The plane heading in to land at McCarran Airport on Monday morning at 6:45 a.m. was completely full. People were excited. Las Vegas does that to people. But off to the west, outside my window, the shiny golden windows of the Mandalay Bay resort and casino were marred by two dark holes. These were the windows broken out by Stephen Paddock to provide him with an uninterrupted view of the Strip and his targets.
I knew what I was looking at, even if most of the people on the plane did not. They didn't realize yet that hours earlier, Las Vegas had morphed from fun-loving Sin City into the site of the nation's worst mass shooting in modern history.
Las Vegas is a place most people don't think of as a community, but in the hours after the massacre, Americans learned about the other Vegas, the "real" Vegas. Residents lined up by the hundreds to donate blood, and hospitals were inundated with so many supplies they began redirecting them to other venues. At last look, a GoFundMe campaign started by a county leader to help victims and their families topped $3 million.
The vibe here is understandably weird. While every digital sign in the city expresses condolences for the dead and wounded, people continue to gamble, but the laughter and cheering are muted. Late in the day, when patrons could finally re-enter Mandalay Bay, the check-in line was Vegas-long — nothing different there. However, when it was my turn to check in, there was some confusion over what name my room had been reserved under. Suddenly I had to supply four different types of identification— two media IDs, my driver's license and a credit card. Only after a discussion with a manager was I allowed to check in. That was new.
I went to the bank of elevators to head to my room on the 60th floor facing east (Paddock's suite was on the 32nd floor facing the same direction). Usually when you go to your room in these big Vegas hotels, a security guard by the elevators checks to make sure you have a room key. The first time I walked by the elevators Monday evening, there was no security guard, but she returned by the next time I walked by. When I came down for dinner: no guard. When I returned after dinner: a guard and two uniformed police officers. When I left my room at 1 a.m. Tuesday morning: three guards.
Mandalay Bay was clearly trying to return to normal after being shut down as a crime scene. Not all of the restaurants were open Monday night, but most were. The waiter at Aureole told me a friend who worked on the top floor was forced to stay up there until 5 a.m. Monday morning, seven hours after the shooting. Another employee said he came to work at 3 a.m. Tuesday when he learned the parking garage was no longer locked down so he could retrieve his car. He added that it was so hard to get to work on Monday that they couldn't open the pool — they didn't have enough lifeguards.
Still, there is a strange business-as-usual feel. Five conventions — the mother's milk of Las Vegas — started on Tuesday, including the large Global Gaming Expo and, ironically, the American Red Cross Fall Finance meeting. People are walking around town with name badges draped around their necks. I asked travelers arriving at McCarran Airport if they had second thoughts about coming to Vegas. "Yes, we did," said Patricia Flores of Spokane, Washington, "but we decided to come anyway." Tuwana Milhouse said she wasn't bothered. "No. 1, he killed himself," she said of Paddock. "I just don't live in fear like that, I'm not gonna do it."
Las Vegas is counting on that sort of attitude to keep the tourists coming. A record 43 million visitors came last year. Could visitors see more metal detectors or X-ray machines? A CNBC producer was wanded by a metal detector entering the Wynn on Tuesday. Is the new Vegas going to be a little less like an adult playground and a lot more like going through TSA? It is far too early to say, the investigation into how this massacre happened is far from over.
If only what happened in Vegas stayed in Vegas, but this tragedy has spread heartbreak across the country. Las Vegas will not be the same, but then, this city is a man-made desert oasis which never should have flourished in the first place. It has gone through so many iterations to survive, overcoming the mob, changing tastes and the Great Recession. It will find its way through this crisis.
It always has.