Phones light up and devices buzz with headlines about the latest tragedy. Whether it’s a mass shooting or a devastating storm, the news cycle has become a relentless, all-consuming parade of crisis.
But what happens once the country’s attention has moved to the next disaster? How do communities rebuild and rebound once the news trucks have left town, and the residents are left to pick up the pieces?
TODAY traveled across the country to meet survivors of some of the nation’s worst tragedies, including the attacks on September 11, the Columbine shooting, and the devastation in New Orleans caused by Hurricane Katrina. TODAY interviewed the people behind the headlines to see how they healed and how their communities rallied around them. Despite tremendous personal loss, every survivor we met spoke of forgiveness and of the ability to move forward.
This series is an effort to spotlight the resilience of the human spirit in the aftermath of tragedy, and to honor survivors and their communities.
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 a 64-year-old gunman, 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. Like, pop, pop, pop.”
Felicia Sanders has searched for a reason why she was one of only three survivors left after a white supremacist opened fire at her church in Charleston three years ago, killing her son, aunt and seven other African-American parishioners. She has carried the weight of those nine lives that were lost when 21-year-old Dylann Roof turned a Bible study gathering at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church into a massacre. “I was left here to tell my story to let the world know that God is real,’’ Sanders told TODAY. “If I can change a white supremacist’s life, somebody who’s thinking about going to shoot up a school or shoot up a church or shoot anyone, if I can change one or two of their lives, it’ll be worth it.”
Amy Downs made a silent plea to herself as the world crashed down around her on the most harrowing day of her life. Downs, 51, was working at a credit union in the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, when a truck bomb exploded, destroying a third of the building, killing 168 people and injuring nearly 700 others. She was trapped under the rubble for more than six hours, crying out for help and hoping another bomb wasn’t about to explode.
As the final days of August 2005 neared, a tropical depression moved quickly through the Atlantic Ocean, whipping through the Floridian peninsula before picking up strength in the Gulf of Mexico. There was a dangerous storm approaching, but residents had no idea what was to come. New Orleans, Louisiana, Mayor Ray Nagin issued a volunteer evacuation for the city on Aug. 27, and then a mandatory evacuation the next day. Hours later, Hurricane Katrina made landfall and the levees failed, leaving New Orleans under water. Joe Bridges, a New Orleans-based contractor, and his family were some of the last residents to leave the city as the Category 5 hurricane barreled closer. They initially contemplated riding out the storm, but made the decision to leave at the last minute.
Leo Melendez runs his hands over the memorial at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, taking in all of the faces as he is instantly transported back to the night in 2016 when three bullets pierced his body while a gunman killed 49 people. After the creation of the memorial in July, Melendez, 40, returned to the site of the shooting for the first time since the day it happened. He paused when he came to a picture of Javier Jorge-Reyes, the co-worker who was right next to him that night when the shooting started. “I’m a person who tries to leave things in the past, but when I saw the picture of my friend who died, it really brought all those memories back,” Melendez told TODAY. “It’s surreal. It’s like you’re in shock almost to go back and relive that.”
Sept. 11, 2001, was a crisp, clear day, as Clarence Singleton remembers it. Singleton, who had retired the previous year from his job as a lieutenant firefighter with the New York City Fire Department, was about to leave his apartment when he turned on the radio and heard that a plane had hit one of the towers at the World Trade Center. Singleton had rescued civilians during the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and while the alert gave him pause, he continued on with his day. ”(Then) I heard a second announcement over the radio, and it said that a second plane had hit the tower,” Singleton remembered. “I knew right away that something was going on, something was planned. I went back to my apartment, and I donned a fire department T-shirt, pair of jeans and a pair of boots to go over to the scene.”
Joann Vaega was 6 years old when she was evacuated from the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. She was one of 21 children who were released in 1993 during a 51-day standoff with federal agents, which ended with 76 people dead, including David Koresh, the leader of the religious group. Both of Vaega’s parents, Margarida and Neal Vaega, died in the fire that engulfed the Mount Carmel Center on the ranch on April 19, 1993, after an assault and tear gas attack by the FBI. Vaega, 32, has defied expectations about her future. She has become a training and development director at a restaurant, a wife, and a mother of two who has carved out a life for herself in San Jose, California. “I can honestly say that if I didn’t go through these kinds of experiences, I wouldn’t be half of the mom I am today, I wouldn’t be half the wife I am today, I wouldn’t be half the individual I am today,” she said.
Moore, OK tornado
The Legg Family
The first day of school has been tough for Danni Legg and her family since losing their son to a deadly tornado in Moore, Oklahoma, five years ago. This year was especially bittersweet, as it would have been the first day of Christopher Legg’s freshman year in high school. “Even though it’s been five years, it’s like it happened yesterday,” Legg told TODAY. “It was hard seeing some of his friends start their freshman year.” However, the first day of school was also a day where Christopher’s legacy could be seen in 20-plus schools across Oklahoma, where bulletproof and tornado-proof shelters have been installed in the past three years thanks to Legg’s relentless lobbying to keep other kids safe. “I did not want another parent to ever experience what I experienced of not being able to pick up my kid, find my kid, my kid being missing, and then being told over the phone the next day he died,” she said. “I live with it every day.”
Mindy Finkelstein was thrust into the national spotlight on Aug. 10, 1999 after a white supremacist opened fire at a Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles. Finkelstein was a 16-year-old counselor at the JCC, a teen looking forward to her prom and dreaming about where she would go to college. The shooting turned Finkelstein into what she described as “a poster child” for the national debate over gun control. It was a role she was not ready for, during a time when that type of violence was an uncommon event. “Now as an adult, as a mother, as a wife, I almost feel sad for the teenager that I was in that I didn’t end up having what some would consider a normal teenage experience, because my life was altered forever that day,’’ Finkelstein told TODAY. “I’m proud of myself for the road I took afterwards.”
Teodoro Rivera and Joanna Medina
Joanna Medina, a teacher in Yabucoa, still remembers the expressions of local newscasters as Maria approached. “You can tell on the faces of news reporters,” Medina told TODAY. “This is big. This is big and this is coming straight at us.” About an hour to the north, Teodoro Rivera, a teacher in San Juan, gathered his family to ride out the storm together. When Maria hit, both Rivera, 51, and Medina, 36, were taken aback by the sounds of the storm. “It was something out of a movie,” Medina said. “You could hear the actual howling and the cracking of the trees.” Rivera had kept away from the windows during the hurricane, as a precaution. When he finally stepped outside after the story, he didn’t recognize what he was looking at. “When I went out, there was no green. No trees. It was like they sandblasted all Puerto Rico,” he said. “What happened to my island?”
It’s hard to believe nearly 20 years have passed since the unimaginable tragedy that took place at Columbine High School in Colorado — one of the deadliest mass shooting attacks at a high school in U.S. history. Thirteen people were killed and 21 were wounded at the hands of two students. Craig Scott remembers April 20, 1999 clearly. He was a sophomore at Columbine at the time, and that morning started like any other spring day. His older sister, Rachel, who was a senior, dropped him off at the entrance to the school so he wouldn’t be late for class. That was the last time he would see her alive. A few hours later, two students went on a shooting rampage. Scott was able to escape. As soon as he ran out of the school, he sensed something had happened to his sister.