Rockville Centre gun violence survivors advocating for change, spreading kindness

Share stories of moving on eight months after escaping Las Vegas shooting

Robert Gaafar, a Rockville Centre resident who escaped the mass shooting in Las Vegas last October, told his story at a forum about gun violence at the Rockville Centre Public Library in April.
Robert Gaafar, a Rockville Centre resident who escaped the mass shooting in Las Vegas last October, told his story at a forum about gun violence at the Rockville Centre Public Library in April.
Ben Strack/Herald

Only days after escaping the deadliest mass shooting in modern United States history, Robert Gaafar took a walk with his wife and two young children. He heard popping noises, momentarily transporting him from Rockville Centre back to the Route 91 Harvest Festival last Oct. 1, at which 58 people were killed and 851 injured.

“I had to visually identify workers on a roof, nailing a roof down,” said Gaafar, 34. “. . . The firing of a gun is much louder, but the repetition is very similar.” There isn’t a day that goes by during which he doesn’t think about that night, he said.

Suzanne Coletta-Knab, 54, also of Rockville Centre, attended the three-day festival with friends. Eight months later, she still wakes up in the middle of the night at times, unable to catch her breath. Stress unrelated to the shooting is harder to deal with, she said, and while at work for American Airlines, she stops in her tracks whenever someone’s wheeled luggage falls and hits a granite terminal floor.

“I used to be able to handle a lot more,” Coletta-Knab said. “. . . To actually be standing somewhere where someone shoots a gun at you, there’s no words.”

Reliving that night

Gaafar, who founded Beerbox, had been wrapping up a month of travel to different festivals to pilot prototypes of his company’s beer-vending machines. “That was the last event, the last night, and basically 20 minutes before I was getting out of there,” he said.

At 9:57 p.m., Gaafar went to a restroom. “I can replay the entire thing in my head,” he said. He returned to where he and his co-workers had set up, and was preparing to pack up their equipment as country music star Jason Aldean neared the end of his set list. Thirty to 60 bullets were fired before he knew what was happening.

“It doesn’t happen how people think it happens,” he said of a mass shooting. “It happens so quick, and it takes days for you to process exactly what the heck happened.”

When bullets started spraying into the crowd of concert-goers from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Hotel, Gaafar sheltered behind one of the metal vending machines. He later discovered bullet marks on top of it.

The gunfire paused, and he ran for the exits, praying that he wouldn’t be shot. He remembered seeing two police officers, their faces white with fear, running toward the gunfire as people hid in dumpsters to stay alive. He eventually reached his hotel and turned on the news, calling his wife soon afterward.

Coletta-Knab said she heard what she described as four pops as Aldean sang “Any Ol’ Barstool.” Few reacted. When the heavier gunfire erupted, several people ran, while others froze.

Her friend Greg laid on top of her to protect her. The woman next to them was shot and killed, Coletta-Knab said, and she and her friends ran. A man running with them was shot in the head. She and her friends made it out, and reuniting at the MGM Grand about 40 minutes later.

“It changes you,” Coletta-Knab said of living through such an experience. “It totally changes you.”

Moving on after

a tragedy

“The first part of this is realizing that the traumatic event that you went through is not normal,” Gaafar said. “. . . Somebody tried to actually kill me that I don’t know.”

In the days after the shooting, he realized advocacy would be his medicine. He grew angry with elected leaders of both parties who said no laws could have prevented the tragedy. “They became a representative or a senator with the belief that laws actually make a difference, and then they’re coming out and saying that laws don’t make a difference,” Gaafar said. “It was just infuriating.”

He joined the Everytown Survivor Network, a program of Everytown For Gun Safety, a nonprofit organization that advocates for gun control. He and other survivors traveled to Washington a month after the shooting to meet with lawmakers, an experience that he said was “a smack in the face of reality.” At a news conference, he called legislators’ inaction in tackling gun violence a joke.

He is most frustrated, he said, that the federal government has yet to ban bump stocks, which allow semi-automatic weapons to perform like automatic ones. About a dozen were found in the hotel suite of the Las Vegas gunman. Most recently, Connecticut and Rhode Island have banned the devices.

Coletta-Knab said she believes in preserving the Second Amendment while limiting access to automatic weapons, but added that she is not as outspoken about her feelings on guns. She has instead coped with trauma by spreading acts of kindness.

Two weeks after a gunman killed 17 students and faculty members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14, Coletta-Knab flew to the community with her friend Tommy Maher, of South Hempstead, to help lift spirits there. Maher had embarked on a journey last November in which he spread acts of kindness around the country in the name of the 58 people killed in Las Vegas. Coletta-Knab had promoted the cause on social media, and connected Maher with other survivors on his journey, but this time she wanted to hit the road, too.

“Instantly, I wanted to go,” Coletta-Knab said. “It did bring everything back up to the surface, though.” During several days there, she shared her story with survivors, assuring them that their psychic wounds would heal with time.

Maher said that Suzanne comforted the teenagers, some of whom opened up to her. “It was a good component of healing for her, knowing that she was helping someone else that had experienced something similar,” he said.

She and Maher compared the atmosphere in Parkland to that of Rockville Centre after Sept. 11, 2001. “Everyone was kind of walking around in a fog,” Maher said. The two handed out #Honor17 bracelets in memory of those killed, and gave out gift cards as a gesture of kindness.

Coletta-Knab said she no longer watches the news to avoid seeing the ongoing gun violence. She continues to find comfort in interacting with fellow Route 91 survivors in a private Facebook group, and even calls in to periodic group therapy sessions run by one of the survivors.

Gaafar is now a part of Everytown’s Survivor Fellowship Program, and is working with the Nassau County chapter of Moms Demand Action For Gun Sense in America, a group that started as a Facebook page in 2012 after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. It now has more than 4 million volunteers nationwide, including 500 in Nassau County.

Gaafar has spoken at local forums, and continues to share his story to pressure lawmakers to bring about change.

“They are, I think, the most important voice,” Tracy Bacher, a leader of Moms Demand Action in Nassau County, said of gun-violence survivors. “It kind of helps remind everyday people and lawmakers that gun violence affects us all.”