By Mai Hoang Yakima Herald-Republic, Wash.
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) A Yakima entrepreneur who was in Las Vegas during the time of the shooting, describes what she experienced that night and how it affected her days after she returned home to Washington.
On Sunday night, Chelann Gienger, co-owner of NUYU Juice Bar in Yakima, returned to the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas after a fun girls night out with friends. She was in Vegas to attend Thrive: Make Money Matter, an entrepreneurs conference.
As Gienger and her friends entered the hotel, where they were staying, she noticed a television news headline: "Active Shooter at Mandalay Bay."
That headline came to life when Gienger encountered a frantic and upset woman in the hotel bathroom.
The woman shared that she was bartending at a country music festival outside Mandalay Bay when she heard gunshots.
The woman decided to run to the Hard Rock, which was about a half-mile away. She said she continued to hear gunshots and passed several victims on the way to the hotel.
"I was like, 'OK, this is real,'" Gienger said.
After calling her parents to let them know she was safe, Gienger, who is a Christian, said she felt God was calling her to take action and make sure her friends and other conference attendees were safe. She rounded up everyone she knew and had them go to one conference attendee's suite.
Over the course of the night and into the next day, additional conference attendees came into the room. The group listened to a police scanner for updates. Everyone prayed, regardless of religious beliefs, she said.
Gienger and a friend who also attended the conference decided to stick to their original plan to leave early Monday and headed to the airport about 3 a.m. Friends told them it was not safe to be out in the streets, but Gienger wanted to return to Yakima as soon as possible.
On the drive to the airport, the pair noticed that the Las Vegas Strip was dark and empty. "A ghost town," Gienger said.
As expected, a solemn feeling hung over travelers. "Everyone at the airport was either on their phone, dead silent, crying or in shock," she said.
By Monday evening, Gienger was home. She responded to numerous text and phone messages from concerned friends, who learned about the mass shooting while Gienger was traveling and out of reach.
But while Gienger was safe, she realized she was not OK.
She had spent the previous 24 hours trying to keep herself and her friends away from harm; there was little opportunity to face her own feelings.
"Late that night, it all hit me," she said. "I just started bawling."
Despite how she was feeling, she arrived at the juice bar early Tuesday. But it was not a normal day. Gienger became upset when she heard people complaining about work, which seemed trivial compared to what she witnessed just a few days ago.
When a customer asked about her weekend, she started crying.
Gienger had a hard time justifying her feelings. She had returned safely home. Her friends also were safe.
But she realized that whether she liked it or not, she had to work through her emotions before moving on, even if that meant taking some time off.
"When you come so close to death, when you're surrounded by people who died or had friends who died or, literally, almost died, it's a surreal, traumatizing experience," she said.
And it's also a reminder of how one decision can change -- or even end -- one's life. In fact, the conference she attended was originally scheduled to be at Mandalay Bay but was moved for various reasons.
"Us girls could have chosen to go anywhere that night," she said. "We could have been closer to Mandalay Bay."
Gienger is focused on giving herself the time she needs. She's prayed for those affected. She's talked with her conference friends, who were going through the same process. And, most important, she's focused on not thinking about work or her goals. Instead, she's making time for herself and accepting how she feels.
"Whether I like or not, this situation has changed my entire life," she said. "I'm going to choose to have it change me for the better and be a better person, to honor the people who did lose their lives."