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SoCal survivors of Vegas shooting are forming communities to help each other heal

Hundreds of people joined a vigil in Huntington Beach to remember the 58 victims killed in a shooting in Las Vegas. The vigil was held Sunday, October 8th 2017. (Libby Denkmann/KPCC)
Hundreds of people joined a vigil in Huntington Beach to remember the 58 victims killed in a shooting in Las Vegas. The vigil was held Sunday, October 8th 2017. (Libby Denkmann/KPCC)

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Kasey Bennett of La Mirada didn't adopt her new puppy Trooper because of her experience of being caught in the crossfire of the worst mass shooting in U.S. history. But she thinks the Husky-Pit Bull mix arrived in her life just in time.

"He ended up being really therapeutic for me," she said. "He's worked out just perfectly."

The Huntington Beach High School cheerleading coach was one of 22,000 people attending a country music festival in Las Vegas on Oct. 1 when a sniper opened fire on the crowd from a nearby hotel. Fifty-eight people were killed and hundreds more were wounded. 

Dozens of survivors of the attack joined a twilight vigil Sunday night on the pier in Huntington Beach.

Bennett, 22,said what happened at the concert plays over and over in her head, like a horrible TV show.

"I had friends who were hit, and it's scary," she said. "You never know what it's like to run for your life until you actually have to do it."

Trooper sat quietly at Bennett's feet in the crowd near the Huntington Beach pier. Every few minutes, a stranger stopped to spend time with the dog, ruffling his dark chocolate fur.

Bennett said she brought Trooper along so he could provide comfort to other survivors. 

"He's been going up to people, and everyone's been petting him, and they all say how like it's helping them," she said. "They smile. And that's why he's here. He makes me smile, so he can make other people smile."

Kasey Bennett of La Mirada says she plans to get her dog Trooper certified as a therapy animal so he can help other survivors of the shooting at the Route 91 Harvest festival in Las Vegas. (Photo courtesy of Kasey Bennett.)
Kasey Bennett of La Mirada says she plans to get her dog Trooper certified as a therapy animal so he can help other survivors of the shooting at the Route 91 Harvest festival in Las Vegas. (Photo courtesy of Kasey Bennett.)

After the sun set, hundreds of community members walked the pier holding electric candles to remember the 58 victims of the shooting.

Survivors like Bennett chose to wear orange ribbons to identify themselves in the crowd. Concertgoers talked about ways they are coming to terms with with the violence they witnessed.

Mary Duggan, a PE Teacher at Masuda Middle School in the Fountain Valley School District, said her emotions have cycled through guilt, sadness and anger.

"It feels comforting to be around people who were there also and that shared the experience," she said. "I feel like the more I can get out and be part of this community that was all there, the more therapeutic it is for me."

When the gunfire started, Duggan said she and a friend took shelter under a truck. She said lockdown drills at her school helped her react quickly.

In the week since the shooting, Duggan has attended a bonfire and a country music benefit at an Orange County bar, places where other survivors were gathering  for support. 

"My philosophy through this whole thing has been, 'You know what? This person that's so sick in the head is not going to make me fear my life,'" she said. "I'm going to go to concerts. I'm not going to let him mess that up for me. I'm not gonna give him that power." 

Bennett said she is also finding strength connecting online and in person with others who attended Route 91 Harvest festival. 

"It just helps being around people who were there and hearing their stories, and knowing that you're not the only one hurting, and you're not going crazy," she said.

As vigil organizers led the crowd in songs and prayer, Bennett said she has a plan for her puppy's future: she wants to get Trooper certified as a therapy dog, so he can help others in the same way he is aiding her recovery.