Melanie Wright - Vegas

Melanie Wright was at the Route 91 Harvest Festival Sunday with four friends from Bakersfield when shots were fired into the crowd. From left to right, Stephanie Franklin, Melanie Wright, Julie King, Tina Vickery and Robert Vickery. 

Lanie Wright watched in terror as bullets fired by an unseen gunman rained down on a Las Vegas crowd of concert-goers last week.

She survived, unscathed physically, but her wounds run deep nonetheless.

She heard blood-curdling shrieks and pops of rifle power ricocheting through the outdoor venue. She saw thousands scramble toward the exits and hints of humanity as some stopped to help complete strangers.

She wished she could have done more – and she feels guilty because of it.

Now Wright suffers from night tremors. She wakes suddenly. She has stopped dreaming, but she can’t remember her nightmares.

“I wake up scared,” Wright said.

Wright was one of the 22,000 country music fans who attended the Route 91 Harvest festival – scores of whom live in Kern County – and are now struggling to deal with the aftermath of the nation’s deadliest mass shooting. The tragedy left 58 dead, 489 wounded and thousands more in mental anguish.

Four who died were from Kern County.

Guilt plagues survivors

Estimates suggest roughly 200 Kern County families were impacted by the shooting, and at least 60 people have already signed up for state victim compensation funding for injuries, burial costs and mental health counseling. The California Victims Compensation Board considers anyone who was present at the concert venue a victim, CalVCB Executive Officer Julie Nauman said.

County and state officials say they have never seen as many victims coming forward for services after a tragedy, Nauman said. Based on the number of Californians who died at the concert, she estimates at least half the concert-goers, some 11,000 people, were from California, almost all of whom could be suffering emotionally.

Many of those who rushed from the concert grounds that night under a hail of bullets are suffering from survivor’s guilt – a condition that weighs heavy on people who witness but survive traumatic events like the one in Las Vegas Oct. 1, experts said.

When that survivor’s guilt kicks in, victims who make it out alive often find themselves grappling with anger, confusion and frustration, said Brian Whitfield, an outpatient supervisor at the Bakersfield Behavioral Healthcare Hospital, which is offering therapy sessions to anyone affected by the shooting.

“The reality is this: You go through a tragedy like that, and you can’t explain what happened. We don’t know why that was the target, we can’t figure that out, so we develop all these questions in our heads,” Whitfield said. “You think to yourself, 'Why am I so lucky that I survived and got away?' You’re not able to explain it.”

They’ll experience anxiety, especially in large crowds, and signs of post-traumatic stress disorder when certain sounds or sights trigger memories of the shooting, Whitfield said.

Therapists offering free services

As more victims return home from Las Vegas and begin the healing process, mental health providers are offering group sessions and “debriefings” with professional counselors to provide an outlet for their grief.

Riverlakes Community Church was scheduled to hold one such debriefing for victims Monday evening; Kern County Behavioral Health Services is hosting a day for grief counseling Wednesday and Saturday at the Mary K. Shell Center; and the Bakersfield Behavioral Healthcare Hospital is offering a session Saturday.

Whitfield said he’s had several therapists approach him offering free services to victims.

“We get into this business for a reason – to help others,” Whitfield said. “We can’t imagine walking through a tragedy like that and not being able to find a resource or connection somewhere to get the help you need.”

The Bakersfield Police Department, which had 15 off-duty officers witness the shooting, including one who sustained a gunshot wound to the hip, held a debriefing Monday for victims and their families.

“The police department values its employees and (we) are doing whatever we can to assist them during this difficult time,” BPD Sgt. Ryan Kroeker said.

Victim funding available

But even with all the services being provided so soon after the tragedy, state victims' advocates say that it’s not unusual for affected people to skimp on treatment – especially if their injuries aren’t physical.

Trauma sets in at different times depending on the person, Nauman said. Sometimes it can be immediate. In other cases it can take weeks, months or years. Advocates urge those who were impacted to sign up for services as soon as possible.

“Make sure you’re seeking out a professional to get the help you need. Don’t avoid it. Don’t try to be bigger than" the event, Whitfield said. “Get the assistance you need. We’re only human.”

State funding is available for such services.

The California Victim Compensation Program, which provides money for funeral expenses, medical bills, lost wages and mental health treatment for victims of tragedies such as the one in Las Vegas is notoriously underutilized, Nauman said.

“Unfortunately, it’s a program that people don’t know about unless they need to know about (it), and we are doing so much proactively to change that,” Nauman said. “But it’s one of those things that if you don’t need it, you don’t pay attention to it.”

The program, funded through the court fines and penalties racked up in the state restitution fund, provides up to $70,000 per victim for various services, including up to $10,000 for mental health treatment after a tragedy like Las Vegas, Nauman said. As long as victims sign up for the program within three years of the incident, they’re able to use the money for an indefinite period of time.

But the sheer number of people who witnessed the shooting may bring about more awareness of the program, Nauman said. About 60 people in Kern County alone have signed up for program since Sunday, and dozens more in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties have done so as well.

By comparison, 190 signed up after a husband and wife team entered the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino in December 2015 and opened fire, killing 14 and injuring 22.

“California has never seen anything like this,” Nauman said. “The nation has never seen anything like this.”

'You feel guilty and helpless' 

But in Bakersfield, a city whose culture revolves around country music to a significant extent, the emotional toll seems to have stacked up. One concert-goer from the area, after seeing so many friends from Kern County at the Route 91 Harvest festival, described it as a Bakersfield reunion of sorts.

Wright was there with five friends from Bakersfield, none of whom have yet begun formal therapy, she said. But Wright – feeling the effects of PTSD – started almost immediately upon returning home.

She’s journaling about her experience and she's trying to learn coping skills, but Wright still questions why she survived.

“What kept me alive, and not a poor 20-year-old girl?” Wright asked through tears Monday, referring to Bailey Schweitzer, a Bakersfield native who was fatally shot in Las Vegas. “You feel guilty and helpless.”

She is still struggling with things she has no control over. She still hears the sound of gunfire that she can’t shake from her mind.

She was attending her mother's birthday party last weekend when, at one point, a group of kids started skipping pebbles across the pavement.

Wright’s heart began to race. She covered her ears and flew into a blind panic. “What is that? What is that?” she cried, convinced it was gunfire.

Her mind had laid out a worst-case scenario. It was not difficult to get there. She had been there before.

Harold Pierce covers education and health for The Californian. He can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter @RoldyPierce

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.