‘Guardian angels’ share enduring bond strengthened by tragedy | #schoolshooting

Steve Marcus

Sabrina Mercadante, left, and Tiffany Reardon visit the Community Healing Garden on Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020, in downtown Las Vegas. The two longtime friends from Henderson annually attended the Route 91 Harvest music festival and were in the crowd on the night of the mass shooting. Both continue to struggle with the memories of that night.

The Route 91 Harvest music festival was for years a highlight for their friend group, when Tiffany Reardon, Sabrina Mercadante and several others would book hotel rooms on the Strip for the long weekend even though they live in Henderson.

It coincided with Mercadante’s birthday, so Reardon would decorate their room and buy a cake. Both work for the city of Henderson, Reardon in the redevelopment agency and Mercadante as the city clerk. Both are Henderson natives who attended Basic High School, but not at the same time.

On Oct. 1, 2017, 58 people around them died in a mass shooting at the country music festival in a field kitty-corner from the Mandalay Bay. More than 800 were injured. The approximately 22,000 in attendance left with the sights, sounds and firsthand terror of that night seared into their minds. And everyone experienced it differently.

For these two women, already tight for years after meeting through mutual friends, it further forged an existing love in fire.

“I think we feel like we’re each other’s guardian angels now,” Mercadante said.

• • •

Even the security officers were having a good time at the concert. Big & Rich had just performed “God Bless America.” Jason Aldean was on as the final act. Reardon and her friends were dancing.

“It was kind of a cap-off of a perfect weekend, until it wasn’t,” Reardon said.

Reardon, 39, Mecadante, who turns 57 Friday, and a third friend, Shawn, were on the grass, stage left, when Mercadante heard popping during the opening lines of Aldean’s “When She Says Baby.” Mercadante turned to Shawn, an off-duty Metro Police officer.

“I remember grabbing him by the neck and looking him straight in the face. I go, ‘Shawn, what is that?’” she recalled. “And he just says, ‘Don’t worry about it, it’s just somebody playing with fireworks.’ And I think before he could finish that sentence he goes, ‘No, that’s a gun.’ ”

It might have been right then that one of the hundreds of bullets raining from a suite on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay pierced Mercadante’s leg, entering behind her right knee and exiting out of the side of her leg. Or it was while the trio and other concertgoers took cover under a bar by a beer banner where Shawn threw them to the ground. Mercadante doesn’t remember.

At some point, she saw blood on her hands and realized it was hers. Reardon tore up her sweater for a tourniquet.

Click to enlarge photo

Oct. 1 shooting survivor Tiffany Reardon, of Henderson, pauses to read about one of the victims of the mass shooting during a visit Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020, to the Community Healing Garden in downtown Las Vegas.

They huddled under the bar for about 10 minutes, fearing the gunman was on ground level and planning an escape. During a break in shooting, they ran for the gates. Dirt exploded around them, around discarded personal belongings and fallen concertgoers who just minutes before had been dancing. A passing stranger in a red truck picked up the women and took them to a triage area set up in the street on Reno Avenue. Shawn stayed behind to help.

Not everybody left the staging area alive, Reardon said.

While she lay on the pavement, another stranger approached Mercadante. His name was George, and he reassured her that she would see her husband and two daughters again. He used his cellphone to call Mercadante’s husband, Craig, at home.

Of the three friends only Mercadante was physically hurt, but nobody knew at first how badly. Adrenaline masked her pain and black leggings obscured her blood loss. She took it as a good sign that medics started to load her into two ambulances, then removed her and hoisted in other victims before she finally got on a crowded ambulance to Sunrise Hospital & Medical Center.

Reardon found Shawn near where he had parked. They headed to Sunrise Hospital, learned that Mercadante’s injury was not life-threatening, and, uncertain of what could happen next in the city center, went home to Henderson.

“I sat home and just watched the news for days straight,” Reardon said. “There’s an overwhelming guilt when you see more faces pop up” of people who died that night.

“You just know that that could have been you.”

About 7 a.m. Oct. 2, Mercadante was cleared to go home with crutches and advised that eventually she would need surgery. Doctors discovered that she had shrapnel in her leg but had no injuries to any major arteries or bones. It was officially her 54th birthday.

• • •

Reardon admits she struggled to process her trauma. The stress peaked about a year later, and though she carries it better now, it is always there.

“There’s not a day that goes by that you don’t think of it,” she said. “It’s a sound, it’s a smell or the weather’s just right, or a song, or even a nightmare, that takes you right back to that night.”

She wants to break the stigma of mental illness; she said it’s OK to not be OK, and to reach out for help. She said she found comfort in the immediate communitywide response, and progress through the Vegas Strong Resiliency Center.

She meditates, practices yoga and tries to perform good deeds, like buying coffee for the person behind her in line or contacting fellow survivors, in honor of the people who died. The Community Healing Garden in downtown Las Vegas is a peaceful place for her.

Mercadante says the city of Henderson has good resources for supporting employees. A chaplain told her that everyone is born with a last day already set and Oct. 1, 2017, wasn’t Mercadante’s. That helped her with her guilt, she said.

She is, by nature, ebullient and outgoing. She makes friends easily. When she called George the day after the shooting to thank him for his caring, she found him at Sunrise, where his adult daughter was being treated for a gunshot wound to the hip. He was in Las Vegas from Myrtle Beach, S.C., to attend the Route 91 Harvest festival with his daughter and wife. The whole time he was with Mercadante on the street, he was also with his family.

Mercadante wrapped them into their friend group too.

She still attends concerts; she said she directly fights her fears. But she doesn’t want other survivors to feel weak if their recovery isn’t where hers is.

She knows how close she was to dying. It wasn’t hypothetical.

Thursday, she and Reardon will probably attend the sunrise memorial service. Maybe they’ll take a spa day, like sisters do.

“I don’t think there would be anything or anyone that could come between us at this point,” she said. “The fact that we went through that together and we both came out alive on the other end, I think there’s a bond there that can never be broken.”

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