LAS VEGAS – Efren Campirano was packed in the middle of a walk-in cooler with about 30 other people, none of whom felt the slightest bit cold thanks to the surge of panicked adrenaline running through their bodies. He could hear the whispered prayers of others mixing with his own.
They listened for the sound of bullets. Some ricocheted off the cooler. Plink. Plink-Plink. Plink. Finally a pause. Quiet. What if the gunman was wandering the festival grounds searching for people?
A bang at the door.
“I thought, ‘This is it. The shooter has found us and we’re all dead,’” Campirano said.
The door opened and two men identifying themselves as undercover police told everyone inside to run for the exits. Don’t look around, they ordered, just get out. The group—country music fans, bar workers, concert staff and at least three people who had been shot—rushed out into the Route 91 Harvest Festival grounds, where a shooter was raining down bullets from a 32nd floor room at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino 400 yards away.
“It was impossible not to look. I saw a lot of blood, a lot of dead people,” Campirano said.
Campirano, 46, was working as a bar back at the festival for Roar, a staffing and production company. Like many other contracted workers at the event, the cleaning people, bar staff, security, Campirano is from Las Vegas’s large Hispanic community, which makes up a third of the valley’s population. After the attack, Campirano and other survivors whose native language is Spanish, have had to seek help and services outside the main channels, where counseling and assistance is frequently only provided in English. The Family Assistance Center’s hotline greeting is recorded in English with no Spanish option, and when ABP called, no Spanish speakers were available to field the call. The tragedy has highlighted a lack of mental health care in Nevada, and that problem is even more acute for Spanish speakers.
“They’re often forgotten individuals, the people who take out the trash, maintain the porta-potties, wait on the VIP area, serve the food and beer,” said Juan Ortega, deputy communications director of For Our Future, a political action committee that supports progressive community organizations. “These aren’t the people who you picture as traditional country music concert goers.”
For Our Future doesn’t normally work on relief coordination, but Ortega, along with a network of other Las Vegas locals and community organizers, has pitched in to fill a gap in communication and coordination between Hispanic victims and the network of counseling, medical aid, family support and donations.
“We don’t have enough therapists for the population. People in the mental health profession will be busy for months or even years treating the people who were at the festival.”
There were more than 20,000 people at Route 91, and post-traumatic stress disorder will occur in roughly 28 percent of people who have witnessed a mass shooting, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Center for PTSD. All but one of Nevada’s 17 counties are listed by the federal government as areas with a shortage of mental health professionals. There are approximately 14 psychologists and seven psychiatrists for every 100,000 people in Nevada, ranking 38th and 47th in the United States respectively, according to an annual study from University of Nevada, Reno. The most recent report from Mental Health America places Nevada last among all 50 states and Washington, D.C. in mental health resources and access to treatment.
Mandalay Bay and parent company MGM Resorts International have provided crisis counselors for guests and employees, and mental health professionals in the area have rallied to offer their skills, but demand has far outpaced supply. Services for Spanish speakers are even harder to find, according to Margarita Romana, a clinical social worker at Behavioral Bilingual Services, or BBS Counseling, who has been working with victims.
“We don’t have enough therapists for the population,” she said. “And in a situation like this, some people will need care for a long time. People in the mental health profession will be busy for months or even years treating the people who were at the festival.”
In the first couple of days after the attack BBS only saw a few victims, but as word spread people started coming in by the dozens.
“At the time of the event you have this adrenaline rush, and you can run, jump, do things you never thought you could do,” Romana explained. “Later, as days go by and you start to process what happened and the emotional impacts occur. Maybe you didn’t feel fear at the time, but now you do.”
More than 100 people have come to the clinic seeking help of some kind, and the most common symptoms of the trauma are loss of appetite, trouble sleeping, anxiety, hyper-vigilance, intrusive thoughts and flashbacks, Romana said.
HOW TO DONATE
Behavioral Bilingual Services, their non-profit arm Mente Sana, and the groups organizing donations for Spanish-speaking victims are still in need of assistance.
- Items such as non-perishable goods and toiletries can be dropped off Tuesday to Thursday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. at 2215-C Renaissance Drive, Las Vegas, NV 89119
- BBS has set up an Amazon wishlist at http://bit.ly/VegasStrongBBS
- To donate money directly to Mente Sana, visit http://www.mentesanalv.org/Donate.en.html
Sites that have been set up to offer counseling services for victims have reached out to BBS to send bilingual counselors, but they are already stretched too thin. Romana has called in friends she knows from graduate school and professional networks to bolster the clinic.
The majority of the Spanish-speaking contractors do not have legal U.S. residency, according to those working with them, and they are often reluctant to go places with strong law enforcement presence. In Las Vegas, the Family Assistance Center that is coordinating aid and services for victims is operated by the FBI.
“A lot of the workers at the festival needed help, and many people from the Hispanic community feel iffy with police,” Ortega said. “They didn’t want to go to those areas with heavy law enforcement and security presence. They were seeking help and needed somewhere they could go where they feel safe.”
Campirano speaks English and was notified about BBS through his work, but other people in the center’s counseling sessions struggled to link up with help.
“I have flashbacks. I can’t sleep at night and I’m very alert all the time.”
Pablo Saldaña, 72, was working for a contractor at the festival, refilling the paper towel dispensers at the handwashing stations by the porta-potties.
When he first heard the shots, he and his crew mates thought it was pyrotechnics from the show as the concert came to a close. When the next round rang out, and they saw people running, he realized what was happening. Saldaña thought the fire was coming from a helicopter flying overhead and ran in a panic, fleeing toward the Tropicana with a river of terrified people. At a dead end he managed to jump over a wall, but fractured his ankle on the way down. Eventually, he hobbled to a bus station and got home.
As contract labor, many of the festival workers do not have full-time jobs or benefits and are hard-pressed to miss any work. Two friends of Saldaña’s drove him around the next day looking for help for his injured leg, but the chaos of the relief efforts combined with their weak English skills got them nowhere at a Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Station or the Mexican Consulate, he said. Meanwhile, Saldaña had emotionally shut down, barely talking and retreating into his own thoughts. Finally, through his friends’ efforts, social media and a network of community organizations that have rallied to help connect Hispanic victims to resources, Saldaña got a free examination, a boot for his ankle and an introduction to BBS.
A friend of Saldaña’s, who knew he was injured, offered him a spot on his carpet cleaning team. He went along, helping where he could, until one of the machines started making a knocking sound, like helicopter blades.
“I jumped and screamed, ‘It’s happening again, get down!’” Saldaña said. “That’s when I knew I wasn’t ready to be at work and needed some help.”
After a few treatment sessions, he says he already feels “lighter” and is talking much more freely.
Like Saldaña, Campirano has also found that he is not quite ready to return to work, and is attending BBS group sessions.
Once out of the cooler and into the bedlam of the festival grounds, the bullets started raining down again. Campirano wanted to help others, but he thought of his wife and 7-year-old son at home and ran.
He eventually reached his car in the staff parking lot as police arrived and sprinted past him. He sat there shaking uncontrollably for a few minutes before he started the car and, after passing through checkpoints, was able to get home. Comforted by his wife, he fell asleep around 5 a.m., only to awake a few hours later and immediately break into tears.
“It’s been very hard for me,” Campirano said. “I have flashbacks. I can’t sleep at night and I’m very alert all the time.”
The colorful festival bracelets that served as his security pass for each day of work, yellow, red and green, still dangle from his wrist.
“I haven’t wanted to take them off yet. They are a reminder of what happened and the people who weren’t as lucky as me to make it out alive,” Campirano said. “I’ll take them off at some point, but I want to keep them as a reminder.”
In his first counseling session Campirano barely spoke, but he has opened up a little more with each visit to the clinic. He feels guilt over not doing more to help others, and is struggling with how to explain it all to his son.
“I need to get back to work, but I’m not sure how long that will be,” Campirano said. “I would work a festival or concert again, I believe. I’ll be better prepared next time.”
The Hispanic community has rallied behind Campirano, Saldaña and other Spanish-speaking victims who have struggled to access services. Non-profits and community organizing agencies like For Our Future, Battle Born Progress, Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada and Dream Big Vegas, an immigration advocacy group, have come together to funnel people to clinics and help with aid distribution.
“There’s a community in Las Vegas. People talk about it being a transient city, and that’s true, but if this incident has taught us anything, it’s that when we needed to come together we did in a big way,” said Ortega of For Our Future.
Yet, these community organizations are not designed or equipped to respond to disasters and mass-trauma events. After the frenetic pace of the initial response has died down, Romana said, there is a need for a broader discussion of Nevada’s mental health services.
“Nobody is ever really ready for something like this,” she added. “We did the best we could do, but I think we do have to talk about more mental health services in this community. We need more awareness, more prevention programs, more school staff education and more information available on identifying people in need and where to go for help.”