Elvis impersonators. Tourists sporting ill-fitting Hawaiian-print shirts. Marriage proposals ending in a crowd’s applause. Travelers pouring out of massive tour busses. Chant after chant of “Vegas, baby!” Hangover jokes. Selfie sticks. Twenty-somethings clutching iPhones and tall boys of Bud Light. Revelry. Joy. Smiles. Laughter.
Just a little over a week ago, that’s exactly what you’d find during a visit to the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign. But after the October 1 tragedy at the Route 91 Harvest Festival—one of the largest mass shootings in modern American history—the iconic destination isn’t simply a tourist trap for funny photographs anymore. It’s now a tribute to the 58 lives that were lost that catastrophic night.
In the days following the attack, a makeshift memorial of flowers, pictures, posters and candles sprung up below the sign, a design by late Las Vegas artist Betty Willis that has long symbolized the glitz and glamour of the Strip and all the debauchery it offers. Today, a banner reading “Vegas Strong” hangs between two palm trees, and Willis’ design feels synonymous with that supportive mantra.
On Friday, 59 white wooden crosses—each bearing the name of a victim and one that reads “Vegas Strong”—were set up on the AstroTurf island just beyond the sign. They were designed and delivered by Greg Zanis, a retired carpenter from the Chicago area who has erected more than 20,000 crosses around the country in tribute to those affected by tragedy since 1996.
Throughout the weekend, hundreds of people lined up to salute the lives lost, many bearing bouquets of flowers or other offerings in their hands. Las Vegan Carol Weishaar came with her daughter and grandson, the three carrying 58 white carnations—one to lay at each victim’s cross. By Saturday afternoon, each memorial had been adorned by piles of flowers, as well as pictures, candles, candies, stuffed animals, leis, beads and other trinkets. Some offerings were personal: a Canadian flag for British Columbian Jordan McIldoon, a miniature Sigma Kappa pillow for recent University of Arizona graduate and sorority sister Christiana Duarte, a baseball cap emblazoned with “Navy” for veteran Christopher Roybal. At Adrian Murfitt’s cross, a Coors Light box decorated with a sign that read “Drink one for Adrian.”
“It’s beyond words how many people have come out and just come together in this tragedy,” said Paul Starkovich, a Las Vegan who lost a friend in the shooting. He and three friends also brought flowers to place at each cross.
With the queue to see the crosses in the hundreds Saturday afternoon, and temperatures in the 90s, many were perspiring—though not complaining—in the heat. Calvary Chapel’s Green Valley and Lone Mountain congregations took notice, and volunteers—many sporting matching T-shirts with the phrase “Overcome Evil with Good”—united to bring cases of bottled water for thirsty visitors.
“When something like this happens, it’s going to impact the community for a long time,” said Calvary member and school teacher Autumn Medina, whose former student was injured in the attack. “So we just want to be here to come alongside and support those who have been affected, either personally or just being a part of the community.”
In stark contrast to the rowdy crowds that usually flock to the sign, Saturday’s scene was solemn. The line was quiet, save for those weeping or whispering in a tight embrace. Families and groups of friends stopped to join hands and say a prayer for the fallen. Individuals kneeled at crosses, touching the tops with bowed heads. Some sat down at certain spots, seemingly to talk with lost friends and family.
“Even though I wasn’t [at Route 91], I feel like my safety has kind of been violated by this. I think it’s just a step toward healing and moving forward,” said Carly Barforth, a school counselor from Las Vegas, of her reason for attending. The outpouring of support, she added, is “very encouraging. I think it’s definitely helped make things more positive in the wake of something so terrible.”
It wasn’t only Las Vegans who showed up to pay their respects. Jade Smith, a school teacher from San Bernardino, decided to use her vacation to continue her work with Stars of Hope. The organization delivers paper stars decorated with uplifting messages to communities and individuals dealing with devastating events.
“The stars are sent to people and places affected by tragedies, just as a way to spread hope and love,” said Smith, adding that most of the stars delivered to the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign were made by San Bernardino residents, who went through a similar tragedy after the community’s 2015 shooting. “We’re just trying to pay that forward now.”
Other visitors simply wanted to observe. “We’re staying at the Monte Carlo and figured we’d come down and check out what happened here and see the scene,” Tacoma resident John Morey said. “It’s just surreal, to be honest, being here. It’s intense.”
Still, there were moments of normality amid the mourning. Tourists continued to pose for photos. “Let’s go gamble now” was overheard. A Gene Simmons impersonator stopped by.
But it’s not every day the second in command of the country visits a tourist trap. That’s exactly what happened Saturday, when Vice President Mike Pence arrived at the sign. The veep and his wife walked the line, shaking hands and speaking with visitors, taking the time to look carefully look at each cross.
Someday soon the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign will once again lure brides and grooms in full wedding attire, tourists seeking selfies and Elvis impressionists happy to pose for tips. But it will also continue to mean much more—a local landmark transformed into a memorial that speaks to love in the face of hate, compassion in the face of cruelty and the support we are all capable of.