She Escaped The Shooter's Bullets In Las Vegas, But Her Mental Scars Remain

Dec 16, 2017

The deadliest mass shooting in modern American history claimed the lives of 58 people, injured 546, and profoundly affected thousands more.

Melissa Barham was at the Jason Aldean concert on Oct. 1 when the shooter began his fusillade. She was sitting with her son and his girlfriend. Barham's daughter sat not far away, near the stage.

As she tells NPR's Scott Simon, it was only after she spotted a bloody woman being lifted to safety that it became clear the audience was under fire. In the scramble for the exits, Barham sought desperately to be reunited with her daughter; she counts herself lucky to have found her just before leaving the concert area. And more lucky that she and her loved ones escaped physical injury.

Barham says she can't shake that day. Being part of a national nightmare makes her feel other stories of national despair all the more keenly. And she has struggled with the lack of a clear explanation why the shooter did what he did, leaving her to be tempted by what she characterizes as conspiracy theories.


Interview Highlights

On how she's feeling now, months after the attack

I'm sad. I'm depressed. I feel like I've aged. I'll look at my reflection in the mirror when I get out the of the shower — or you know how you catch a glimpse of yourself when you're out and about — and it's like, I'm startled at what I look like.

And then I feel like, two days after that there's something else big that broke — like whether it's the fires, or the Weinstein sexual scandals, or the shooting in Texas — it's just like it's a continual thing of these events that are just rocking people's lives. And I used to just be a viewer, and I used to just go from one event to another.

And now I'm stuck in one of those events because I could list all the things that we've done as a family — like soccer practices, and I haven't missed a day of work, and booster meetings, and we've gone to our dentist appointments and our doctor's appointments — but I still feel like it's Day One.

What it feels like to still not know the shooter's motive

What bothers me more than the motive, or lack of motive, is lack of information. Whenever we get a little tidbit of something we just jump on because we just have a desire to know.

Like, the first week after it happened I was obsessed with like my escape route. I was just looking at Google images, pictures of the event — like, where did I go?

And then my next thing was: I want to know where the shooter went, where he came from. I want to see him walking into the hotel, walking out of the hotel.

And they haven't released any of that.

I just want to know that he worked alone, that it was all him.

Because there's a lack of official information coming out, that area has just been filled up with conspiracy theories. And with time I've come to say, "OK, it's just one person who was fully loaded with ammunition."

But there's still in the back of my mind: Did he really work alone, did he carry all that stuff up to his room by himself?

On this week's anniversary of the Sandy Hook shooting

Yesterday was so hard on me, thinking about those beautiful, beautiful children. And I'm a teacher, and thinking about the educators that were killed. It is such a sad day in our history.

And then seeing that it happened at our concert. And then seeing what happened in Texas a couple weeks later. It's just not stopping and it just affects so many people.

And what did we really change? Did we help anyone with mental illness? Did we change anything about gun control or school safety?

It's just a really sad brotherhood or sisterhood, but you feel connected because you understand what they went through. And some of them just have such a long road to go.

One way she copes

I wake up every morning and I journal. I pick one of the victims and I write down their name and their age and where they're from and then just details about them. And I just think about them.

And this time of year, the holidays, make it really hard.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

An update now, a personal one, on the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history. Melissa Barham was in the concert crowd on the Las Vegas Strip that night. She'd driven there from Long Beach, Calif., with her 16-year-old daughter Emily, her son Jake and his girlfriend. They were listening to the headliner, Jason Aldean, when they heard popping. Melissa looked to the front of the crowd.

MELISSA BARHAM: There was a lady that had a white tank top on. And they just pushed her up and pulled her over the barricade. And she just had blood all over her chest. So I immediately knew people are getting shot.

SIMON: The gunfire just went on and on.

BARHAM: Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. And then when there is a stop, I stood up. And I said, I'm going to go get Emily.

SIMON: Her daughter had been up near the stage. In the chaos, they could only look for an opening through which they could escape.

BARHAM: And we just kept saying, Emily will come. Emily will come. She's going to come. She's going to come. And all of a sudden, as we get to that opening, this arm just reaches out and grabs my son. And she says, I'm here. I'm here. I'm here. It's Emily. And we all just buckled our knees and fell to the ground and hugged her. And then we just had to get up and move.

SIMON: Fifty-eight people died in the shooting. Five hundred and forty-six more were wounded. Thousands of people went through a massacre. Melissa Barham and her loved ones escaped without physical wounds.

BARHAM: I just remember driving out of Vegas, headed towards southern California as dawn broke. And I hadn't cried at all. And then I got to our off ramp for our house off the freeway. I stopped there. I just started bawling and crying. And then it was just a couple blocks to our house. And my husband was waiting for us. I left the keys in the car. I left everything in the car. And I just walked up to him and buried my head in his chest and said, I got everybody home and completely fell apart.

SIMON: And how are you doing?

BARHAM: I'm sad. I'm depressed. I feel like I've aged. Like, I'll look at my reflection in the mirror when I get out of the shower. You know how you catch a glimpse of yourself when you're out and about?

SIMON: Yeah.

BARHAM: And it's, like, I'm startled at what I look like. And then I feel like - and two days after that, there's something else big that broke, like, whether it's the fires...

SIMON: Yeah.

BARHAM: ...Or the Weinstein sexual scandals or, you know, the shooting in Texas. I mean, it's just, like - it's a continual thing of these events that are just rocking people's lives. And I used to just be a viewer. And I used to just kind of go from one event to another. And now I'm stuck in one of those events because I could list all the things that we've done as a family and all the things - I mean, just like soccer practices. And I haven't missed a day of work. And booster meetings. And we've gone to our dentist appointments and our doctor's appointments. But I still feel like it's day one.

SIMON: Investigators, as we speak, still haven't come up with anything resembling a motive that we know about.

BARHAM: What bothers me more than the motive or lack of motive is lack of information. Whenever we get a little tidbit of something, we just jump on it because we just have a desire to know. Like, the first week after it happened, I was obsessed with, like, my escape route. Like, I was just looking at Google images, pictures of the event. Like, where did I go? And then my next thing was, I want to know where the shooter went, where he came from. I wanted to see him walking into the hotel, walking out of the hotel. And they haven't released any of that.

SIMON: Why do you want to see that?

BARHAM: That's a really good question. I just want to know that he worked alone, that it was all him. Because there is a lack of official information coming out, that area's just been filled up with conspiracy theories. And, you know, with time, I've come to say, OK. It's just one person who was fully loaded with ammunition. But there's still in the back of my mind - did he really work alone? Did he carry all that stuff up to his room by himself? I feel like there's some more pieces. And they've just really clamped down on it.

SIMON: What about a week like this when so many people observe the 5th anniversary of the - yeah, of the children who were killed at Sandy Hook?

BARHAM: First time I'm going to cry talking to you. Yesterday was so hard on me, thinking about those beautiful, beautiful children. And I'm a teacher. And thinking about the educators that were killed - it just is such a sad day in our history. And then seeing that it happened at our concert and then seeing what happened in Texas, you know, a couple weeks later - it's just not stopping. And it just affects so many people. And what did we really change? Did we help anyone with mental illness? Did we change anything about gun control or school safety? You know, it's just a really sad brotherhood or sisterhood. But you feel connected because you understand what they went through. And some of them just have such a long road to go.

SIMON: Yeah. What about your road?

BARHAM: I think we'll be fine. But it is amazing how it just weighs on my heart. I wake up every morning, and I journal. And I pick one of the victims. And I write down their name and their age and where they're from and then just details about them. And I just think about them. And this time of year, the holidays make it really hard.

SIMON: Melissa Barham of Long Beach, Calif., thank you so much for speaking with us.

BARHAM: Well, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.