. “Some were already deceased, some were just injured. We used barrier gates as beds and took everyone as far away as we could.”

In this way, Montemayor was one of the first of many locals to act.

The deadliest mass shooting in modern US history has inspired an overwhelming community response in a city known more for its seedy underbelly and lavish parties. People stood in line for five hours to give blood. Food and water donations piled up outside evacuation centers and hospitals. Online fundraisers for victims more than surpassed their goals, reaching $41,000 for a young woman whose friends asked for $5,000, and $4.2m for a general victims fund. Lyft and Uber drivers showed up offering free rides to anyone displaced by the tragedy. And volunteers at the victim’s family resource center were turned away, as were grief counselors on the Las Vegas Strip, when both reached their charitable capacity.

Las Vegas is widely assumed to be more interested in spectacle than support, more keen toward entertainment than empathy, because it is a transient city and a tourist destination. But within 24 hours of the massacre, locals proved those accusations false. The iconic lights of the Strip went dark on Monday night in vigil. In a time of crisis, Sin City showed its grace.

Ryan Holdeman, feeling consumed by emotions about the shooting, cooked. Holdeman, the head chef at an Italian restaurant, delivered pasta, salad and bread to fire stations and emergency rooms. “I felt like I did some good, but I wanted to do more. Mostly I shook every firefighter and nurses hand and told them thank you.”

Blood donation trucks and plasma centers saw lines out the door and around the block, and by Monday afternoon most had to turn people away. It took Las Vegas sheriff Joe Lombardo going on TV to convince people that demand was sufficiently met. But in the coming days, more blood drives will take place, including two on the Las Vegas Strip. There were nurses and medical students among those ready to open their veins outside University Medical Center, Las Vegas’s only level one trauma facility. Volunteers also collected food and water to give to donors. Boxes and crates full of provisions grew to such a level that storage became a problem.

Hundreds of people queue to donate blood following the mass shooting at the Route 91 music festival. Photograph: Mike Blake/Reuters

Reina Hohener co-organized a donation drive at her neighborhood bar, the Bunkhouse Saloon, partially as a way to let people keep giving when other places stopped accepting. “I wanted to create a filter center for people who wanted to donate, but didn’t know where to go.”

“I also wanted it to be a kind of community support – check in with friends, see how we are all doing, talk about how amazing our city is and put the pieces together.”

On the patio outside the bar, young volunteers bagged food in an assembly-line fashion, adding notes to the bags such as, “We are all connected.” The care packages filled multiple cars and trucks.

Luzana Flores, another organizer, said: “As surprising as how responsive this is, it’s not. If you need something people are so quick to respond, which is funny because people talk so much crap about Vegas.”

A volunteer interrupted to say, “I just got word the Convention Center needs items.”

That’s where the Las Vegas police set up a resource center for victim families. There, next to the entrance, a florist arranged a bed of flowers and therapy dogs were escorted past security. Wrapping in blankets, anguished people still searching for missing friends and family texted and phoned loved ones. At the UNLV Thomas & Mack center, the nearest sports arena to the Strip, evacuees who weren’t able to return to their hotels spent the night. There, too, crates worth of bottled water and food piled up.

Brian Schmidt, a shell-shocked survivor from Bismarck, North Dakota, said, “I think from a city standpoint they did everything they possibly could under the circumstances.” His girlfriend had a blanket around her shoulders and he held coffee, weary-eyed and his face full of stubble.

A man standing nearby told him, “I’m a Vegas local. If you guys need a ride or anything – phone call, phone charging – just let me know.”