It was a beautiful Saturday night in Reno on October 7, 2017. The Nevada Wolf Pack was hosting Hawaii in a Mountain West Conference football game.
It was also Mother’s Weekend on campus, and Tina Cartwright had flown from Las Vegas to be with her daughter Lauren, who had a typical freshman’s homesickness in her first month away at college.
Tina had recently ended an over 20-year career as a cardiac ultrasound tech so she could spend moments like this with Lauren and her younger daughter Grace. They were having a warm reunion when the school’s cannon was fired prior to kickoff.
“I almost went into the fetal position,” Tina said in a recent interview. “Everything came back so vividly.”
Her voice breaks and she has to pause and gather herself. “Gunshots, helicopters, and ambulances, all of those sounds take me back to that night vividly.”
Just a week before, Tina had been with her own mother and good friends on the grounds of the Route 91 Harvest Festival on the south end of the Las Vegas Strip. It was the night now immortalized as “1 October,” when the most horrific mass shooting in American history occurred. Fifty-eight people died that night or shortly thereafter from the high-velocity raining down of firepower from a top floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort.
An accomplished mother of two terrific daughters and the wife of a successful Las Vegas businessman, George, who runs the Better Business Bureau of Southern Nevada, Tina was kind enough to share her thoughts about that night and how she’s done her best to move forward with positivity.
“On a day to day basis, I think I do really well,” she says. “But if I start thinking about it, I can go to a really dark place in a hurry. Early October is harder than other times of year, because it’s in the media all that week and I’m on Facebook sites where other survivors write that they’re coming to Las Vegas for a memorial service. It’s just in my face a lot.”
On that fateful night, Tina went in a flash from a wonderful, joyful, celebratory moment of great music and friendship to hell on earth.
There were four of us, including my mother, and as others have said we thought at first it was fireworks,” she said. “My friend Michelle pushed me to the ground and surely saved my life by doing that. In yoga terms, I was in the downward dog position, and I had this purse with fringe on it, which I placed over my head … just an instinctive reaction. A tall guy from Minnesota whom we’d met with his girlfriend the day before, was killed right behind us.”
When asked if she has suffered post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) since the event, Tina says she experiences elements of it, similar to the trauma so many military veterans go through after surviving being engaged in battle.
“We were running as fast as we could once we got up from our positions,” she said. “That’s because we thought we were being chased by gunmen on the ground. We didn’t know until later that the shots were coming from a high window in the hotel.
“There are no words to describe the feeling of running for your life. We went from a loving and joyous environment to a war zone in seconds.”
The first several days after 1 October Tina did not leave her house.
“That time is kind of a blur,” she said. “After that, I was just petrified. But then the reality took hold that I was a wife and a mother and I needed to go to Costco and help Gracie with her homework and do all those things that life requires. When Lauren needed me that next weekend in Reno, I knew I had to go.”
Many friends have expressed to Tina that she had angels looking out for her that night. She finds that sentiment troubling.
“I can’t help thinking, ‘Where were the angels for the people killed that night, and for the over 200 children who lost one or both parents?’” she said.
Survivor’s guilt is something she understands, she says, but she doesn’t embrace it because it suggests a problem. “
I think it’s a real emotion, but I don’t like to wrap myself in it,” she said. “I’m tremendously grateful that I’m still alive, and that my girls still have their mother. I want to make the most of that gift. I strive to be a good person and do good things for others. I don’t know why my life was spared that night, but there’s a purpose that it was and I want to take advantage of it.”
Thursday, on the third anniversary of 1 October, Tina gave blood at the Las Vegas Ballpark and then watched a memorial on TV.
“The dark place is always lurking in my memory,” she said. “There are days I’ll replay that entire night. But I try not to give in to that. I choose to stay positive.