After 58 were killed and more than 500 were injured when a man opened fire at the Las Vegas crowd that came out for the Route 91 Harvest country music festival last month, longtime South Hempstead resident Tommy Maher read the bios of each of the victims. He didn’t want to simply make a monetary donation.
“I wanted to do something a little more,” he said, “because I just felt like these people had their lives just taken from them so tragically.”
Riding in a “Pay it Forward” van, Maher, 51, a 34-year fireman and 14-year commissioner of the South Hempstead Fire Department, embarked westward with his daughter, Kelli, and her friend Aline, to visit the roughly 50 towns across the country where the victims lived or worked.
“He’s going to try to make something good come out of something horrible,” Deputy Mayor Kathy Baxley said at the Rockville Centre village board meeting on Nov. 6., the night before Maher and the girls left on their journey.
Wanting to spread random acts of kindness, the three took 58 bracelets — each engraved with a victim’s name — with them, as well as a 59th for first responders and survivors. After each good deed, they have been passing along a bracelet, which the recipient is then supposed to pass along to someone else after doing their own act of kindness.
“When we go to these towns and we do these acts of kindness, just to see the reaction from people, it’s just amazing,” said Kelli, 16, a South Side High School student. “It warms your heart and it’s so inspiring.”
The first stop was in Shippensburg, Penn., to honor Bill Wolfe, Jr., where Maher and the girls stopped at a laundromat and filled envelopes with $3.50 in quarters so that customers who came in could enjoy a free load of laundry.
One of the next stops was in Paris, Tenn., where they visited Henry County Medical Center, the workplace of Sonny Melton, who was killed in the shooting. They bought lunch for the emergency room department staff, and met some of Melton’s co-workers. The director, Deanne Berry, gave Maher and the girls T-shirts and keychain bracelets marked with “WWSD” — What Would Sonny Do?
Back on the road, they bought a rose at a gas station and gave it to a woman to brighten her day, as captured in a video posted on the Honor58 Facebook page.
Though the girls flew back home last Sunday in time for a fresh week of school, Maher continues on his 13-state journey, and was in California at press time on Tuesday. Maher said he would only be unable to reach the hometowns of two victims from Alaska.
Help from a survivor
About two weeks after the shooting, Maher contacted Rockville Centre resident Suzanne Coletta-Knab to see how she was doing. She had been at the three-day festival in Las Vegas with three friends from San Diego.
“Mostly everybody has the same story,” Coletta-Knab said. “You make it out, I don’t know why. Like why didn’t I die? The girl next to me died.”
Facing the stage on its left side, she heard what she described as four pops as Jason Aldean sang “Any Ol’ Barstool.” She turned to her friend Greg to tell him she thought they were gunshots, but as she looked around, nobody seemed to react.
Then the heavier gunfire began, as people went to the ground. Some began to run, searching for cover, as others froze in shock, she recalled.
“The bullets just came,” Coletta-Knab said. “You saw them on the ground in front of you, hitting the ground, hitting people, and they were coming right at you.”
Greg laid on top of her for safety, and his brother laid on top of his wife. “You saw people just falling,” she said.
The woman next to them was shot and killed, Coletta-Knab added, and she and her friends began to run. As they tried to escape, the man that ran with them was shot in the head. “We had to just keep running because the bullets were coming,” she explained.
She and Greg’s sister-in-law made it out of the festival area, but got separated from Greg and his brother. The two women were told to run, as the gunfire rang out. “We ran and we took anybody that was there with us,” Coletta-Knab said. “We just kept pushing people because people freeze.”
They reunited with Greg and his brother about 40 minutes later, seeking refuge at the MGM Grand. Deeming it unsafe, they continued on to their hotel, where they arrived nearly three hours after the first gunshots rained down from the 32nd floor of Mandalay Bay.
Coletta-Knab had fundraised with Maher at Covert Elementary School through the Raymar Children’s Fund, started by Covert Principal Darren Raymar. Maher contacted her with the idea to travel the country spreading kindness in honor of victims, first responders and survivors, and she agreed to help promote the cause, and put him in contact with survivors.
“I said ‘This could be the way I could heal,’ because I like helping people,’” Coletta-Knab said. “I wasn’t getting better. I just was like walking in a fog.
“A lot of the time in the media, you hear all the bad,” she continued. “…There wasn’t anything, other than that guy who shot at us, bad that night. Every single person, when you ran, if there was someone that froze, you grabbed them. There were men laying on top of women and girls that they didn’t even know.”
Coletta-Knab said she had planned to visit Maher’s home this past weekend to bring his wife, Cindy, and children dinner and gift cards as her way of paying it forward.
“His message is so important for the survivors and the injured, because that’s what they want,” she said. “And the people that lost their lives, they want to know that people haven’t forgotten.”
Dedicating time toward a cause is nothing new for Maher. In addition to his work with the Raymar Children’s Fund and as a firefighter, he serves as a commissioner of the Rockville Centre Little League and coaches his sons’ baseball and basketball teams. He also volunteers at Faith Mission, a nonprofit that helps people that are on fixed incomes, unemployed or living below the poverty level.
On Monday, he posted a video on Facebook saying he had just completed his visits in Arizona and was en route to California, where 32 victims lived.
He told the Herald that the people have been appreciative so far of their mission, and that they continue to seek support from others to spread their own kindness through social media and in their own lives.
“They’re very happy about it; they can’t believe what we’re doing actually,” he said of the people he has come into contact with. “Just people watching what we’re doing are getting inspired by the kindness that we’re trying to spread. I was hoping for a little bit of that, and it’s starting to happen.”