It’s one thing to hear about the mass shootings that frequently occur in the United States. Information and details circulate on media platforms, thoughts and prayers are shared, memorials are created to honor the deceased and there’s a temporary outpour of concern over gun laws and safety in the country. Then the uprising dies down and most go back to normal life — until the next shooting.
It’s another thing entirely to live through a mass shooting. The memories and the mental anguish and physical pain that linger for survivors are more difficult to forget. Many of them are considered to be “the lucky ones,” the people who survived the horror, go on to fill their days with doctor visits, physical therapy and counseling. Concerns over medical bills and struggles with PTSD are also a part of their “new normal.”
Autumn Bignami is among those whose lives changed forever at the Route 91 Harvest Festival on Oct. 1, 2017. In what remains the deadliest mass shooting by one person in the U.S., fifty-eight people were murdered. The death toll increased to 60 in 2020 when it was revealed that two survivors died of complications from their injuries. More than 800 were injured in the shooting. Bignami was among those who were shot three times during the 11-minute long hail of bullets that fell on the crowd. Five years later, Bignami is still adjusting and coming to terms with the reality she now lives.
“There’s still a lot of daily struggles,” she told Inside Edition Digital. “Eating is still a struggle. I’m on a probably primarily soft food diet because I can’t really do a ton of chewing. I lost two teeth because of the jaw injury. Also, the entire inside of my mouth on the right side is completely numb. So I don’t have full control over my tongue. I lost about 40 percent of my tongue.”
In an instant, A Day of Music, Laughter, and Dancing turns Deadly
The Route 91 Harvest Festival was a three day country music event held on The Strip in Las Vegas. A crowd of approximately 22,000 people attended the event, which was held across from Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino. They heard various acts before Jason Aldean, the main act.
Autumn, Autumn’s husband Frank Bignami, and his best friend were about 30 yards from the stage when Aldean began his set around 9:40 p.m. He was singing “When She Says Baby”The shooting started at 10:06 p.m.
“We heard this sort of pop, pop, pop off to our right,”Inside Edition Digital: Autumn. “And I remember thinking, ‘Some idiots brought fireworks to the concert? That’s dumb. Why would you do that?’”
The autumn was almost immediately upon our faces.
“I fell to the ground. It was obvious that I did not realize what had happened. There was an intense ringing sensation in my ears and a horrible thumping sound in the back of my head.” she said.
The shot entered through Autumn’s cheek on her right side and exited below the left side of her jaw, shattering the bone.
“At that point, the concert’s still happening,” Autumn said. “And I remember reaching up. I couldn’t stand, so I remember tapping my husband’s leg. And so he looked down at me, and I looked up at him. I don’t know what I looked like, but I remember what his face looked like, so his reaction to seeing me. He stood staring at me for a second.”
While Autumn lived her worst nightmare, many concert goers were not yet aware of what was happening. But it didn’t take long for the rest of the audience to realize they were in danger. Autumn and her husband were among the thousands trying to seek shelter as 64-year-old Stephen Paddock, from Mesquite, Nevada, who officials identified as the lone shooter in the attack, fired from his hotel room on the 32nd floor at Mandalay Bay down onto the crowd across the street.
“We hid in a central barricade area,”She spoke. “And then my husband kind of realized that cadence. So he was shooting, and then there’d be a break, and then he would shoot, and there’d be a break. So he kind of got in this thing of, when the firing started, (my husband) would stop and he would find a place for us to hide. And then when there was a break, that’s when we would move.”
But Autumn would be shot twice more before the massacre ended. A bullet hit her back, lacerating her liver, collapsing her right lung and fracturing two ribs as it exited her body. Another bullet pierced her hand.
“At that point I was on the ground and everything got very heavy,”She spoke. “I had the collapsed lung, so it became immediately very hard to breathe. And with the pain in my head, my whole body just felt heavy.”
It was then that she chose to fight for her life.
“It was the first and only time during this entire process where I felt like I was going to die. I actually had that feeling of, ‘this is it. I am going to die here,’” she said. “I didn’t want to. I mean, it’s a weird thing to say, but I remember telling myself, like, ‘No, I don’t want to die. I want to see my babies again.’
“And then I had this conversation of, ‘OK, God. We don’t talk much, but here we are. I need the strength and I want to get up and I want to see my babies again,’”She continued. “And then my husband laid down next to me, and he’s just like, ‘We are not dying today. So you are getting up.’ And he kept saying over and over again, ‘We are not dying today. We are not dying today.’”
Through unimaginable chaos, Autumn and her husband made their way to a first-aid tent, where medics were able to tend to her many wounds.
“(The medics) slowed the bleeding down, which I think probably is what really ended up saving my life,” she said. “There wasn’t a lot they could do for my face, so gave me a bucket to bleed in, basically, so I wasn’t everywhere.”
Though the gunfire continued, Autumn felt encouraged that she had made it into the hands of emergency responders.
“And in that moment, I remember thinking, ‘Oh, I’ll be fine. You’ve gotten me to where I need to be. Get me to a cop, get me to a fireman. I will be safe. I will be great,'”She spoke.
What happens after an act of unimaginable violence?
FBI’s Behavioral Analytic Unit Review of the massacre found Paddock had no motivation for targeting the Route 91 Harvest Festival specifically.
“As he grew older, Paddock became increasingly distressed and intolerant of stimuli while simultaneously failing to navigate common life stressors affiliated with aging,”The BAU published their key findings.
Paddock had a “desire to die by suicide” and a “desire to attain a certain degree of infamy through a mass casualty attack,” they wrote.
A SWAT team that broke into Paddock’s room discovered 23 guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition, authorities said. They also found him dead from self-inflicted wounds.
After surviving the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history, Autumn remained in a Las Vegas hospital for 19 days there. After that, she returned to southern California and went to a rehab facility, where she lived for another two weeks.
Her jaw was wired shut for 240 days. She had a feeding tube for eight months. She also had a tracheostomy for almost a year. She has undergone 16 surgeries and procedures, but still needs more.
Doctors were unsure if she would be able to talk or eat normally. Over time, with hard work, she was able verbally communicate again, use a straw and eat solid foods.
Because of the severity of her injuries, Autumn medically retired from Paramount High School in southern California, where she worked as the school’s Activities Director.
“The injuries to my face were a little intense as far as what my recovery has been and my daily activities and my daily pain level,” she said. “So it’s one of those that the consistency of talking that you have to do as an educator is something that just I can’t really do.”
Pain management is practically a full-time job for Autumn.
“I have to take medications more than I’ve ever done,” Autumn said. “Brushing my teeth is a chore just because I can’t open my mouth very wide. I can’t handle the feeling of the bristles on my jaw. (I’m) super sensitive to hot, super sensitive to cold. I get tired more easily. I have elevated lead levels so I have to have my blood checked every six months to monitor.
“There is a constant level of pain within my face and I have learned to live with that,”She continued. “So it’s a numbness, kind of tingling feeling. That pins and needles that you get when your foot is asleep and it just starts to come back, that is actually what my tongue feels like all the time. So I have intense nerve damage and I also still have shrapnel within my face and my tongue and within my side. Then the more I speak, it goes up, when I eat, when I swallow, anytime any of the nerves are activated within my face, my pain level is elevated.”
The list of doctors and specialists Autumn regularly sees is lengthy. She has an acupuncturist, a chiropractor, a massage therapist and a jaw surgeon. She also has more specialists she goes to for mental pain, including a therapist and trauma specialist.
Viewing Mass Shootings Through a New Lens
Individual mass shootings and the people whose lives are upended by each instance of violence don’t get the long-term attention they deserve, Autumn said.
“I feel like it happens and then there’s all this push and then there might be a political movement that happens behind it. But then that goes nowhere and then it fizzles,”She stated. “I believe that unless it had an immediate impact on you, it is probably very easy to move on with your lives, which is great. It’s your right to do that. Sometimes it can be hard for survivors to recognize that not only do they not know what happened, but many others don’t either. And for this one, especially, the largest mass shooting in modern-day history, you would think would be part of a bigger level of education or something.”
Perhaps the most difficult thing Autumn has had to do since the Route 91 massacre was explaining gun violence to her kids.
“My children have an active shooter drill at their school,”She spoke. “A ‘violent intruder drill’ is what they call it. So my 10-year-old who’s been through everything that she’s been through in the last five years of her life now has to sit through a violent intruder drill at school in the reality that this may actually happen to her in school. I remember my son even asking in the third grade ‘Mom, what happened to you with the bad man? Could that happen anywhere?’”
“I didn’t lie to him, but I couldn’t tell him that like, ‘Oh yeah, you might get shot at school. Mommy doesn’t know. It’s happened before,'” she said.
Having come from a family of law enforcement professionals, Autumn said she understands the need for guns, but believes some sort of regulations need to be put in place to prevent another mass casualty event like the one she lived through.
“The more shocking thing to me was, when I started reading more about the incident with October 1, is the differences of the bump stock, the ability to modify a weapon so that it can mass fire on things. And it becomes one of those things of the only reason that exists is to fire on people. You don’t hunt animals that way. You don’t do that for sport. That’s 100% the only reason,” she said.
Paddock had used a bump stock, which is a device that harnesses the recoil of a semiautomatic firearm to fire several shots in succession to mimic automatic fire. In the years following the Las Vegas shooting, states across the country enacted laws prohibiting bump stocks. The Department of Justice in 2018 clarified that bump stocks fall within the definition of “machinegun” under federal law. But other conversion devices exist and are obtainable.
“It is still up to Congress and state legislatures to close loopholes that allow the production or sale of other devices that enable semi-automatic weapons to function as machine guns,” gun control nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety notes on its website.
Autumn Bignami Refuses to Shrink Her Life
Their experience at the Route 91 Harvest Festival has not deterred Autumn and Frank from continuing to regularly attend concerts.
“So going to concerts is kind of our thing,” she said. “It’s what my husband and I have always loved to do. And so we knew kind of immediately, and we never even really talked about it. It just was sort of an unspoken thing that we will go back to a concert is what we would want to do.”
Their first concert after the shooting? Jason Aldean.
“So as luck would have it, the very next year, Jason Aldean was doing a, he called it his ‘Finish the Set Tour.’ And that was his sort of way to, I want to honor those that were there and let’s finish this. This is possible. Let’s get this done together. Let’s go through the entire set.” Autumn said.
Even while sharing her story and discussing her daily struggles, Autumn never complains.
“You challenge yourself, you face the hard things, and we’re better because of it,” she said. “This is a get-to life. You get to do these things. You don’t have to do anything. So when it came down to it, that was our mentality with all of this. We get to be here. We get to do this. We get to move forward.”
And although all her days aren’t perfect and her life isn’t what it once was, Autumn makes the most out of every day.
“In general, I’ve always been a positive person, so that helps,” she said. “But for me, it’s just a better place to live. It’s a better place to be. I spend every day trying to at least be happy about something, grateful for something.”
As she and her husband did that fateful night in 2017, Autumn is focused on moving forward, be it through the pain she’s still carrying or through a struggle borne out of the suffering she experienced five years ago. It’s her guiding principle as she goes about her days.
“So, the ability to just be OK with where you are in that moment and know that moment will pass and that you have an opportunity to then keep growing and moving forward,”She spoke. “So it’s important, as you heal and recover, to find those things that are going to help give you what feels like your life back. And just kind of accepting well where I’m at right now, that’s normal and that may change tomorrow and that’s OK if it does.
“Even now five years out,”She continued. “There’s still things every once in a while that will get into my brain or bring me back, a flashback or a memory or something that I have to take that extra moment and just sort breathe and remind myself of where I am and that I’m safe.’’