First published in the Oct. 6 print issue of the San Marino Tribune.
And so we begin the season of holidays, a time when most are able to recall memories that are often both fond and familial. But one San Marino resident was recently reminded of a time in her life that is less a cause for celebration as it is a marker of tragedy.
Five years ago, Paige Kunitake, a 2011 graduate of San Marino High School, was minding her own business at what was called the Route 91 Harvest Festival, a three-day assembly of performers that included Jason Aldean, one of her favorites. On the evening of Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017, a crowd estimated at 22,000 of country music fans had gathered for the final night of the festival across the street from Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas.
Just after 10 p.m. that night, shots started ringing out.
A man who would later be identified as 64-year-old Stephen Paddock opened fire on the crowd 400 feet below. The shooting began as Aldean finished his sixth song on the final day of the festival and ended with Paddock’s suicide. By the time he was done, 60 people would be dead and more than 800 hurt in the worst mass shooting in modern American history. More than 1,000 shots were fired into the crowd as the shooting continued for 11 minutes.
“Ten feet,” Kunitake said five years ago when asked how far away she was from some of those who were shot. “And when we were leaving, we ran past five or six more.”
What ended in terror began as a fun weekend in Vegas. Kunitake and a friend had hit the town on Friday afternoon and planned to stay through Aldean’s performance on Sunday night and then pull one of those iconic, late-night drives back to Southern California just in time to get to work on Monday morning.
Like most in the audience, Kunitake initially mistook the gunshots for fireworks until voices around her told everyone to hit the deck. Kunitake and her friend sprinted away from the gunfire and ended up at a time share facility, where they eventually stayed the night.
“We ran from the concert field through the parking lot, hid under cars, jumped a fence and then ran to the nearest open door,” she said.
Kunitake immediately phoned her parents to report on her condition and headed back to L.A. on Monday morning.
But that wasn’t the end of the ordeal. In fact, a strong argument could be made that it was just the beginning.
“I had no idea how bad it was until later, when I saw the reports on television and online,” she said. “I was overwhelmed with sadness.”
The former Lady Titan basketball star spoke openly about her decision to enter therapy and experienced an immediate struggle with survivor’s guilt.
“I felt guilty that I was there and I was safe and some people didn’t get to see their loved ones again.” Kunitake said. “I felt extremely guilty and that is one of the things I discussed in therapy. I got out with just a few scratches and I felt guilty.”
Kunitake attended therapy once a week for several months said she considers herself to be healed — “as much as I can possibly be.”
“Overall, I go about my daily life with minimal reminder,” she said. “I’ve always tried to make a point to continue on with life as normally as possible.”
A woman who survived the shooting appeared on a national television show on the Oct. 1 anniversary and said she “leaves the United States” over the 4th of July holiday so as not to hear the sound of fireworks, which causes immediate trauma.
“I don’t like the 4th,” Kunitake said. “When all my friends are celebrating, I will opt to stay at home, watch a television show and not be outside. My reaction isn’t as adverse as leaving the country, but similarly my brain registers the sound of fireworks as a negative one. For me July 4th is almost more difficult than the anniversary of Route 91 because of the memories associated with the sound of fireworks. In my case, it is somewhat true what they say — that time heals most wounds. I will never forget, but as time passes, I’ve been able to heal a great deal with minimal residual trauma.”
For the past four years, Kunitake has been working in finance at a commercial aircraft leasing company and lives in Brentwood.
“Just being able to have this conversation and speak to the newspaper is an indication that things are getting better,” Kunitake added. “Everyone deals with problems or adversity in their life and if my experience helps someone deal with their challenge, that’s a good thing. I think we often take life for granted. If anything, I have learned to appreciate the life I have and it has helped me to be present. It has taught me to love and be grateful for the people I have. It has given me a perspective that most people don’t get. I am so lucky. The chance of not making it back was so high.”