LAS VEGAS — The reverent strains of “Amazing Grace” from the grand piano filled the chapel at the Reformation Lutheran Church in the shadow of the iconic Stratosphere as congregants gathered to pray for the victims of the largest mass shooting in U.S. history.
The Rev. Jason Adams called it a time to “let out the emotions we’ve been feeling, to try to make sense of something that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”
The vigil was one of several Monday around the grieving city where a gunman opened fired Sunday night during a concert at the Route 91 Harvest, a three-day country musical festival on the Strip across the street from the Mandalay Bay hotel.
As of Monday, 59 people were dead and more than 500 injured in the gunfire and ensuing human stampede. At least two people with Utah ties were killed, and a Dixie State University student was injured.
Among the dead were Brighton High School graduate and former Utah resident Neysa Tonks. She lived in Nevada and worked for a computer software company at the time of her death. But she spent most of her life in Utah.
A GoFundMe page was established by her co-workers to help with funeral expenses. Tonks is survived by three boys.
"Because of some selfish GARBAGE human being, our family won’t be able to see our beautiful cousin, Neysa Tonks, again. I’m still at a loss for words. She was a wonderful mom, daughter, sister, cousin, and all around a good person. My heart aches for all who lost a loved one to this senseless crime," Michelle Hodges posted on Facebook.
"Last night we lost a great person and even better mother. How can someone be so evil to kill a mother of three young kids? Neysa Tonks was always such a positive and powerful woman!" posted Cold Amidan.
Dyane Burns, of Cottonwood Heights, said she became close with Tonks when Tonks dated her son for a time as a teenager at Brighton High, but the two remained friends long after. Burns on Monday recalled Tonks as a dedicated mom.
"She was just very sweet to keep in touch with me through the years," Burns said, saying she was thinking of Tonks' children in the wake of the tragedy.
St. George resident Cameron Robinson also died in the shooting, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
"Today we lost an amazing friend, son, brother, uncle, cousin, co-worker and boyfriend to the senseless, horrible tragedy of the Las Vegas shooting. He was full of life and love and so much passion. He loved his family, friends and everyone he came in contact with. He loved to cook, entertain, run marathons, travel, go camping, boating, and the outdoors in general, and above all surround himself with those he loved and others," according to a GoFundMe post.
The newspaper said he lived in St. George but drove to work in Las Vegas, where he worked for the city as a legal records specialist.
Robinson's sister Meghan Ervin said in a Facebook post that she couldn't imagine how someone could target so many innocent people.
"The mass shooting in Vegas took a life from me and my family. Took my baby brother! My best friend! I can't even breathe right now my body is so numb! I feel like this is a horrible nightmare," continuing, "I honestly feel lost."
A vigil for the victims was held Monday night at Dixie State University, where a school spokesman confirmed that one student had been injured at the Las Vegas concert. The student's name was not released.
Beauty at the end
Yellow police tape surrounded the outdoor concert venue Monday where Jason Aldean was performing when gunfire erupted the night before. Those who found themselves under seige desecribe the scene as pandemonium.
Country music fan Anthony Luca didn’t know which direction to run when he and his friends at the show realized rapid pops ripping through the night were coming from a gun.
“I have never heard a weapon like that before. It was so loud, and rounds were so powerful and long, and the breaks were so short, and then it would start again,” the young Las Vegas man said.
"Once he started going, it just turned into a war zone,” Luca said of the gunman blasting away from a 32nd story window at the Mandalay Bay hotel across the street “It was absolute chaos. You can hear what’s going on, but you're trying to survive and get out of there.”
Luca and his friends took refuge in a Coca-Cola vendor’s building, but when they heard bullets peppering the outside, they decided to keep moving.
“You make peace very quickly, very quickly. You make peace with God very fast, and there is a certain calmness that comes over you when you are facing death directly in the eye,” he said.
At the same, Luca wasn’t about to give up. “The only thought that goes through your mind is survival. You’re not thinking about anything else. That’s it,” he said.
Luca and one of his friends made their way over a fence that fell in a human stampede, and over walls to a hangar at McCarran International Airport. Along the way, the picked up and carried a man who had been shot in the leg. Luca’s girlfriend tied her shirt around the man’s leg to control the bleeding.
Several hundred people, including emergency workers, were already in the hangar. A nurse and paramedic treated the man’s wound. Luca helped load him into an ambulance.
“When I said goodbye to him, I looked down and my hands were covered in his blood,” Luca said. “That was such an emotional moment for me because all of us had come together in that hangar as strangers.”
He added, “It was a beautiful thing, and I’m blessed that I was a part of that. When evil acts like this happen and there can be some sort of beauty at the end, that’s a positive way of looking at it.”
Christen Jensen, of St. George, her husband, some relatives and friends were watching Aldean on stage at the time of the shooting. Like many others, they initially didn't think much of the popping sounds. But some people started to run.
"And then we were running for our lives," she said.
Jensen became separated from her group but said she didn't want to hide because she worried her husband wouldn't be able to find her.
"It was really scary," she said.
Jensen later reunited with her group and stayed in a conference room at the MGM Grand for a while. They weren't allowed back in the Luxor where they were staying, so they walked the strip looking for a hotel, but all of them were booked.
A relative in Las Vegas eventually picked them up. Jensen said she will come back to the city, but she's not sure she would attend the music festival again.
South Jordan resident Tanya Smith and her husband had just walked out of a restaurant on the Strip and into "the pandemonium."
"No one knew what to do or where to go. Everyone was running," she said.
Smith and her husband went over to the MGM where people were hiding behind the bar, and "everyone was freaking out."
A police officer told them there were reports of four shooters at different casinos, she said.
Love for strangers
Veronica Hunt, of St. George, and her sister, Rebecca Hill, of Salt Lake City, were near the front row on the right side of the stage, closest to the Mandalay Bay hotel, when bullets began raining down on the crowd.
Hunt said she and her sister ducked to the ground when people all around her began dropping in the “rapid gunfire." She said everyone who tried to run — those who tried to climb over the fence in front of the stage — got shot. Bullets were “ricocheting" off the fence over their heads.
“We couldn’t move. We couldn’t lift our heads,” she said. “It was like I had two options: If I move, I’m going to get shot. If I don’t move, I’m probably going to get shot. Really the only thing going through my mind was, ‘I’m probably not going to make it out of here.’"
So they just laid there, Hunt said, eventually breaking down in tears. She said the shots lasted perhaps 15 minutes, but “it felt like forever.”
But the “amazing part,” she said, was two men behind them climbed on top of her and her sister and shielded them from the bullets.
“I didn’t even know them,” she said. “And they were risking their lives.”
Eventually, as the crowd began thinning and the rounds stopped, Hunt said they “scrambled” over the fence and ran for cover, barricading themselves against the stage behind some equipment.
Two Marines who were attending the concert eventually found them and told them where to run to get out of the venue.
What was most “traumatic,” she said, was seeing all the bodies on the ground as she ran.
Hunt said she saw blood everywhere, people crying, people laying over loved ones, bodies being wheeled out with wheelbarrows. She said she saw so many cellphones, purses and wallets left abandoned on the ground.
Hunt said she the experience was “chaos” and “a nightmare,” but also a “reality check,” leaving her happy to be alive. She said she refuses to think about the shooter — rather, she’s “clinging” to positive images of so many strangers helping strangers, from the men who shielded her and her sister, to the Marines who helped her to safety, to countless others helping the wounded.
“I’m just really overcome with the amount of love people have for complete strangers,” she said. “That was completely incredible that out of something so horrific and terrible, people were taking care of each other. I will never forget that.”
Meantime, members of the Las Vegas Nevada South Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints put out a call for food stuffs and hygeine supplies on Facebook. The resonse was overwhelming, said President Lou Richards. Members delivered the supplies to a nearby fire station for distribution.
"Our hearts go out and our prayers for those who have been affected, who have lost loved ones, who still don’t know the whereabouts of those that they lost," President Richards said. "This is just a way that the community can get involved and they can help and assist those in need."
At the vigil Monday night at the Reformation Lutheran Church, congregants prayed, sang, recited scripture and lit candles.
The Rev. Adams said there's a lot of things people want to do in the wake of tragedy such as provide food, gather donations and give blood.
"And that's awesome. But I think first, we need to start with prayer," he said. "As people of faith, I think that's our natural inclination to get together and cry out to God to pray, to lament, to cry out and then to find hope in God's promises."
Contributing: Katie McKellar, Ashley Kewish