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Aftermath

Aftermath, Episode 2: ‘I think we saved each other.’

Carmen Alegria and Angelica Soto traveled to Las Vegas to attend a country music festival. When the gunfire began, they relied on their bond to get out alive.

Aftermath is a collaboration between The Trace and the Cincinnati Enquirer.

Last summer, Carmen Alegria considered cancelling her trip to the music festival. Months earlier, she and her best friend Angelica Soto had bought tickets that included one for Angelica’s older sister, Gabby, who was pregnant.

But in June of 2017, Gabby and her unborn daughter were killed in a car accident. Sensitive to her friend’s grief, Carmen told Angelica she understood if she wanted to skip the country music concert altogether.

But Angelica insisted they go. Gabby had been all about traveling, music, having fun. Going would mean honoring that part of her.

The two women, friends for almost 14 years, drove more than four hours through the desert, from Bakersfield, California, to Las Vegas, to attend the Route 91 Harvest Festival, an annual three-day concert held on the Strip. They kept thinking and talking about Gabby, especially when they saw an Irish pub, a franchise restaurant they’d all been to together on another trip.

“I felt her presence with us so strong that weekend,” says Carmen.

Still, they allowed themselves to have some fun. They sipped drinks, danced in their cowgirl boots and posted Snapchats. On the last night, Oct. 1, they edged their way toward the stage to see one of their favorite singers, Jason Aldean.

As they listened to him croon “When She Says Baby,” they heard what sounded like fireworks. They looked up, expecting to see the glitter of light in the sky. Just then, Angelica felt like she was being stabbed and burned and electrocuted all at once.

She realized she was bleeding near her shoulder. Carmen realized it, too, taking off her festival T-shirt and pressing it to her friend’s wound. As rapid gunfire began to rain down around them, chaos broke out. People were running and screaming and cowering on the ground. Aldean had fled the stage. Carmen instinctively hunched over her friend on the ground, guarding her from being trampled by terrified feet.

Then Carmen felt a sharp jolt in her left leg. She knew now she was hit too and couldn’t move Angelica. But she wasn’t about to leave her.

Both women had both just been shot in the deadliest mass shooting ever committed by an individual in the United States. In a span of 10 minutes, a gunman fired about 900 rounds from his hotel room window into a crowd of more than 22,000 concertgoers, killing 58 people and wounding more than 400 others before killing himself.

Carmen and Angelica escaped by half-running, half-hobbling out of the venue with their arms linked, one dragging the other. At some point, a young man helped them into the back of his pickup truck and drove them, along with injured others, to the hospital.

Although mass shootings account for less than 2 percent of all gun deaths in the United States, the harm they inflict is no less severe. The bullet that hit Angelica missed a major artery and lodged near her shattered shoulder blade. She has needed surgery to remove the bullet and some of the shrapnel and may need a second procedure to clear out more fragments.

After the shooting, she couldn’t make a U-turn while driving or braid her own hair. It’s still hard for her to bend her arm and lift things, like the sacks of rice and heavy plates at her family’s Mexican restaurant.

The round that tore through the back of Carmen’s leg fractured her tibia, broke part of her femur and exited through her knee. After being treated at a Las Vegas hospital, she returned home to find she could rest only when she slept in a recliner chair in her living room with all the lights on. Unable to stand and carry things at the same time on crutches, she couldn’t cook.

A social worker pursuing her master’s in the field, she missed five months of work.

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Before the shooting, Carmen and Angelica bonded over makeup, country music, and their kickball team. They still share those things but now they both carry shrapnel from a gunman’s bullets.

Angelica, 39, lives by the highway in Lost Hills, a small farming community northwest of Bakersfield, and loud noises from passing trucks make her jump. Carmen, 41, once got upset at the sound of her mother tapping on a glass window, beckoning the dog. There are nightmares.

But they are in this nightmare together. They scheduled physical therapy and orthopedic surgeon’s appointments at the same time. Carmen found a therapist specializing in post-traumatic stress disorder and they went to their first session together. They claim they exchange 100 texts a day. When one gets discouraged, the other tries to lift her spirits. They are fiercely protective of each other.

“There will be interviews where reporters are like, ‘You saved her life, you shielded her,’” says Carmen.

She disagrees.

“I think we saved each other.”