Updated October 1, 2020 - 12:12 am
The tattoo needle buzzed as the image of the country music guitar was etched into Seattle firefighter Dean McAuley’s left forearm.
Ripping across his skin, the needle also inscribed lyrics from a Jason Aldean song: “When I got what I got, I don’t miss what I had.”
The tattoo connects McAuley to the third anniversary of the Oct. 1, 2017, mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest festival.
But it was also about what he has learned since: giving up control in an unpredictable world.
As part of that lesson, Wednesday was the day McAuley would see the design for the first time.
He told his tattoo artist, Jim Sylvia from Los Angeles, what he had in mind, but left it up to him for the design.
“This has put a whole different twist on Las Vegas and being in the only city that really understand what it’s like,” he said. “I’m embracing the growth.”
The 49-year-old got the tattoo at Seven Tattoo parlor through Healing Ink, a humanitarian mission of the nonprofit Artists 4 Israel.
Across the nation
As part of the event Wednesday, 21 tattoo artists from across the country donated their time and skills to cover survivors’ physical, mental or emotional wounds through tattooing.
Among the 18 being tattooed were McAuley, the young woman he saved that night, the ER trauma nurse in charge of the team at Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center, and Ayzayah Hartfield, the son of Las Vegas police officer Charleston Hartfield, who was slain in the shooting, which killed 60 people, wounded hundreds and linked more than 20,000 country music fans together on a night they’ll never forget.
“The survivors of the Las Vegas massacre carry the pain of that day written upon their bodies and their minds,” said Craig Dershowitz, CEO of Artists 4 Israel. “These artists are going to help them write a new story of their own choosing.”
Nearby, McAuley held on to the 9/11 coin he had on him the night of the shooting. It’s been a tool to cope with anxiety. He was with a friend who was at the concert with him, Brad Harper.
He looked at a poster of the 58 who died in 2017.
“I look in every one of their eyes,” he said, his blue eyes blinking back a tear.
Minutes later, he would reunite with Natalia Baca, who was 17 when he helped her to safety three years ago after she was shot in the right shoulder blade with a bullet that traveled through her left shoulder blade, causing a lung to collapse. They embraced.
“You excited?” she asked him. “It’s going to look so good.”
Baca, her twin sister, Gianna, and McAuley already have the same tattoo: one bearing the state of Nevada with the Las Vegas skyline, a Route 91 sign and a banner depicting the 58 people who were killed in the immediate aftermath. Since then, two other victims have died from their injuries.
But on Wednesday, he and Natalia Baca would each get different tattoos. She had decided on completing the sleeve of tattoos she has on her left arm with a detailed cross.
“I know God is always going to watch over me,” she said. “I’ve been through so much crap these past few years that I feel like he’s gonna always watch over me. I have angels watching over me.”
Met under medical tent
McAuley and Baca first met under a medical tent.
He had been wearing shorts, a white T-shirt and a reversed baseball cap. When he saw her, he took a ripped shirt and tied it around her forearm as a tourniquet.
He asked where she had been shot.
In her shoulder, she said.
McAuley searched for an exit wound and couldn’t find one. There was a high risk of severe internal bleeding. He thought he only had 10 minutes to save her life. And he did.
At Sunrise Hospital, Natalia Baca was told the bullet had been centimeters away from killing her. Her sister, Gianna, was shot in the left buttock. But, in a stroke of fate, the twins were reunited in the same hospital room.
ABC’s “20/20” later flew out McAuley for an emotional on-camera reunion between the two. Months later, he surprised her at her high school graduation.
“The times that he comes to Vegas are so empowering,” Natalia Baca said. “It’s like a feeling that you can’t really say.”
McAuley’s journey with post-traumatic stress has been a long one. His wife, Stacy, remembers him as becoming withdrawn in the days after the shooting. His voice was different. He became more numb.
“He just felt so isolated and so alone in our house because I wasn’t there, his co-workers weren’t there. The people that were there that he connected with. They weren’t available to him,” she said. “And a lot of those people were not equipped to deal with trauma to begin with.”
As the anniversaries came, Dean McAuley became more distant. He became more reactionary.
One time, his 8-year-old son, Collin, came up behind him, playing guns. His dad reacted: “What are you doing? You can’t do that!” he said.
“I didn’t have the tools, I didn’t know how to help him, and I felt guilt for that,” Stacy McAuley said. “I was also so worried about protecting myself and our son from everything.”
She said she is now focusing on homeschooling Collin and teaching him about coping mechanisms and the benefits of therapy — something she thinks is important should be instilled at an early age.
“There’s still such a stigma behind getting help and getting therapy and what that looks like,” she said.
“The shooting impacts me and my child, and we are all connected. The energy that we carry around, the negative and the positive, it has a way of touching everyone.”
Aided by therapy
Dean McAuley said that once he started therapy, he progressed with his post-traumatic stress. He uncovered trauma from 20 years in the fire department.
On emergency calls, he no longer would get an adrenaline rush. He crawled in through a window where a man had fatally shot himself, and he understood.
“I would never do that because I love my son more than anything in the world,” he said. “But there comes a point in time where you feel like a liability. When you look at the person in the mirror, and you don’t like what you see.”
When he responded to a call of a 21-year-old who had been ejected out of a car, he froze. She looked just like someone he had seen that night in Las Vegas.
At the tattoo parlor Wednesday, Natalia Baca watched Dean McAuley get inked.
“Does your wife know you’re getting the tattoo this time?” she asked jokingly.
He smiled. She did, and she loves it, he said, as he described the meaning behind the tattoo.
“I was trying to hold onto the person I was, and that person is no longer here,” he said.
“That’s incredible,” Sylvia, his tattoo artist, responded. “That’s growth in life and changing and progression and positiveness. Sometimes it takes something crazy to realize that.”