This story is part of TODAY's series "Survivors: What Happens After the Headlines Fade." For more stories and videos from the series, click here.
Las Vegas shooting survivor Heather Melton opened up to TODAY about losing her husband, Sonny, during the attack — and how she's coping with the loss a year later. Melton, 49, spoke to us during her first visit back to the city.
When three loud bangs interrupted a carefree night of country at the Route 91 Harvest music festival on Oct. 1, 2017, Heather and Sonny Melton were sure it must’ve been fireworks.
Until the next round came and they starting seeing people fall to the ground.
Then Jason Aldean ran off the stage and they realized it wasn’t fireworks. Instead, it was 64-year-old gunman Stephen Paddock, who, perched at the Mandalay Bay hotel, had just opened fire on the crowd.
The newlyweds were in Las Vegas for the first time as part of what they were calling “the year of the concerts,” bouncing to and from a new city once a month to see different artists. They thought about leaving the concert early, but stayed because they were having such a nice time.
"I heard those first couple shots. It was, like, kind of like three. Like, pop, pop, pop. And I looked at him, and I said, 'Gee, was that a gun?' And he said, 'You know, I don't think so.'"
And now, they were forced to make a split-second decision. Positive they’d get trampled, Sonny, 29, wrapped his arms around Heather from behind and directed her to run.
Almost instantly, she felt him get shot in the back and they, too, collapsed.
During what seemed like an eternity, debris from the Astroturf, bullets and the concrete rained down over Heather as she started CPR on her husband.
But nothing, not even trauma training, could’ve prepared the orthopedic surgeon for that moment.
“I felt like I was in the middle of a war zone, but I'm not a soldier.”
"People were yelling at me to get down, and it was just, you know, like, the most horrific situation you can ever imagine."
He started bleeding from his mouth during CPR and that’s when she knew he likely wasn’t going to make it. She insisted on getting him to hospital, hoping they might be able to help.
Heather screamed for someone, anyone. Soon after, two gentlemen moved Sonny to the back of a truck with another man who was injured. They performed CPR the entire way there.
"It was 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. at night and we're racing through the streets of Las Vegas, running red lights, horns honking. Two people on the back of a truck clinging for their life, and a third one who was shot."
They were the first to arrive. Nurses and doctors had no idea what had happened, or that within hours, their doors would be flooded with hundreds wounded and clinging to life.
“They took him into a trauma room and started their resuscitation measures. But he didn't last very long. They just came out and said, "You know, your husband — we tried."
"There was only four of five of us in the beginning, but by the time I came out of there, there were hundreds of people in there with people they loved. From that moment, everything just seemed real."
Having to call and relay what had happened to Sonny’s mother was hardest part, Heather said. It was 1 a.m. back home in Tennessee and the world didn’t know yet that a major mass shooting had just occurred on the Las Vegas strip.
“I felt, like, some responsibility for it. I took him to that concert. And he wasn't in his safe little hometown in Big Sandy … I just remember saying, ‘Sonny's been shot.’ And at that point, I was still hoping that he would make it.”
Returning to Tennessee was tough. For a while, Heather was consumed by the obviously pressing questions — where to bury him, how to transport his body and how to keep his memory alive. However, it was the quiet that made coping really difficult once things settled down.
They were always by each other’s sides, even at work. Sonny was a registered nurse and surgical assistant to Heather. The couple dated for five years and would have celebrated their second wedding anniversary in June of 2018.
One year later
“I can't escape his memory. I can't go to a concert without thinking about him, I can't go to work without thinking about him. It's just very difficult to not have a memory associated with an activity, a date, that doesn't have to do with Sonny.”
Healing has been a challenge. A lifelong process, as Heather describes it. She stays as busy as possible to help sift through the trauma. After a week, she went back to work. And you better believe she’s still going to concerts, because she knows that’s what he would have wanted.
“When this happened, I made a conscious effort not to have any hatred in my heart for the shooter or for anybody. Anger and hatred hurts me more than it hurts the person. The shooter's dead. It does nothing to him for me to feel anger toward him, except for hurt me.”
That pain is very real, though, and something she expects to wear for a long time.
"To me, grief is like a tattoo on my soul. Like, it's just there. And I'm never gonna get rid of it, it'll never go away. I find happiness in things, but, like, real joy, I don't know if I've gotten there yet."
Her family and three kids are what keep her motivated.
"There's many mornings I wake up and think, 'I would rather not get up.' But he lost his life saving me. And he didn't do that so I would sit in my room and not come out."
"Always in the back of my mind I'm thinking, 'I don't want to forget his voice. I don't want to forget how he looked or how he smelled, or his touch. And you're just afraid that the longer it goes on, you might forget those things. So part of healing is figuring out how you hold onto those memories, but that they don't cause you pain."
Keeping a positive mindset has been important.
"I think the biggest thing for me is just to try to live my life how he would want me to live it. And how he lived his life, which was just so self-sacrificing, so compassionate, and he was just happy. He treated other people with respect. I just know that that's what he would want me to do, too. And he'd want me to keep going on. By my own actions, whether I say it's because of Sonny or not, that is probably the best way that I can honor him."
"You have to make the best of the time that you're here. Tomorrow is not promised. If you lose somebody, it's tragic and hard. But if you also stop living, two people died that day."