LAS VEGAS — On Tuesday, Angelica Soto finally saw an X-ray of her shoulder. The doctor held up the image and told her it looks like a comet hit her, a comet of bullet shrapnel.
Soto was one of the first people shot during the Route 91 Harvest festival in Las Vegas that left at least 58 people dead and more than 500 injured. She and her best friend, Carmen Alegria, had squeezed their way to the front of the crowd, toward the left side of the stage, to be close enough to see Jason Aldean smile. He is one of their favorite singers.
The bullet is still inside Soto. You can see it protruding from her back, but it is not life-threatening, doctors say. When Alegria saw the blood on Soto and realized her best friend was shot, she tried to shield Soto with her own body. That’s when Alegria was hit in the left knee.
“We really did think we were going to die,” Alegria said from her hospital bed, surrounded by her 80-year-old mother and two of her brothers. “We wouldn’t be here without the help of strangers.”
A military veteran drove the best friends to the hospital in the back of a pickup truck. They clung to each other, praying, and huddled behind his giant toolbox as gunshots continued to rain down. The veteran picked up seven others along the way. The entire back of the pickup was filled with people who were shot, including a woman who was hit in the eye.
“I don’t even know how to thank him,” said Alegria.
Soto was released Monday from Sunrise Hospital in Las Vegas. Soto has returned to California to work with doctors in her hometown on the next phase of her long recovery. Doctors are concerned about an infection from the bullet and shrapnel and are trying to decide when to operate. Then there are the nightmares. She tries not to watch the news.
“My biggest fear was that a doctor would come around the corner and tell me (Carmen) is gone,” said Soto, choking back tears. Soto’s sister was killed in a car accident in June. She could not bear to lose her best friend too.
Alegria is one of more than 100 severely injured from the shooting who remained in the hospital Wednesday morning. She endured a 2½-hour surgery on her knee.
“Taking a bullet to the knee is bad, but it’s nothing compared to what others are going through,” Alegria said. Knowing “Gelly” — her nickname for Soto — is alive is enough for now.
Soto and Alegria met in their late 20s at work, calling it friendship at first sight. They became inseparable, bonding over a love of music and travel. They celebrated Alegria’s 40th birthday last year in Greece. They’ve also been to many of the big music festivals: Coachella, Stage Coach and the Harvest 91 festival last year.
They wanted to come to Harvest again. They left Bakersfield on Thursday night after Alegria’s master’s degree class in social work. Soto now owns a restaurant, and Alegria is a social worker. They drove all night and arrived in Las Vegas in the wee hours of Friday morning, ready for a weekend of partying.
Alegria knew what a big fan Soto is of country superstar Aldean, so she made a promise with her friend: They would sneak their way to the front row.
They arrived at the concert around 6 p.m. and migrated to the front by the time Aldean took the stage. They were dancing when they first heard the tat-tat-tat sounds.
“What was that?” Soto said to her friend. “I hope someone isn’t being stupid and lighting firecrackers.”
Then they heard the sound again: tat-tat-tat. Soto began screaming in pain, “My arm. It’s my arm.”
A woman beside them tugged on Soto’s jacket. It came down off her shoulder and there was blood everywhere. Alegria took off her top shirt and tried to apply pressure on Soto to stop the bleeding.
“The bullets never stopped,” Alegria recalled. By then, the crowd had realized it was gunfire and the stampede started. Alegria threw herself over Soto to try to protect her from more bullets and people trampling her. That’s when Alegria was hit.
“We have to run,” Soto kept saying. They managed to scamper toward Giles Road in the direction of the airport, away from Las Vegas Boulevard. They ran toward several rows of parked cars in an attempt to hide.
A woman who said she was a nurse squeezed Alegria’s knee. Blood shot out. The woman grabbed a shirt and made a tourniquet. By then, the pain was throbbing. Alegria told Soto she could no longer run.
“Girl, if I have to drag you, I’m going to drag you,” Soto said, pulling her friend along.
As they hobbled behind another row of cars, they heard calls: “Is anyone hurt?” They saw a man with what they believe was a veterans shirt or hat. He put them in the back of a pickup truck. As they prayed, they didn’t understand why the driver kept stopping. Then the other victims started piling up around them.
He took them to Sunrise Hospital. When they arrived at the hospital, Soto was extremely pale and close to fainting. Someone put a red tag on her arm. Alegria was given a different color, and they were taken in opposite directions.
Alegria had lost her purse in the fray but still had her phone. She managed to call one of her brothers, Michael. Whenever they speak, he always asks her, “Are you okay?” Normally she laughs and says of course. This time, she said, “No, we’ve been shot. We’ve been shot,” he recalled Tuesday, still shaking at the memory as he stood beside his sister’s bed in the hospital.
For hours, the friends didn’t know if the other was alive. It was even worse than the physical pain. When Soto was taken for a scan of her shoulder, she called out in the hallways.
“I said to the nurse, slow down, slow down. I’m looking for my friend,” Soto said.
Sunrise Hospital was chaos with over 100 people arriving with gunshot wounds. Doctors and nurses describe blood running down the hallways. Many of the injured arrived without an ID. There was no time to register them, so patients were given fake names. Soto went into the hospital system as “Wanda.” That’s why the friends couldn’t find each other. There was no record of who was there.
Their families drove through the night from California, arriving at the hospital Monday morning. It was Soto’s sister who finally found Alegria. At 11 a.m. Monday, Alegria and Soto saw each other for the first time since they parted ways at the emergency room door.
“We broke down when we saw each other,” Alegria said.
Doctors at Sunrise say Alegria has at least six weeks of procedures ahead to rebuild her knee. Then there will be months of physical and emotional therapy.
“I don’t know if I ever want to come back to Las Vegas,” Alegria said Tuesday. She’s worried that seeing road signs with the name of the city will trigger a breakdown. “It’s going to be a long process.”
But as they speak to one another on the phone, Alegria chuckles as she hears Soto arguing a bit with her parents. For a second, it feels like old times. Alegria looks around the hospital room at her own family. Her older brothers, Danny and Michael, stand like guardian angels and her mother sits beside her, helping her to use a bedpan.
“We don’t have a choice. We’ll get through it. We’ll do it together,” Alegria said.
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Angelica Soto’s last name.