The varsity cheerleaders had just finished practice when Natalia Baca stepped out into the school parking lot and spotted a tall, dark-haired teenager holding a bouquet of multicolored sunflowers.
“Will you go to homecoming with me?” he said as she approached with her identical twin, Gianna, who had helped orchestrate the moment. Natalia pressed both hands against her cheeks and grinned, because no one had ever asked her to the dance before.
“Yes,” Natalia answered, already imagining what she would look like in her open-back, iridescent white dress that flashed shades of pink and blue in the sunlight. They hugged and talked for a few minutes before she and Gianna had to go.
The seniors, age 17, were running late for a country music concert.
The Las Vegas sun had long faded beneath a distant mountain range on that first day in October, so the twins hurried back inside Faith Lutheran High to change clothes. Jason Aldean, Natalia’s favorite singer, was scheduled to perform the final set at that weekend’s Route 91 Harvest festival.
It was a Sunday, a school night, so most people in the crowd of 22,000 would be adults, but some kids would be there, too, including 10 students from Faith, a private Christian academy in an affluent community of gated neighborhoods nine miles west of the Strip.
And in that evening’s earliest moments, before the gunman high above them pulled the trigger, the twins and their classmates were eager for the week ahead — first the music, then the homecoming dress-up days, the silly lip-sync competition, the pep rally, the football game and, at last, on Saturday, the dance.
About the time Natalia said yes in the parking lot, Faith juniors Shae Turner and Delaney Sylvester settled in 50 yards from the stage, right of the catwalk, on the side nearest Las Vegas Boulevard and the Mandalay Bay Resort.
The morning before, Shae had posted a photo to Instagram from Friday night. In it, the two girls each posed with one hand positioned on a hip so their purple festival bracelets, that weekend’s status symbol, would be in view. The best friends, both in brown cowboy boots, stood with their backs to the neon-lit stage, eyes bright and smiles radiant. They’d each turned 17 just weeks before. Beneath the image, Shae wrote a caption: “country music makes us happy #route91.”
For seven months, she had looked forward to this weekend.
“Happy early Birthday present,” her mom had texted March 3 with an image of the ticket confirmation.
“OMG I LOVE YOU SO MUCH!!” Shae wrote back, with four heart emoji. “I’m freaking out... like on the verge of tears thank you!”
The girls planned for weeks what they would wear to the festival and during homecoming week.
Shae — the daughter of two FBI agents who had inherited her parents’ attention to detail — narrowed her Route 91 outfit options to seven before she texted photos to Delaney and they cut it down to three. They went to Forever 21 in a mall on the Strip to pick up yellow skirts and shirts for the school’s “Color Day” — “Nobody owns yellow,” Shae, the junior class treasurer, had unsuccessfully argued to her fellow student council members. At Delaney’s prodding, Shae picked a pair of four-inch floral Steve Madden heels for the dance that, by the time they headed to the register, she adored.
For the festival weekend, Shae’s mom, Elena Turner, rented a room and stayed with the girls through Sunday morning at the Delano hotel, next to Mandalay Bay, so they wouldn’t have to drive home after each evening’s performances. In the lobby, before they headed to Route 91’s opening night, Elena gave them one last reminder.
“If there’s an active shooter in the crowd,” she began, and Shae knew what came next. She’d been hearing that speech from her parents, who had met during their FBI training, for at least five years, ever since a movie theater massacre in Aurora, Colo., left 12 people dead.
“Run until you can’t run,” Elena continued. “Hide until you can’t hide. Fight until you can’t fight.”
Her daughter smiled.
“Mom, don’t worry,” Shae said. “Everything will be fine.”
Marie Langer’s mother, Susan, assumed everything would be fine, too. It was, after all, a country music festival, filled with people who’d come to take a break from their problems, not start any. Her daughter, also a Faith junior, had raved all weekend about how friendly the other concertgoers were.
Determined to see Aldean up close, Marie had valeted her 2016 white Ford Mustang at Mandalay Bay at 2:30 that Sunday afternoon and walked over to the festival site a half-hour before the first band went on the main stage. She and a classmate, Summer Stadtlander, both 16, were so giddy that, on their way, they’d skipped together up Las Vegas Boulevard.
Summer had texted Marie that morning, saying she’d just listened to “so much jason aldean and I’m so excited now.”
“ME TOO,” Marie responded. Then: “IM EXCITED TO BE FRONT ROW.” Then: “AND TOUCH HIM.”
Marie, an accomplished equestrian show jumper, had twice traveled to Europe and was a veteran of superstar concerts — Rihanna, Drake, Nicki Minaj — but something about Aldean’s simple, Georgia-bred twang always made her feel good. She had followed his tour schedule for two years, hoping to hear him in person, before her chance finally came that Sunday.
“Should we go on the right side today?” Marie asked, but Summer suggested they stick with the left, near where the friends had stood both previous nights.
They normally did homework on Sundays but wanted no distractions on this one. Before they got there, Marie had already finished her American Revolution reading guides and Summer her Algebra II assignment.
At 4:50 p.m., Marie — whose fingernails were painted paisley and plaid, because that was the most country design she could think of — sent her mom a photo of a guitar pick she’d caught when a member of the Josh Abbott Band tossed it out.
Not long after, a stagehand gave her a copy of Big & Rich’s set list.
“Oh my gosh,” Marie shrieked, bouncing up and down.
At 7:51, her mom texted to ask who was playing.
“Waiting for Jake Owen then Jason aldean,” Marie responded.
“Be safe. We luv u tons.”
At 9:30, her mom sent a final message: “Call house phone uf emergency. Cell phone going off.”
Then the lights went dark and the crowd roared as Marie pointed her phone’s camera to record Aldean’s entrance. His introduction video, a collage of mud, pickups and cowboy hats, appeared on a massive screen behind the stage.
“The suspense right now is insane,” Marie told a girl standing next to her.
In the crowd behind them, about 30 yards back and to the right, Natalia felt the same.
She’d gotten a ticket for Sunday just hours earlier, delighting her not only because of Aldean but because Gianna would be there, too. She and her twin did almost everything together. It had been that way from the beginning, when the girls were born eight weeks premature and began their lives fighting to keep them. They’d never spent more than 48 hours apart.
Now the sisters were sharing the first music festival they’d gone to without a parent, and Aldean was on stage, crooning about people tougher than they look.
“They ain’t seen the blood, sweat and tears it took to live their dreams,” Natalia sang along as she danced with friends, and Gianna, a dozen feet away, did the same with her boyfriend.
About 15 minutes into the set, a few others in their group told Natalia that they were heading to the bathrooms, in the back of the venue, and asked if she needed to go, too. She did, but refused to miss a single song.
“I’ll just wait,” she said. “It’s okay.”
She stayed, swaying and laughing until 10:05 p.m., when the sound of pops from somewhere faraway cut through the music.
“Did you hear that?” she asked a friend.
Maybe, she thought, someone had set off fireworks. Natalia peered up above the stage and into the night sky, searching for bursts of light. All she saw was darkness.
‘Get down!” someone in the crowd shouted as Natalia watched Aldean rush offstage amid a second barrage.
She dropped to her knees and covered her head. A friend, Kaitlyn Burton, 19, huddled alongside, clutching Natalia’s hands.
“What’s happening?” Natalia asked, unaware that, just in front of where she was hunkered, a half dozen people had already collapsed to the turf, struck by bullets fired from Mandalay Bay’s 32nd floor, 400 yards away.
Natalia looked up, trembling as she searched for Gianna in the chaotic, howling mass of bodies crouched and crawling around her.
Her twin was nowhere in sight.
Natalia and Gianna are dancing to Jason
Aldean’s music when the shooting begins
Resort and Casino
Las Vegas Village
Natalia and Gianna
Natalia and Gianna are dancing
to Jason Aldean’s music when
the shooting begins
Resort and Casino
Las Vegas Village
Natalia and Gianna are dancing to Jason
Aldean’s music when the shooting begins
Resort and Casino
Las Vegas Village
Natalia and Gianna
“God, please help us,” she prayed, but now the wails grew louder, and the crackle drew closer.
Then, suddenly, what felt like a steel medicine ball slammed into her right shoulder blade, striking with such force that she was shoved to the left, losing her grip on Kaitlyn’s hand. Natalia’s back stung, as though it had been lit ablaze.
“Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh!” she cried.
The impact jolted her friend, too. Even before Kaitlyn saw the blood, she knew what that meant.
“Natalia’s been shot,” she yelled at her boyfriend, Riley Van Buskirk, who until then had remained standing, frozen in shock.
He stared down at the hole in Natalia’s back, then stripped off his long-sleeved denim Wrangler shirt and wrapped it diagonally around her chest and back, hoping it would apply enough pressure to slow the bleeding. As he helped her up, Riley felt the cracked bones along Natalia’s shoulders grind against each other.
He feared what the bullet had done inside her.
Overwhelmed, Natalia couldn’t process what was happening — the words that Kaitlyn had spoken or the burn now spreading from her back to her chest.
And as she staggered to her feet, Natalia still didn’t see Gianna.
Had her twin been shot, too?
Then came more gunfire.
“Run!” Kaitlyn hollered.
At that moment, Shae, the daughter of the FBI agents, was already sprinting with her friend Delaney toward a row of outdoor beer vendors. When they reached them, the girls dove to the ground, cowering just beneath a purple billboard that overlooked Las Vegas Boulevard. “LIVE MUSIC,” it advertised, with an arrow pointing back toward the ongoing massacre behind them.
Shae, who suspected it was gunfire as soon as she heard it, had immediately grabbed her friend’s arm and begun pushing through the crowd. She decided that fleeing toward the venue’s rear or east-side exits, along with thousands of other people, would leave the girls too exposed. Instead, Shae headed toward the nearest cover on the venue’s western edge.
Now, with bullets spraying overhead, they were trapped.
Shae pressed her cellphone against her ear.
“Mom,” she said, “someone is shooting into the crowd.”
“Are you sure?” asked Elena, who was in her bedroom, about to go to sleep.
“Yes, I’m sure.”
Then, what sounded to Elena’s trained ear like machine-gun fire exploded through the phone’s speaker.
Stay calm, her mom told her. Stay calm.
Elena, voice quavering, asked whether they could make it to Shae’s car, parked over the fence and across the street at Mandalay Bay.
No, Shae said, because she thought the shots might be coming from that direction.
The girls knew they had to make a choice: Stay put and risk a gunman finding them, or move and risk being sniped out in the open.
Hands clutched, each promised to stay with the other, before Delaney, in a pause between salvos, suggested they keep going.
Shae and Delaney crawl around
beer vendors to reach a gate
Shae and Delaney crawl around
beer vendors to reach a gate
Shae and Delaney’s path
Shae and Delaney crawl around
beer vendors to reach a gate
The beer vendors were arranged in a semicircle that jutted out into the venue, so between bursts, they crept farther along, terrified of running into the end of a barrel around every bend. When they reached the far side, the girls realized that they were, again, trapped. A gate along the fence in front of them remained shut, and behind them, in the festival’s center, was nothing but uncovered space.
“We can’t get out,” Shae told her mom. “There’s no exit.”
Another blast of gunshots erupted.
They looked for somewhere to hide, but this time, the space beneath the nearest canopy was already full. They couldn’t get in. The girls were exposed.
“What do we even do?” asked Delaney, who’d begun to cry.
It was then that a bald man who looked to be in his late 40s scrambled over, blanketing their bodies with his own.
“Stay down,” the stranger said, as he placed his hand on Delaney’s head, pressing the American flag on her camouflage baseball cap against the pavement.
And when that volley had subsided and the man had left, Delaney glanced back toward the fence.
“Shae,” she said, “a gate opened up.”
Up next to the stage, Marie and Summer, the other pair of Faith juniors, stood from where they’d ducked behind the catwalk, opposite Mandalay Bay, and darted toward an east exit.
The girls, who’d both taken videos of the chaos by then, didn’t understand the moment’s gravity until they saw — sprawled across a bloodied landscape of plastic cups, crushed beer cans and trampled cowboy hats — the wounded and the dead.
Marie’s eyes stayed on her cellphone as they rushed past. She didn’t have her home number saved, and as she tried to dial it, her hands wouldn’t stop shaking.
“Marie, what’s wrong?” answered her mother, Susan.
“There’s a shooting. There’s a shooting. Shooter, shooter,” she blurted, barely able to pronounce the words.
“You have to stop. What are you saying?” Susan asked.
Still on the phone with her mom, she and Summer escaped the venue and hurried across Giles Street, where they reached the edge of a church parking lot enclosed by a seven-foot-high wrought-iron fence.
“What do we do?” the 16-year-olds asked a pair of police officers on the other side, strapping on what looked like riot gear.
“You need to get over here right now,” one of them said.
Marie set her phone down on the fence’s brick base, then put her cowboy boot on the edge and hiked up her floor-length lime-green dress. She and Summer gripped the metal bars and pulled themselves up and over, bruising the backs of their legs on spikes that lined the top.
The girls leapt into the parking lot. Marie reached back for her cell.
“My phone’s at 4 percent,” she told her mom. “I have to go.”
Marie and Summer climb over a fence
to seek refuge in a church parking lot
Marie and Summer climb over
a fence to seek refuge in a
church parking lot
Marie and Summer climb over a fence
to seek refuge in a church parking lot
Church parking lot
Across the road, on the festival grounds, Riley and Kaitlyn had just helped Natalia into a white medical tent where the injured were being brought for treatment.
She slumped onto a plastic chair.
A passing medic asked how she was doing. Okay, Natalia said, even though she wasn’t. For years, the teenager had wanted to be a nurse, to help people who were worse off than she was. And there they were, screaming and staggering all around her.
Go to the others, she told the medic.
A man sitting next to Natalia was pressing his palms together, as if in prayer, because the fingers on one of his hands had been blown off. She recognized a guy she’d known for years lying on a cot nearby. He’d been shot in the stomach. “I need help,” he said, and Riley called out for it, but no one came, because everyone needed help.
On the pavement, where blood had begun to pool, Natalia saw a man to her right with a bullet wound on the back of his neck. She watched a small group crowd around him, pressing over and over on his chest. He didn’t move.
“We lost him,” she heard someone say, and they left him alone.
Now Natalia began to feel lightheaded, and Kaitlyn noticed her lips turning purple.
“You need to stay with me,” her friend said.
A medic suggested Natalia might need sugar. Riley grabbed her a Coke, and she sipped on it, struggling to keep her eyes open.
Then the police arrived and, with the tent filling, they ordered anyone who wasn’t hurt to leave.
Before she did, Kaitlyn leaned down, pressed both hands against her friend’s face and reminded Natalia of her twin.
“Think about Gianna,” she pleaded. “She’s been with you her entire life. She couldn’t do anything without you.”
After being shot, Natalia is led
by friends to the medical tent
After being shot, Natalia is led
by friends to the medical tent
After being shot, Natalia is led
by friends to the medical tent
The gunfire sounded louder — closer — than before, and now Marie was trembling, sobbing, hyperventilating.
She and Summer had inched down the fence line and taken refuge with six or seven others behind a dark Ford pickup near the church parking lot’s entrance. The police continued to order people in their direction, north up Giles Street, which left both girls convinced that a gunman was on foot, making his way toward them.
A short, blond woman held them both in her arms, trying to calm Marie. “What’s your name?” she asked. “Where do you go to school?” Marie, though, could barely speak.
Out in the road, pickup after pickup pulled up as victims were piled into the beds.
“Where’s the nearest hospital?” the girls heard people yell.
The injured who didn’t reach the trucks were brought to paramedics gathering behind the 16-year-olds in the parking lot.
“Honey, don’t look over there,” the woman told them. “Don’t do that to yourself.”
A group brought over another woman, who was wearing only pants and a blood-soaked bra. Her face ashen, she didn’t say a word.
“Her husband was shot,” one of the men explained.
The relentless sights of carnage only intensified Marie’s fear that here, huddled behind a truck, her life could end. She peered back down the road, still waiting for a man with a rifle to appear in the night.
One block west, in the pyramid-shaped Luxor Hotel on the other side of the festival grounds, Shae and Delaney hid in a bathroom, worried about the same thing. Shae’s parents were in their car, speeding toward the Strip, but they had remained on the phone with her. Their siren blaring in the background, she could hear them coordinating with other investigators already responding to the rampage.
“If it’s a male shooter, he’s not going to go into the women’s restroom,” Shae’s dad had told her, so when they raced into the Luxor, the girls found one on the first floor and locked themselves in a handicapped stall.
Shae sat with her back against the wall, leaning down to watch the door.
A woman burst through, shrieking.
Shae’s heart pounded. Had someone chased the woman there? Was the shooter in the hotel? She waited, hoping a man’s feet wouldn’t follow.
None did, but she feared that the woman’s hysterics could draw a gunman’s attention.
“Should I try to calm her down?” she asked her dad.
“You can try,” he said.
Shae opened the stall door and told the woman, who had been separated from a sister and a friend, that her parents worked for the FBI. The best thing for all of them to do, Shae said, was to stay calm.
The woman stopped screaming.
“It’s going to be okay,” Shae said, and the teenager hoped that was true.
Back in the white tent, a medic, hands quivering, struggled unsuccessfully to insert an IV into Natalia’s right arm.
Her friends were gone, but still lingering in her mind were Kaitlyn’s last words about Gianna, her missing twin. The girls looked so much alike that, for years, most people could only tell them apart by the scar on Natalia’s knee from a bicycle accident. “Mirror images,” their parents called them, because Natalia was right-handed and Gianna was left-handed.
Her sister had to be all right, Natalia thought. She had to be.
Then a man in shorts, a white T-shirt and a reversed baseball cap walked up.
Dean McAuley, a 46-year-old firefighter down from Washington state for the festival, had just helped carry a young woman about Natalia’s age into the tent, but the pulse he’d detected when he found her on the ground had already disappeared.
McAuley couldn’t bring her back. Maybe, though, he could do something for Natalia.
He took a torn piece of blue shirt and tied it around her forearm, revealing a vein for the IV.
He asked where she’d been shot.
On her back shoulder, she told him.
McAuley searched for an exit wound but couldn’t find one. His stomach knotted. The risk of severe internal bleeding, McAuley knew, was enormous.
He checked her heartbeat and felt it racing. Her body was compensating for the shock, he suspected, but what would happen when that wore off?
Ten minutes — that’s how long McAuley thought he had to save her life.
“I’ll be right back,” he said. “Keep your eyes on me.”
The firefighter found someone coordinating care in the tent. Just outside, McAuley was told, ambulances had gathered to take people to the hospital.
He returned to Natalia and asked if she could stand. Yes, she said. He held her hand with one of his and her IV bag with the other.
“There will be an ambulance waiting for us,” he told Natalia.
When they got outside, none remained.
The sound of gunshots had subsided by then, but McAuley could still hear frantic chatter blaring over first responders’ radios.
He helped Natalia shuffle across Giles Street and into the same parking lot where Marie and Summer were sheltering. McAuley lowered her onto a lawn chair behind a white SUV.
“What can I do for you?” he asked, taking a knee in front of her.
“I want to call my parents,” Natalia said.
He dialed. Her dad, Mike Baca, picked up.
McAuley explained who he was and that he was with his daughter, who had been shot.
“Is she alive?” Mike asked.
McAuley gave her the phone.
She said she couldn’t feel her legs.
“Just breathe,” Mike told her, before he and his wife headed for their car.
After hanging up, McAuley saw an older man jogging toward an Audi parked behind them. Reluctantly, he agreed to take them to a hospital. McAuley helped Natalia inside.
He ordered the driver to turn on his hazard lights, find an ambulance and chase it. The man did, blowing through red lights along the way.
In the back seat, Natalia told McAuley that her left arm had gone numb. She was struggling to breathe.
“Do you have dogs?” he asked.
Natalia said she had two, Kosmo and Vdara, both Boston terriers.
He took out his phone and showed her a picture of Molly, his 100-pound Great Pyrenees. McAuley’s other hand moved to her wrist. At any second, he knew, Natalia’s pulse could plummet.
He scrolled through photos of his wife and 5-year-old son.
“You have a beautiful family,” she said.
He asked about hers. Did she have any siblings?
A twin, she said, who’d also been at the concert.
“Do you know where she is?”
“No,” Natalia said.
At last, they pulled up to Sunrise Hospital. McAuley found a wheelchair and eased her into it, and then began pushing it up a driveway toward the trauma bay.
They could already hear the moans.
“Close your eyes,” he told her. “Don’t look around.”
Natalia stared down, and on the ground she saw an American flag bandanna, spotted with blood.
Nearing the brightly lit entrance, Natalia raised her head. She saw doctors and nurses desperately trying to triage maimed, wailing arrivals being unloaded along the curb. She saw bodies in the beds of pickup trucks.
“Please help,” came the cries. “Please help.”
McAuley wheeled her past the sliding doors and through a wide corridor that staff members later called “the sea of blood.”
She’d been shot in the back, McAuley explained to a nurse. She had no exit wound, he said, but appeared to be stable, at least for now.
He looked at Natalia.
“You’ll be fine,” McAuley said. “I’ll see you later.”
She forced a smile.
“Thank you,” she told him, before the firefighter ran back outside to help others.
A nurse changed her IV and wrote something in marker — vital signs, she thought — on her forehead.
“It’s really hard to breathe,” she said, but in a hospital that would treat 199 patients from the festival that night, nobody had time to care for her yet.
One victim after another sped by atop gurneys, their wheels streaking a tile floor that had transformed from beige to red. The air smelled of iron.
“Watch out. Watch out,” she heard.
“Cardiac arrest,” she heard.
Natalia thought about her sister.
It was in this hospital where their lives had begun. Where Gianna had been born first, crying, and Natalia had come out a minute later, making no noise at all. Where the doctors had been forced to resuscitate her because she wasn’t breathing. Where the girls had gone home, together, after just four days in recovery, stronger than anyone expected.
Natalia closed her eyes.
“Talia!” she heard a voice call.
She looked up, and there, atop another gurney, was her twin.
“What happened?” asked Gianna, her left thigh bleeding from a bullet that had passed straight through it.
Natalia motioned to her shoulder.
“I love you,” Gianna said.
“I love you,” her sister responded.
The Monday morning sunlight leaked through the shades and into hospital room 272, where Natalia had spent the night in intensive care.
A brace was wrapped around her neck, and on her face, a clear tube fed oxygen into both nostrils. Hours earlier, another tube that drained air and blood seeping from her punctured lung had been shoved between two ribs as Natalia, screaming, clenched a nurse’s hand.
The bullet, she would learn, had traveled the distance of four football fields, pierced her right shoulder blade and fragmented. Slivers of metal had scattered throughout her chest cavity, slitting the lung, but missing her arteries, her trachea, her heart. A larger chunk of shrapnel, however, had veered to the left after impact, burrowing beneath her skin and over her spine before it struck Natalia’s opposite shoulder blade, fracturing that one, too.
A change in the bullet’s trajectory of just centimeters might have killed her, but here she was with her sister, who was lying on a recliner nearby, gauze wrapped around her left thigh.
Now Natalia just wanted to sleep, so she closed her eyes. Then came a sound so clear in her mind that, for a moment, she swore it had to be real: gunshots.
Before he killed himself in Room 32135 at Mandalay Bay, Stephen Paddock fired more than 1,100 rounds, injuring at least 450 people for reasons that remain unknown. But the wounds from the worst mass shooting in modern American history weren’t only physical.
Among the most traumatized was Marie. Even after she and Summer left the church parking lot and made it to the safety of their homes, Marie couldn’t shake a debilitating sense of dread. Too distraught to sleep alone, she asked her mother to lie in bed with her until morning.
At 7:15, the 16-year-old’s phone buzzed with a text from Summer, who had just learned about the enormity of what they survived: “Omfg 50+ dead. I can’t believe this.”
“Oh my god summer. I woke up crying so many times,” Marie texted back, unable to imagine going to school that day.
But Shae, who’d gotten home at 4 a.m., had never considered not going. She knew her parents would work on the investigation all day, and she didn’t want to stay home alone. She’d be fine, Shae told herself.
She put on leggings beneath a pink nightgown, because it was “Pajama Day” at Faith, and headed to school, where she walked into her first class and approached her British literature teacher.
“I don’t have my homework because it’s in my car,” Shae said, explaining that it was still parked at the crime scene.
“I’m really surprised that you’re even here,” her teacher replied.
Shae joined her classmates in the high school gym for an impromptu assembly.
“It’s not the ideal way to start homecoming week,” Dan Buikema, Faith’s guidance director, told the 1,100 students, who listened in silence.
He updated them on Natalia and Gianna but said he knew the massacre’s impact on Faith would extend well beyond the twins. The school was still trying to determine the number of students who had attended the concert, eventually counting 10. The youngest, an eighth-grader, had tripped on a body while fleeing with her mother and was left covered in blood.
There were at least 17 more Faith students who had family or nonschool friends at the festival, and several were close to someone hurt or killed.
“We’ve seen this kind of stuff happen around the world,” Buikema continued. “We’ve not seen this happen in our community.”
Their community was Summerlin, a 35-square-mile collection of palm-tree-lined golf courses, $600,000-plus homes and augustly named neighborhoods: Reverence and the Summit, Affinity and Chardonnay.
“The Summerlin Bubble,” people sometimes called it, and at the center was Faith, one of Nevada’s most highly regarded schools.
At nearly $12,000 a year, Faith Lutheran Middle School and High School offered sixth- to 12th-graders the opportunity to pursue an array of interests, from programming drones to producing films to climbing rock faces. Its campus of red-brick buildings, which included two gymnasiums and a 772-seat performing arts center, looked like a university.
Every 2017 graduate, the school advertised, had gone on to attend college.
Faith didn’t try to shelter its students from people who were suffering — groups traveled on mission trips every year — but they knew that theirs was a world of privilege and comfort.
Now, in the gym, a teacher played guitar, leading the assembly in a hymn.
“All the earth rejoice. He wraps Himself in light, and darkness tries to hide,” sang students sitting on the bleachers around Shae, who wanted to join but just couldn’t get the words out.
It struck Shae in her next class that, somehow, she’d never cleaned the scrapes on her knees from the night before. She went to the nurse’s office, raising her nightgown and leggings to wipe away bits of asphalt embedded in her shins.
Marie pulled into Faith’s parking lot Tuesday morning and saw what she’d seen every morning for years: other kids, walking, talking, laughing.
She began to sob.
Marie used to be one of them, she thought, doing and saying normal things, believing everything was okay. But now nothing felt okay.
Marie hurried to her first class, AP English, and immediately had to leave.
“I don’t know if I can do this,” Marie texted her mother. A day earlier, the teenager had spent hours at home watching news coverage of the shooting on TV.
In her next class, the teacher, who hadn’t been told that Marie was at the festival, asked whether she could stay after school to take a test she’d missed.
Suddenly, Marie was stricken with the sense that everything she’d cared about most — grades, the SAT, admittance into a top-tier college with an equestrian program — didn’t matter.
“No,” she said. “I can’t take it after school.”
Later, in a hallway, she and Summer talked about what was happening to them.
“It feels so weird walking around,” Marie said.
“It feels like we’re different,” Summer said.
Nothing left the girls more convinced of that than how they reacted to noises.
The roar of a motorcycle sent Summer sprinting to her front door.
“What’s wrong?” her mother asked.
“I don’t know,” Summer responded.
Marie couldn’t stand a classmate zipping an eraser stick in and out, and in her living room on Tuesday night, the sound of a slamming door terrified her.
Marie’s ears rang. She shrieked.
Her mother, Susan, rushed in from the kitchen. For 15 minutes, she watched her daughter weep.
Later that evening, Marie noticed someone parked across the street in their cul-de-sac. She checked every lock and closed every shutter. She set the alarm. When she got up to her bedroom, though, Marie realized her phone charger was still downstairs.
She woke up her mom.
“I need you to come with me,” Marie said.
When they walked back down, the car was gone. She didn’t understand. If it had pulled away, she would have heard it. Marie insisted she had seen someone.
But now came a more unsettling possibility. Maybe, Marie thought, it had all been in her mind.
Shae sat on the ground outside her class, considering the right words to say as a camera was positioned in front of her.
She’d been asked to describe her experience for a video the school planned to show during that week’s chapel services. Shae wore a long-sleeve plaid shirt and her hair in braided pigtails because it was Faith’s “Wilderness Explorer Day” in honor of the Disney movie “Up,” the theme for homecoming.
“I know that I got out of that situation because God was with us, and I definitely know that He’s still with me now,” she said in the interview. “I have moments in the day that I really just feel a struggle, and I just feel like I can’t — like I just want to hole up in myself and not deal with any of it, but I know that I can’t do that.”
Shae had never not dealt with things. She was an honor-roll regular and editor in chief of the Crusader Chronicle, Faith’s student newspaper. In third grade, her mother recalled, Shae came home one day complaining that the other kids didn’t take their assignments seriously enough.
She labored to stay composed all week and tried to help Delaney, who’d hidden with her in the Luxor restroom, do the same.
When she was asked to write a first-person account for the Chronicle about their escape, Shae gave it this headline: “I’m not a victim, I’m a survivor.”
She couldn’t bear to watch, though, when a teacher played a TV interview with Natalia and Gianna in class that included clips of the bloodshed. As Shae looked down at her desk, she noticed classmates staring.
“Shae, stop reliving it,” whispered a friend sitting next to her.
In a chapel service, when a student yelled at the speaker, she clutched the arms on her chair and sat up, panicked. “I need to get out of here,” Shae thought, before a friend told her that it was part of the presentation.
She left school early one afternoon to be with her mother, who had worked on the investigation most of the week but wanted to take Shae to get a manicure. Elena sat on their couch, and Shae laid her head on her mom’s lap for a few minutes before they headed to the nail salon.
“How are you?” Elena asked in the car.
“Everyone keeps telling me that I’m so strong,” she said, “but I just don’t feel strong right now.”
Elena told her there was nothing wrong with that, and then they went inside the salon and Shae got her fingernails painted periwinkle blue to match a homecoming dress she no longer wanted to wear.
It was Friday morning, the beginning of Natalia’s fifth day in the hospital, and a doctor had just pulled the chest tube out from between her ribs.
All week, she and Gianna had been the focus of unrelenting attention. The twins had done interviews on “Good Morning America” and “Inside Edition.” They’d heard from producers for “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” and “Dr. Phil.” ABC’s “20/20” had even flown Dean McAuley, the firefighter who had helped Natalia get to the hospital, back from Seattle to orchestrate an emotional on-camera reunion between the two.
Amid all of it — the hundreds of messages on Facebook, the stream of well-wishers, the repeated questions about what it felt like to witness and face death — the twins remained unflinchingly positive.
The online conspiracy theorists fixated on their smiles, insisting it was evidence that their stories weren’t true. But Natalia had been that way — “#keepsmiling,” she’d written next to a photo of herself in the hospital — since she was little. Her outlook was born of a compassion so deep that when she returned from a ninth-grade mission trip to Mexico, she announced to her parents that she wanted to become a traveling nurse, move to Africa and treat victims of Ebola.
Twenty-two hours after being shot, still in the intensive care unit, Natalia wrote on Instagram: “I am so blessed to be alive at this moment of time.”
Now, though, on Friday, the last of the TV cameras had left, and with them went the distractions. Natalia finally had time to consider what she might miss during her last homecoming weekend before graduation.
With the chest tube out, she had only one question for her doctor: “Can I go to the football game tonight?”
Two hours later, her sister rolled on an electric scooter through a tunnel of pompom-shaking cheerleaders and into the gymnasium, where hundreds of students gathered for a pep rally stood to applaud.
“We would like to dedicate this assembly and the rest of our cheer season to Gianna and Natalia Baca,” a girl announced on a microphone.
Then the cheer team performed, and the lip-sync competition began. The freshmen went first, followed by the sophomores and juniors and, at last, the seniors.
Between songs, the narrators recounted highlights of “our Faith Lutheran adventure”: the first dances and dates, cars and crushes.
Natalia knew the entire lip-sync routine and had so looked forward to performing with her classmates one more time, to hitting her mark as the seniors romped to the final song, “We’re All in This Together.”
Instead, she watched on FaceTime from her hospital room, blowing into a deep-breathing device, hoping that her lung wouldn’t collapse so that, maybe, she could make the football game.
The prayer had been said and the moment of silence had been held, and now, between the stadium’s bleachers, teenagers lining a pathway held up their phones, ready to record.
Faith’s high school principal, Scott Fogo, waved up at the public-address booth and then pointed at who was behind him: Gianna, driving her scooter, and Natalia, less than five hours removed from the hospital, in a wheelchair being pushed by their dad.
“Ladies and gentlemen, will you direct your attention to the 35-yard line,” the announcer said over the loudspeaker, his voice rising. “Welcome back Natalia and Gianna Baca.”
The crowd stood and clapped as Faith’s cheerleaders surrounded the girls.
“We love you, Bacas!” they chanted in unison.
The principal, eyes watery, watched from a few feet away. He wore a maroon T-shirt that on the front showed an image of the girls above the hashtag “#BacaStrong” and on the back included a verse from 2 Corinthians about God’s comfort in times of trouble.
Fogo, bald, bespectacled and known among students for his reassuring hugs, had given out more of them that week than any other in his career. He and his staff had done all they could think of — bringing in comfort dogs, calling traumatized students at home when they missed classes, prepping teachers for the inevitable questions and breakdowns, arranging for three counselors to attend the dance, just in case.
“I don’t know what I say to my kid,” parents had told Fogo, so he helped set up a meeting for them with a Harvard-trained psychiatrist.
He had even researched the aftermath of the Columbine High School rampage and discovered that a student who’d witnessed the violence hanged himself a year later.
By Friday, he and Faith’s counselors had already begun to work on a plan for the months ahead, when they knew things would return to normal for many in the community but might not — then, or ever — for at least 10 of their kids.
Fogo waited as Natalia’s dad parked her wheelchair next to Gianna. The twins faced the cheer team they co-captained, and in front of Natalia were the personalized black boxes that the girls stood on during games. Neatly stacked on top of hers was a megaphone and two gold pompoms. “Natalia,” it read. “Varsity Cheer 2018.”
A tear tumbled down her cheek, and when the local TV journalists noticed it, they crept closer and pointed their lenses. Then out came the microphones, and back came her smile.
“I haven’t seen a big crowd in, like, a week, so it was very overwhelming,” she told the reporters. “This school is family to me, so I didn’t want to miss it.”
They backed away, and she eased out of the wheelchair.
“Go, Crusaders! Go!” her teammates shouted.
She leaned against the fence behind her, lightly bouncing one foot to the rhythm and tapping her hands together. Natalia knew she would never cheer at another football game.
“Go, Crusaders. Go,” she mouthed in silence as her smile disappeared.
Beyond the end zone, Shae and Delaney had just come into the stadium, both wearing #BacaStrong shirts. They walked toward the far side of the field to watch friends on the dance team, the two of them holding hands, just as the girls had done five nights earlier when they fled the concert.
“I just don’t want to lose her in the crowd,” Delaney said.
A dark-haired classmate in a polo shirt stopped to give Shae a hug. He’d heard she was at the festival.
“That’s crazy. You’re okay, though, right?” the teen asked Shae, who, to him, looked no different.
“Yeah,” she said and nodded, because the real answer was too hard to explain.
Shae and Delaney spotted Summer. She’d come without Marie, who had finally made it through a day of classes but decided not to attend the game or any of the homecoming weekend activities.
The girls compared how they were feeling.
“I’m actually good today because I didn’t go to school,” Summer said.
Delaney thought she’d made progress, too.
“I only cried once,” she said.
“Guys, I took off my bracelet,” Summer told them, referring to the purple Route 91 Harvest band.
“I need to take mine off,” Shae responded.
“I’m leaving it on,” Delaney said.
“Even for tomorrow?” Summer asked, referring to the dance. “It’s kind of a constant reminder.”
“It’s just like a — I’m lucky. I was lucky,” Delaney said. “It doesn’t make me sad anymore.”
Shae, glancing down at her left wrist, said nothing.
Natalia limped over the curb onto the sidewalk, and as the fading sunlight cut through the palm trees on Saturday evening, her iridescent white dress flashed shades of pink and blue, just as she’d imagined.
But Natalia, one hand holding Gianna’s and the other squeezing her phone, didn’t seem to notice.
It was just past 5 p.m., and they were waiting on the sprawling lawn outside the JW Marriott to get their homecoming photos taken, along with dozens of other Faith teens. Two local stylists had done their hair for free at home, and a friend had bought them flats, because neither twin could stand in heels.
The sisters had already decided to skip the dance.
“There’s loud music. I don’t want to go,” Natalia had told her mom, and Gianna agreed. Still, both girls wanted pictures.
Now Natalia checked her phone for the third time. Parker, the teen who’d asked her to homecoming, was running late.
“Where’s your date?” asked Gianna’s boyfriend.
“He’s coming at 5:30,” she said, but at 5:30, he still hadn’t arrived.
Another parent walked over to say hello.
“Both of you are here?” she said to the girls, surprised. “Where are your dates?”
“Parker’s coming,” Natalia said.
She checked her phone again.
“He’s got 2 minutes,” someone announced at 5:43.
One minute later, he made it.
She grinned, and they shared a gentle embrace. He slipped a white rose corsage on her left wrist, and she held the matching boutonniere up to his navy blue lapel.
“I’m just going to act like I’m doing it,” she said, laughing.
Now they needed to get a portrait, so she motioned for him to shift to her left.
“I can move this arm,” Natalia said.
From the camera’s view, she looked like any other girl, hair curled, eyelashes long, makeup pristine. The dress’s open back, though, revealed a patch of ivory bandages, the only evidence that the bones in her shoulders were fractured, that her chest was littered with bullet fragments.
Parker put his arm around her, smiling as he searched for a spot to rest his hand. They posed with Gianna and her boyfriend and, later, a few other classmates.
Then Natalia hugged her date goodbye and shuffled toward an awaiting truck.
“Six o’clock. Take your pill,” a family friend said, because it was time for her painkiller.
The woman helped her into the back seat, and 51 minutes after it began, Natalia’s homecoming ended.
Across town, Shae was at Delaney’s house, struggling to find the right expression for their pictures. None of them felt quite right.
“What’s wrong with us?” Shae asked, especially frustrated because 2016’s homecoming had cemented their friendship. Both had just come out of serious relationships and bonded over silly, finger-on-their-chin poses and a long night on the dance floor.
When Brevin, the boy taking Shae, arrived, the girls got into the back of his family’s Ford Mustang. With their dates up front, Shae and Delaney took selfies together, and the night finally started to feel the way it was supposed to. The four of them had gone out in the same car, with the top down, on the night Brevin asked Shae to the dance. On the way, the girls had begged him to play country music, and he’d refused, and they’d all laughed about it ever since.
Now, on the way to homecoming, he asked if they wanted to hear country music.
Not tonight, the girls told him.
They pulled up to the school and spotted Fogo, who was welcoming students. Shae and Delaney walked straight to the principal and hugged him, together.
At a table in the cafeteria, the girls ate chicken and salad with their dates and talked about the decorations inside the gym. Shae had helped set up everything until midnight Friday and then again Saturday morning.
“Wait till you see it,” she told Delaney. “It’s really pretty.”
Shae had worried all week that she and her classmates wouldn’t enjoy the dance, but she’d invested so much of herself to make sure they did — covering the bleachers in black tarp, assembling light towers wrapped in linen, putting together a gazebo threaded in faux ivy around the dessert table, painting a miniature house that looked just like the one that floats away in the movie “Up.”
On their way out of the cafeteria, the girls ran into Summer and exchanged hugs and compliments about their dresses.
“I’m just going to warn you guys, there are a lot of balloons in there,” said Shae, who knew that, a day earlier, one had popped just as Delaney walked into the gym and she’d ducked to cover her head.
But her best friend was too excited to worry about that, so Shae, Delaney and their dates headed across the courtyard.
The rap song “Crank That (Soulja Boy)” thudded from the speakers as they walked through the gym’s double doors, where hundreds of students were bouncing in the dark beneath white ceiling drapes. The four of them passed white-clothed tables decorated with white rose petals and Mason jars filled with white lights that looked like fireflies.
They sat on a bench along the side of the gym, and Shae took off her floral Steve Madden heels. Hand in hand, the girls approached the dance floor, maneuvering along the edge, outside the scrum. They found friends near the front, below the DJ booth, and began to dance. “Stanky Legg” came on, and the students roared. Delaney, beaming, let go of Shae’s hand.
The bass boomed louder. The crowd grew larger.
Shae felt her chest tighten.
“I’ll be back,” she told a friend standing next to her.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“Yeah, I just need a minute,” she said, slipping away before Delaney could notice.
Shae went to the principal.
“It’s a little overwhelming,” she said, and he told her to take a break if she needed to.
Shae picked up her phone and rushed toward the doors, fleeing beneath an arch of rainbow-colored balloons on her way out.
On the far side of the courtyard, she stood barefoot along the edge of the sidewalk, her pink toenails buried in the grass. A string of lights between two poles hung overhead, illuminating the scrapes on her legs that still hadn’t healed.
She called her dad.
“I just can’t have fun,” Shae told him, her voice faltering. “I want to, but I can’t.”
When he’d finished assuring her that it was going to be okay and they’d hung up, she stepped away from the light. Then Shae sat down and wept.
Natalia finished her strawberry ice cream with gummy bears and watched an episode of “Grey’s Anatomy” before she headed to her bedroom.
Crumpled in the corner was the poster Parker had brought to the school parking lot when he asked her to the dance, just before she and Gianna left for Route 91.
“HOMECOMING,” it read.
He’d gone that evening without her.
She lay down and closed her eyes. Natalia normally slept in complete darkness but couldn’t do that anymore, so she left the door open and the lights above her mirror on.
As she began to fall asleep, Natalia knew what was coming. A sound so clear that, each night, she had to tell herself it wasn’t real: gunshots.
Story by John Woodrow Cox. Photos by Matt McClain. Graphics by Gabriel Florit. Design by Elizabeth Hart.