They were perhaps 500 feet apart when the shooting started: Three Bakersfield women, each unknown to the other two, at the same outdoor concert. Then, in that instant, they became forever bound by a shared horror: the same blind panic, the same logic-stifling terror, the same stark awareness of their mortality.
One year later, they are bound by another thread: their shared will to recover and move on.
It has been, at times, torturous.
The hum of an air conditioner sounds like the buzz of an overhead police helicopter. A heavy book thudding hard onto the floor is like the crack of rifle fire. The grate of an electric drill, the pop of a balloon, the snap of bubble wrap — all of it unnerves them.
Andrea Osuna, Rebecca Williams and Michelle Little didn’t meet at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas last Oct. 1; they met weeks later, during the course of their attempted recovery from the violence of that night — violence that killed 58 and injured 851. The three women were among 534 Kern County country music fans who bought tickets to the daylong festival, many for the second, third, even fourth year. Four people with local ties were killed and an unknown number were wounded by the gunfire or injured in the ensuing chaos.
We can say we understand how they and the thousands of other survivors must feel. We can declare that we "get it." We can even believe that we "get it." But unless we were there, we don't "get it."
"Nobody should ever have to 'get this,'" Williams told me last week at a table we shared in a Bakersfield restaurant with Little and Osuna.
That night one year ago, Williams, now 42, was seated in the VIP tent to the right of the stage — a roped-off area for which she and seven friends, including her husband Michael, had paid an extra sum. "Way better toilets, and less chance somebody would barf on me," she explained.
Osuna, now 38, was closer to the middle of the venue — on the grass, to the left of the long narrow cocktail bar that ran perpendicular to the stage, dividing the crowd, about 300 feet from the lead performer's microphone.
Little, now 44, and her husband Brent — whom she had married in Las Vegas just eight months before — were also on the grass, to the right of the narrow strip of bar, also about 300 feet from the stage, with another couple.
Twenty-two thousand people around them bobbed to the upbeat twang of country star Jason Aldean, the final performer of a festival that had started 10 hours earlier, at noon.
About five songs into Aldean's set, they all heard firecrackers.
"That's gunshots! Get down!" someone shouted.
Across the way, Little had just reached down to grab her backpack, where she'd stashed some illicit Jell-O shots, and then stood up with the rest of the crowd. This was a coming-out party of sorts for her, and she was determined to enjoy herself: She'd had a double mastectomy just two weeks prior, and drainage tubes were tucked discreetly into each of her front pockets.
Then the gunfire.
A short distance away, Osuna and her friends Melisa Smith, Courtni Franks and Samantha Sawyer, in Las Vegas for a moms-out weekend, had just snapped a group selfie. Suddenly, the zip and whizz of unseen bullets were all around them. Osuna looked around for their origin. Why was the ground smoking? It only occurred to her later it was high-velocity slugs shredding the grass and kicking up dirt.
The next 10 minutes were a bizarre, incomprehensible hell, as the crowd pushed toward the exits at the back of the venue. People dropped as bullets struck them. Some leapt over impossibly difficult fences where gates were locked. Many were injured in the surge.
Little and her husband made a run for it at the first pause in the gunfire. There'd be a volley of fire and they'd all hit the ground. Then they'd get up and run again until another volley rained down on them, and they were on the ground again.
Brent pushed his wife under a folding banquet table draped with a plastic tablecloth. She pulled the plastic over her trembling body as if it were a shield of armor. "That seems so funny now," Little said. "Protected by a plastic tablecloth."
She found herself lying on top of a man who had been shot in the chest and a woman who'd been shot in the leg. She had no idea if they were dead or alive.
Then suddenly: "Oh, my God, I've been shot." A slug had gone right through her steel-toed boots and pierced her foot.
They didn't know what to do but they knew they couldn't stay where they were.
Brent: "We have to run. Can you run? "
Michelle: "I can try."
Brent: "There's no try."
And then Michelle Little, two weeks removed from major surgery and now shot in the foot, ran as far and as fast as she could.
Williams ran hard, ran hard, until she was away from the venue in an open, wide boulevard that seemed momentarily safe. Somehow she had a gash on her knee and half of her group had gone missing — only her husband and one girlfriend were with her now.
They entered Bally's in search of medical help; Michael's heart was racing alarmingly.
The panic would not ease. Who were the shooters, and where were they now? "I'm thinking it's 9/11 all over again," Williams said.
SWAT officers now swarmed the sidewalks.
Osuna, trying to escape the killing field with her three friends, had found a momentary hiding place between two large trucks. The adreneline had hit her like a diuretic.
"Do you think I'd get in trouble if I peed here?" she asked a friend, incomprehensibly worrying that the potty police might have remained vigilant even through this carnage.
That need accomplished, they made another run for it.
The three women — Osuna, Williams and Little — spent the next hours with friends or spouses ducking from hotel to restaurant, at least twice driven from their resting places by someone — in one case, an MGM hotel security guard — who'd come running toward them, shouting, "The shooters are coming this way!" By this time the lone gunman, Stephen Paddock, 64, had been dead for some time in his room at the Mandalay Bay Hotel.
Osuna and her friends got a ride back to their rented condo from an Uber driver who wouldn't accept payment. Williams, Little and their husbands shared temporary hotel rooms, separately from the other couple, with shell-shocked but helpful strangers.
By the next morning, each group was on its way home.
"I did not cry until I saw my kids that next day," Little said.
The three women eventually met through a Facebook account set up for Las Vegas survivors, a page called Bakersfield Strong, and in a survivors' group that had started meeting at 1933, a pub in northwest Bakersfield.
"I've always had anxiety but now it's a scary world," Williams said. "But I've made some very good friends. We're more like family now."
The randomness of it all stays with Little.
"One thing that I think we've all learned is that it doesn't matter what area of the concert you were at, you were a target," she said. "Why the 58 (who died), why not me? Survivors' guilt is strong. There's a mother who has no son. There are four children who have no mother.
"Makes you think, even if I'm having a rough day, I'm here. You almost feel bad feeling bad for yourself."
Osuna is affected as well.
"My life has been turned upside down," she said. "I've never had depression like I've had in the last year. The PTSD, the survivors' guilt, the depression. It's been hard. The way we were when we went to Vegas, we didn't come back the same person."
But good has come of it all, too.
"We've made some really really great friends," Little said. "You met two of them (Williams and Osuna) and now they're really important fixtures in my life. If there's fireworks going off at night, and you're scared, you can just call and they understand. You don't have to explain anything.
"You appreciate the little things," Little said. "This has completely changed our perspective on what's important and what's not important. Family was always special, but you just especially treasure what is given to you, because it can so easily be taken away."
The anniversary of the cataclysm is Monday night, and all three will observe it in some way. Williams is planning a gathering of survivors and close friends at her house that night. Osuna, who plans to attend that and perhaps another gathering of survivors, has already commemorated the occasion: In an act of both celebration and defiance, she and her three Vegas-survivor friends, Smith, Franks and Sawyer, attended a Jason Aldean concert near Sacramento on Thursday night.
Come Monday, Little and her husband will be sitting on a beach on Santa Catalina Island. Many hundreds of survivors will return to the electric buzz of Las Vegas, but the Littles will be 300 miles away, listening to the sound of waves.