Mourn­ing and heal­ing un­fold in Las Ve­gas, but this is still Sin City

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY KEVIN SUL­LI­VAN

las ve­gas — Forty-seven hours af­ter the mas­sacre, Crys­tal Rose was back in her flouncy red show­girl plumage on the Ve­gas Strip, bare-chested ex­cept for tiny, shiny pasties keep­ing her just this side of le­gal.

“Come on over — get a photo with the show­girls,” she called out to the flow of rev­el­ers cruising the side­walk Tues­day even­ing out­side the Flamingo Ho­tel and Casino, many of whom stopped to pose with Crys­tal and her fel­low feath­ered at­trac­tion, Sab­rina Bor­den, near the busy craps and beer pong ta­bles.

“I took the day off yes­ter­day, out of re­spect,” said Crys­tal, 25, who uses her first and mid­dle name when pos­ing for tips on the Strip. “It’s a dark time, but peo­ple come to Ve­gas to have fun, not to be afraid. So we are here to lift ev­ery­one’s spir­its.”

This puls­ing City of Sin has re­turned al­most im­me­di­ately to its high-glitz ver­sion of nor­mal af­ter Sun­day’s mas­sacre of 58 peo­ple, the deadliest mass shoot­ing in mod­ern Amer­i­can his­tory. The shows go on. The roulette wheels spin, the dice fly, and peo­ple car­ry­ing Coronas wan­der the Strip along­side bub­bly show­girls and a guy dressed as Chew­bacca.

Thou­sands have come to can­dle­light vig­ils to kneel, pray, cry and hug strangers. So many peo­ple do­nated blood that po­lice asked them to slow down. Lo­cal ho­tels are pro­vid­ing rooms and food to help fam­i­lies of the dead and the nearly 500 hun­dred in­jured, most of whom were from out of town. Fifty-eight white crosses have been erected near the Man­dalay Bay ho­tel, where the shoot­ing hap­pened.

Those are the fa­mil­iar mark­ers of mass shoot­ings, which are now as much as part of Amer­i­can life as hur­ri­canes — cer­tain dan­ger we have come to ex­pect and feel help­less to stop. All sides of the gun-con­trol de­bate rise up with each slaugh­ter, but lit­tle seems to change, and no one be­lieves the killings will stop.

Vir­ginia Tech. New­town. Or­lando. Dallas. Now, Las Ve­gas.

These hor­rors are joined by a com­mon tragic sense­less­ness. But while each place has pro­cessed the trauma dif­fer­ently, Las Ve­gas has bounced back to busi­ness un­usu­ally fast.

On Thurs­day even­ing, a beam-

ing Jil­lian Au­coin from Nova Sco­tia walked down the Strip in a white wed­ding gown and car­ry­ing a bou­quet of white roses.

Mar­ried three hours ear­lier at a wed­ding chapel, Au­coin, 39, walked with her new hus­band, By­ron Au­coin, at her side, and a gang of merry brides­maids fol­low­ing along in the shadow of the 460-foot replica Eif­fel Tower at the Paris Las Ve­gas Ho­tel & Casino.

“He didn’t scare us,” Jil­lian Au­coin said of the Ve­gas shooter. “At first I didn’t want to come and cel­e­brate in a place that was mourn­ing. But we de­cided to come and share our happy time with the peo­ple of Las Ve­gas.”

The cou­ple ar­rived on Tues­day, just two days af­ter the at­tack.

“We’re bring­ing a lit­tle bit of the pos­i­tiv­ity that Ve­gas is known for,” said By­ron Au­coin, 35, who could see the bright lights of the Man­dalay Bay just down the Strip. “You’ve got to keep liv­ing life and keep go­ing for­ward.”

The same re­silient spirit has ap­peared in other com­mu­ni­ties devastated by mass shoot­ings, but never with quite the same rub­ber-band re­cov­ery.

In New­town, Conn., the 26 dead were mainly ele­men­tary school­child­ren gunned down in their class­rooms by a men­tally ill young man mo­ti­vated by demons that are still not un­der­stood. Grief con­sumed the town. The pain was in­ti­mate and per­sonal, ev­i­dent even in the eyes of cus­tomers stop­ping by the only Star­bucks in their coun­try cross­roads.

Still, one high school sopho­more said: “There was a lot to cry about. It’s a lot to re­cover from, but we have to get stronger, and we will. That’s the truth.”

They have, but no one be­lieves New­town will ever be the same.

Or­lando felt like a wake for days and days af­ter the shoot­ing of 49 peo­ple at the Pulse night­club by a brood­ing young loser who wrapped him­self in ji­hadist lan­guage. For days, streets and restau­rants were empty. A big, sunny city was dark and quiet. Even the bou­quet-filled me­mo­rial down­town was of­ten as still as a ceme­tery; peo­ple came in huge waves for nightly vig­ils, but mostly it felt as though they were hun­kered down in pri­vate, try­ing to process some­thing im­pos­si­ble.

Dallas prayed. Churches were filled for days and weeks with mourn­ers for the five slain po­lice of­fi­cers, killed by a fringe lu­natic who used an oth­er­wise peace­ful Black Lives Mat­ter march to com­mit a de­mented act of re­venge against law en­force­ment. Peo­ple — black and white — left flow­ers and stuffed an­i­mals on two po­lice cars parked as a me­mo­rial; one hand­writ­ten note said, “Back the Blue be­cause some­one I call Dad is on the force.”

A proud city still try­ing to shake its for­ever im­age as the site of John F. Kennedy’s as­sas­si­na­tion was forced to grieve its losses while start­ing frank and painful con­ver­sa­tions over longsim­mer­ing racial ten­sions — con­ver­sa­tions that con­tinue to this day. Now, Las Ve­gas. A man who lived in a re­tire­ment com­mu­nity and liked to

gam­ble at lo­cal casi­nos slaugh­tered dozens of strangers at ran­dom, leav­ing, as far as any­one knows yet, not the slight­est clue about why he rained hot metal mer­ci­lessly on peo­ple en­joy­ing a coun­try mu­sic fes­ti­val.

This city has be­gun heal­ing faster than those struck by mass shoot­ings be­fore it. The snap back to nor­malcy could re­flect a grow­ing res­ig­na­tion that these hor­ri­ble events have be­come part of our lives, and we are learn­ing to cope. Or maybe it’s just Ve­gas, where fun is vir­tu­ally a reli­gion. All but six of the 58 who died in the mas­sacre were tourists in town for the three-day Route 91 Har­vest fes­ti­val.

Mon­day was sub­dued here, but by Tues­day the party was rolling again on the Strip. Jimmy Buf­fett’s ver­sion of “Brown Eyed Girl” filled the happy side­walks. “Ve­gas Strong,” read bill­boards over­head, and “We’ve been here for you dur­ing the good times. Thank you for be­ing there for us now.” On the street, trucks drove by car­ry­ing huge signs ad­ver­tis­ing, “Girls Di­rect to You! 24 hours!”

Michael Politz, pub­lisher of the Las Ve­gas-based Food & Bev­er­age Magazine, said his city’s quick re­bound has been an act of de­fi­ance, as well as eco­nomic com­mon sense. He said all the par­ty­ing gets the most at­ten­tion, but many of those par­ty­ers have come to Las Ve­gas for huge trade shows that grow busi­nesses and cre­ate jobs all over the coun­try.

“It’s still on every­body’s mind. The fear is cer­tainly there,” Politz, who grew up in Po­tomac, Md., said Fri­day. “But Ve­gas needs to get back on its feet fast be­cause of the commerce that’s cre­ated here. If that stops, if this city bows down, that’s what this guy wanted. You have to pull up your pants and be a big boy, and, as much as it hurts, move for­ward.”

Tirrsa Isom, 35, a Las Ve­gas res­i­dent who has been coun­sel­ing vic­tims and their fam­i­lies, said the city usu­ally is fo­cused on hos­pi­tal­ity for visi­tors but sud­denly finds it­self in the un­usual po­si­tion of tend­ing to its own res­i­dents who were af­fected.

“It was Sin City be­fore, and now it’s grace and love,” she said. “We’ve seen that flip, and that’s been re­ally awe­some to wit­ness.”

Tom and Brooke Kostiel­ney stood on the Strip on Thurs­day even­ing a few hours af­ter ar­riv­ing in the city, hold­ing plas­tic cups of beer and watch­ing the huge “Foun­tains of Bel­la­gio” show — a dis­play of light, wa­ter and sound out­side the Bel­la­gio Ho­tel & Casino.

The cou­ple was at home in South Bend, Ind., when they heard about the shoot­ing, and they spent Mon­day de­cid­ing whether to go ahead with their long-planned trip, which they won in a si­lent auc­tion for a chil­dren’s can­cer char­ity.

They called Tom Kostiel­ney’s cousin, who hap­pened to be stay­ing at the Luxor Ho­tel, right next to the Man­dalay Bay, when the shoot­ing hap­pened. She told them that de­spite the hor­rific tragedy, “ev­ery­thing seemed back to nor­mal” in the city.

“We asked her what she thought, and she said the city kind of needs peo­ple to come back — it’s al­most like a way of re­cov­ery,” said Tom Kostiel­ney, 27, a the­ol­ogy teacher at a Catholic high school.

As his wife was ex­plain­ing that the city felt nor­mal to her and “not tense at all,” a huge “boom” rang out — part of the sound and light show at the Bel­la­gio. She flinched.

“I won­der if things like that are freak­ing peo­ple out,” she said.

Be­fore the killing started, Sun­day was a warm, happy Oc­to­ber even­ing in a city where peo­ple come to es­cape real­ity in an oblig­ing fan­ta­sy­land in the desert. That Eif­fel Tower, that Arc de Tri­om­phe, that Egyp­tian pyra­mid and those Vene­tian canals? All il­lu­sion, like the sad, cor­ro­sive lie that a life-chang­ing jack­pot is just one more hand, one more spin of the wheel, one more roll of the dice away.

And maybe like the il­lu­sion that this city will ever be ex­actly the same.

MATT MCCLAIN/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

PHO­TOS BY MATT MCCLAIN/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

ABOVE: Adorned in plumage, Geli Yescas, left, and Jaime Davidsmeyer wait to pose for pho­tos with tourists watch­ing the “Foun­tains of Bel­la­gio” show on Tues­day in Las Ve­gas. LEFT: A pedes­trian stops at a for­tunetelling ma­chine Tues­day.

PHO­TOS BY MATT MCCLAIN/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

ABOVE: Peo­ple watch the “Foun­tains of Bel­la­gio” show on Wed­nes­day in Las Ve­gas, a city in which fun is prac­ti­cally a reli­gion. BE­LOW: A per­son lounges by the pool at the Trop­i­cana Las Ve­gas on Thurs­day. Tourism and the money it pro­vides are the re­al­i­ties that Las Ve­gas, even in mourn­ing, must face.

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