Tiffany Brown was on the second day of a much-needed vacation when her work phone rang around 10 p.m. It was a colleague from the coroner’s office, where she’d worked for a decade. There’d been a shooting on the Las Vegas Strip, and they needed her at a hospital where they were sending victims.
The single mother left her two sons, who were 11 and 14, sleeping in their beds and rushed to a nearby hospital. Part of her job as a senior investigator was to examine the bodies of the dead and then notify next of kin.
When she pulled up to University Medical Center, Tiffany found that wounded people were arriving in ambulances, Ubers, the back of a pickup truck. Their flesh was shredded. The floor was sticky with blood.
Before she could do anything, Tiffany was called by a different colleague, who asked her to report to the scene of the shooting, where 58 people had been killed and 422 more injured when a man fired into a crowd of festival-goers from his room on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort. It was the deadliest shooting in modern American history.
When Tiffany arrived, the concert-goers were gone. But everything else was exactly as it had been when the crowd fled. Crumpled-up bills sat on the bar, tucked under sweating beer bottles. Meat smoldered on grills. Cell phones lay abandoned, lighting up as worried people tried to reach their friends and family. A strong wind blew hundreds of red plastic cups in a great tide, from one side of the fenced-in area to the other and then back again.
And the bodies. Twenty-four lay inside the fence, seven more just outside, where they had dragged themselves or been carried. Tiffany and a small group of homicide detectives started their work outside the fence. It was technically her job to roll the bodies over during her exams, but she remembers that the detectives were generous on that day, helping her with the work even though their shoes were soon covered in blood. Tiffany looked for identification, documented injuries, took photographs, moved on to the next body.
Once she’d examined all the bodies in the field, Tiffany had to look over the last body — the shooter’s. She remembers taking the elevator to the hotel room and passing the room-service cart he’d rigged with a hidden camera. She remembers him splayed in his hotel room, an arsenal of 23 rifles and a revolver scattered throughout the suite. She remembers walking over to the still blown-out window and looking down at the site of the massacre.
Over the following weeks, Tiffany and her colleagues lived deep in the aftermath of this tragedy. They were experts in death, which surrounded them every day at work. But this shooting was so vast, so horrible, that even they found themselves broken.
Coroners and medical examiners often call themselves “the last of the first responders,” the people who arrive after the emergency is over — the lives have already been lost, and anyone with a prayer of surviving has been whisked away. They do work that most of us would find unbearable: examining and collecting dead bodies, notifying families of the newly deceased, assisting with autopsies. Coroners are often depicted as frumpy gray-haired men, antisocial and drawn to the dead because of some reluctance to connect to the living. But the field is now overwhelmingly female — in Clark County, well over 85 percent of the employees are women. The death examiners I’ve met are charming, sociable, and motivated by a deep sense of empathy. With salaries starting at $15 an hour for a coroner investigator in Las Vegas — the same as an Amazon delivery person — they aren’t exactly in it for the money. They recognize in themselves a rare ability to guide people through the murky waters between life and death, and they are pulled to their work with a force as strong as gravity.
Tiffany in particular discovered her calling as an intern at a local hospital. At the time, her plan was to become a surgeon. Then she found herself in a room with a couple whose 5-year-old son had just died after choking on a hot dog. She watched as an investigator from the coroner’s office examined the boy’s body, then spoke to his parents, offering them solemn advice about how to get through the hours to come. Suddenly, Tiffany became sure that she was not destined to save lives after all. She was meant to help people through the period after death.
In 2010, she got a job at the Clark County Coroner’s Office, six miles down the highway from the Las Vegas Strip. Inside, it looks like any low-slung municipal office — a reception desk, beige cubicle dividers separating a large room full of desks, glassed-in offices along the walls. If someone blindfolded you and left you there, it would take a few minutes to figure out that death is the business being processed here. The people waiting in the reception area are silent. Some dab their eyes with tissues. A model skeleton sits cross-legged on one person’s desk. Another has a plaque that says, DON’T TAKE LIFE TOO SERIOUSLY. NO ONE GETS OUT ALIVE ANYWAY.
When John Fudenberg was appointed deputy coroner of Clark County in 2003, it gave him a sad window onto the isolation of many of the city’s residents. Even beyond the neon lights and alcohol-infused madness of the Strip, Las Vegas is a place people go when they want an escape. Residents died alone, and their bodies could go undiscovered for days. Tracking down relatives often took a dozen phone calls, and would sometimes end with someone who hadn’t spoken to the deceased in years.
As a former corrections officer and city marshall, John, who became coroner in 2015, knew that talking about one’s feelings was not part of the culture. Still, the more death he encountered, the more he wondered what rubbed off on his staff. He knew what was affecting him. After he worked the case of a 12-year-old girl who accidentally shot her friend, he found himself plagued by visions of his own 12-year-old daughter lying on a gurney.
In order to understand the psychological effects of their work, John developed a survey for his staff. He asked what types of cases most haunted them, and what kind of support they would like to see. Most people said they were affected by cases that struck a personal note: The mother of a struggling teenager said she got upset when she had to handle a young person’s suicide or overdose. A worker whose grandfather was in hospice care said she was overwhelmed with sadness whenever she had to collect the body of an elderly man. Most people didn’t want to be required to share their feelings, and certainly not with a manager. John found someone to teach his staff how to support one another — listening without judgement, avoiding phrases like “I understand.”
And so, John Fudenberg was feeling pretty good about things in the summer of 2017. He was managing an ever-growing caseload on a small budget, earning kudos from county leaders (if they noticed him at all). But once in a long while, a memory would creep into his thoughts and distract him. Immediately before John took over the office from his predecessor, Mike Murphy, they met for a hand-off briefing. They had been sitting at the round table in Murphy’s office, which was now his own.
“Well,” Murphy said, letting out a long breath. “I made it with no mass-fatality incidents. Now I’m handing it over to you.”
When she was a medical tech, Nicole Charlton was always fine with handling the bodies — even the tough stuff like sawing through bone and removing organs for autopsies. What she couldn’t stand was what the investigators did: notifying the families, witnessing their grief. So when she got tired of her work, she became John Fudenberg’s executive assistant, a job she modestly refers to as his “secretary,” but that he seems to think of as a second-in-command.
Nicole was in bed with her husband when the shooting happened. John called and asked her to drive him to the scene. “This is the real deal,” he said.
Within 12 hours of the shooting, John had put Nicole in charge of the Family Assistance Center — a meeting place for survivors, witnesses, and relatives at the Las Vegas Convention Center. There were cots for people awaiting news about missing friends and loved ones. There were clergy people and counselors on hand to help people manage their grief. There were airline reps and hotel reps and blood-donation stations.
On the first day, Nicole remembers a disconcerting quiet at the center. Most people searching for loved ones were still driving from hospital to hospital, or flying in from out of town. She had 250 volunteers in a room and nothing to do with them. She had cars lined up around the block delivering food and water, and no one to eat or drink it.
That afternoon, people affected by the tragedy began to trickle in. Nicole remembers a man covered head-to-toe in blood. His wife had been shot as she stood beside him. He carried her as far as he could, but as bullets continued to strike the pavement around him, he’d been forced to put her down and run.
Eventually, 4,000 people would pass through the center. In rooms toward the back, death investigators were doing antemortem interviews with the families, gathering information about where the person was last seen, what they were wearing, their height, eye color, birthmarks, and tattoos. They used those descriptions, plus fingerprints and some dental records, in a morbid game of Memory, in which they matched each victim and description. Usually, an investigator notifies one or two families a day. At the Family Assistance Center, they were each notifying five or six families a shift.
The tissues in a human body begin breaking down almost immediately after death. Because cold air can slow this process, any delay getting a body into a cooler can make it harder to determine the cause of death. Back at the coroner’s office, the bodies were coming in rapidly, filling the hallways outside the autopsy rooms so workers could barely pass through. Fifteen bodies were kept in the parking lot, in a cooling truck, purchased years earlier in case of a mass-casualty incident. At 9:34 p.m. on Wednesday night, John wrote the time and date on a Post-it and made a note in all caps: ALL ID’D, ALL NOTIFIED!!!!!!!! He and his staff had carried out their fundamental duty with remarkable speed and accuracy.
But the shooter’s body was there, too. The bodies of criminals — even murderers — come through the office frequently, and John said that, for the most part, his staff is able to process their bodies without judgment. But this time felt different. “Seeing him laying on the gurney, I couldn’t help but think, How evil can you be?” John said. He knew the victims’ families would not want their lost loved ones to lie beside their killer. But the sheer number of bodies at the coroner’s office meant there was no way he could hold the shooter alone. Instead, he built a makeshift barrier of linens and other supplies around his body, and it stayed there in the cooler for nearly four months, because it was evidence in a mass murder.
During that time, conspiracy theorists plagued the office, chasing death investigators to their cars and accusing them of a cover-up, of shoddy work, of hiding evidence. John had to install a camera and security buzzer. Police manned the building around the clock. “We had America’s most wanted dead guy in our building,” John said. “We couldn’t leave him with one part-time staffer in the middle of the night.”
When it came time to do the autopsy on the killer, John decided that he needed to follow best procedures obsessively. Any deviation could be grist for the conspiracy theorists. For instance, he arranged to send the killer’s brain to Stanford University for specialized testing. Ordinarily, such a test would not be ordered after a person shot himself in the head. And John would typically send an organ in a cooler, by Federal Express. But there was no way he was going to risk some kind of delivery problem that would force him to tell his bosses, never mind the media, that he’d lost the shooter’s brain. So John put the brain in a cooler and went to the airport. A police escort drove him right up to the plane, as puzzled onlookers tried to figure out who the VIP was. That night, he stayed in an Airbnb with the cooler, biding his time until he could deliver it to the pathologist’s office in the morning.
Senior Coroner Investigator Priscilla Chavez had worked three 18-hour days when she got home Wednesday night and sat on the edge of her couch. Her husband asked her what she felt like for dinner. She started sobbing, and didn’t stop for an hour. It wasn’t the first time she had cried over work, but it was the first time she had cried like that.
Priscilla remembers one day when she was walking through the shoe section at Target, and her eyes fell on the brown tassel of a woman’s cowboy boot. Suddenly, she was back at the crime scene, pulling cowboy boots off the bodies of women at the festival. Many of them had tucked their cash and IDs inside. Priscilla stumbled into a nearby aisle and tried to breathe deeply. It took her several minutes to look back at her cart and remember why she was there.
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At the office, she could tell she was not alone in her anguish. When the door closed behind them and the victims’ families were outside, her co-workers began to shake with grief. Others found themselves shouting at colleagues without justification. When they finally got a day off, they found that they were unable to focus on their families. They were irritable, distracted, and humorless.
Even John Fudenberg was finding it hard to hold it together. His staff remembers that when he needed to talk to them about the tragedy, he would often turn his chair to face the wall, so he could talk without crying, and making them cry.
Within a week of the shooting, John looked around at his office and felt a sense of reckoning. His people needed help. He needed help. He knew that the long-accepted practice in his trade was to leave people alone with their grief. But his conscience wouldn’t let him follow tradition. He knew that he’d be met with some ridicule from his law enforcement peers, but he also knew the cost of not doing it would be greater. “I have 28 years in here,” he said. “I thought, What are they going to do, fire me?”
John brought in counselors to meet with big groups of workers. He remembers trepidation from some employees. He also remembers people being surprised when emotions welled up as they listened to their peers recount the worst of what they’d seen. “Everyone bawled their eyes out,” one person recounted.
Soon afterward, John called Jeremy Levy, a peer counselor for the Las Vegas Police Department, and asked for advice. Levy arranged for 19 golden retrievers to visit the office, and watched as people hugged them and cried. With Levy’s help, John connected with meditation and yoga instructors, and added soft lighting and floor cushions to one of the meeting rooms. He offered 45-minute yoga and meditation sessions three times a day for a year after the shooting, until a grant ran out. Different things worked for different people, so John offered them all. A weekend barbecue for staff members and their families, group painting classes, eight-week intensive meditation instruction, 10-minute chair massages during work breaks.
The key to all of this, he believed, was to restore people’s connection to themselves and to others after they had been up close to a terrible act of depravity.
“There were people high up in the police department ridiculing me for offering yoga to first responders,” John said. “But people were showing up to every class, and it was hard to argue with that.”
Nicole Charlton said she took advantage of all the support that was offered, and encouraged her co-workers to do the same. “That steel-cold heart we all have,” she said, “it opened up a little bit.”
A palpable feeling of community bloomed in the coroner’s office. Workers allowed themselves to be vulnerable in front of one another and learned what each of their colleagues was still struggling with. They started hugging each other goodbye after hard days. They started laughing again.
John says it’s difficult to explain the value of deep breathing to bureaucrats who want to see their parks cleaned up and their potholes filled. But he also said the cost of neglecting the emotional needs of first responder is greater.
Anne Weisman, the University of Nevada at Las Vegas researcher overseeing a study of the wellness programs at the coroner’s office, said she has seen employees becoming more aware of their feelings, and more able to manage them. But she also said the sense of connection that has grown in the coroner’s office is emblematic of a sense of connection that has grown in the city as a whole. As people reeled after the shooting and struggled to recover, they reached out to one another across the darkness and found connection in what had previously seemed like a city full of strangers. Even two years later, residents report a new feeling of community. People hold doors for each other. They smile when they pass in the supermarket. “I have never been more proud to be a Las Vegan,” she said.
This spring, John Fudenberg went to the state Legislature to lobby for a law that would give a portion of the $4 fee for each death certificate to mental health and wellness programs for coroners and other first responders after mass-casualty incidents. It passed unanimously. Jeanette Belz, who testified on behalf of the Nevada Psychiatric Association, told lawmakers that even though people assume coroners are prepared for death, even violent death, “the level of what’s been happening in our country has increased so much, and the depth and breadth has become so great, that even they aren’t exempt” from the trauma.
James S. Gordon, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, D.C., and a clinical professor at Georgetown Medical School, said he sees mass shootings as a symptom of our isolation. Americans rarely live with their extended families. They text instead of calling each other, and visit less frequently.
We remember the number of people killed in each mass shooting: 10 in Dayton, Ohio; 22 in El Paso; 13 in Virginia Beach. But the real victims number in the thousands. There are people who are shot and survive; there are the bystanders who saw the killing; there are the first responders who rush in to fix the unfixable. There are friends and family members of all these people, pushing through without a husband or a daughter, or supporting a loved one who witnessed an act of depravity and now is struggling through the everyday work of living.
“When an event comes along that is this disturbing to a community, it splits us apart, and our isolation becomes exaggerated,” Gordon said. “But something else happens, too. There is an opening for creating community.”
In the meditation room on a Tuesday morning in July, about eight workers at the Clark County Coroner’s office sat on the floor as instructor Catherine Scherwenka led a short meditation. Some were at the end of an overnight shift, others just beginning the day. They chatted about a co-worker who was on vacation, and another who had been ill.
Also present were two medical students from the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, who took their vital signs for a study about the benefits of wellness practices for workers who have endured trauma.
Scherwenka encouraged her group to relax their muscles and focus on drawing deep breaths while she described a pillar of light and strength they could build at their core. As they inhaled, they were told to think: “I am strong.” When they exhaled: “I release chaos.” Ten minutes after the practice, their vital signs were taken again, and the results were measurably lower.
Tiffany Brown said she was happy that the counseling and meditation helped her co-workers, but it was never for her. She remembered one time, though, when John Fudenberg asked her when she was finally going to cry.
As she visited hospitals and combed the shooter’s room, Tiffany had been outwardly stoic. Then, a few weeks after the shooting, her office received a purple envelope in the mail from Orlando. When they tore it open, 10 notes spilled out. They were from the death investigators in Orlando who, 16 months earlier, had tended to the dead and notified the living after the Pulse nightclub shooting in that city. At last, Tiffany’s eyes welled up. “We’re here for you,” one of them said. “Everything that you’re feeling is okay.”