Balas family counts blessings

Wife, mother shares renewed perspective this Thanksgiving

Balas family counts blessingsPictured: Joe, Shannon, Kendal, Macey and Payton Balas. — Courtesy photo

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By CHRISTINA MACGREGOR

News Review Correspondent

Shannon Balas is feeling especially grateful for her blessings this Thanksgiving.

Although the loss of a child and a battle with cancer are among the trials that have tested the strong Balas family bonds, surviving the harrowing Route 91 shooting last month in Las Vegas has renewed the strength, and gratitude, of this local family.

Balas said she now has a special appreciation for small things she once took for granted.

“You know, I see a million things every day. Before, I don’t think that I really stopped to look at them. I saw them, but I didn’t stop to appreciate them and take in the moment.”

Balas moved to Ridgecrest when she was eight months pregnant with her first daughter, so that her husband Joe could take a job with the CR Briggs gold mine. They fell in love with the area, and 21 years later they are still here.

“Ridgecrest has become our home away from home,” said Balas. “Our friends have become our family, because we don’t have any family here. We love the small-town feel and the people here.”

Joe now works for the Golden Queen Mining Company in Mojave, and Balas has been the owner and operator of Balas Montessori since 2005. And their family has grown to include three daughters, ages 21, 18 and 12.

They are all planning to spend Thanksgiving together in Tempe, Ariz., where the oldest daughter goes to Arizona State University.

“There are so many things to be thankful for, but my family is thankful for the moments that we get to continue to spend together … I’m just very thankful that we still have those moments to bond and create memories.”

Family moments are especially poignant now in light of their having escaped the attack that killed 58 and injured hundreds more.

The night is still in the Balas’ memories.

“We were right up against the stage, along the fence,” said Balas.

“When everything happened, we crouched down like everybody else, along the fence, in hopes of getting out of the direct line of fire. There were others around us who were not so fortunate. There was a gentleman directly behind my husband who was shot in the chest. He was one of the first ones shot.

“In a moment like that, you can look around and see widespread panic, but you also see the people who are trying to help. They helped that gentleman get up and over the fence so that he could be protected from any further injury.”

The panic that ensued among the crowd of 22,000 was a blend of bedlam and bravery. “You worry that they are going to get shot at or trampled. So people started picking up others to carry them.”

With deft situational awareness, her middle daughter suggested hiding under the stage. That proved less simple than they hoped. “There was a really heavy net mesh across the bottom of the stage.” But the delay of getting through that barrier proved to be a blessing for another attendee.

While Joe was attempting to move the mesh, a girl fell over the fence. “She just face-planted on the same side that we were on,” said Shannon. “My husband grabbed her, shoved her under the stage with all of us, and we grabbed her hand and took off running underneath the stage as fast as we could go.

“There were cross pieces and electrical connections — everything under there we had to watch out for. We got around the back side where we found a concrete pillar that was probably four feet thick and about 10 feet long.”

The group hid behind the pillar, trying to comfort one another. Joe and Shannon attempted to contact family to tell them what was going on.

“We had our youngest daughter here in Ridgecrest, who was going to wake up to this news if somebody didn’t get hold of her and let her know that we were hopefully going to be OK.”

The Balases stayed in that uneasy refuge for roughly half an hour, until the sheriff finally came around and let them out.

“The people were picking up the injured and putting them in the back of the pickups and police cars in order to get them to safety.” The Balas family, however, continued on foot to the basement of the Tropicana.

They ran through a back door, along with many others, then began making the long trek through the corridors. “There were people everywhere helping others because there were a lot of injured in those hallways.”

They ended up in a bathroom where they were — again — trying to comfort one another.

“A lady was helping my daughter while I was helping somebody else because my oldest was having a panic attack.

“There was another lady there who had a little boy with her. The little boy was screaming and crying, and the lady was scared to death, so we were trying to help each other through this whole process.”

They were still not in a secure area at that point, so Balas was grateful when they found out that there were two engineers in the maintenance room.

Since that area was secure, the group made their way inside. “Those two gentlemen got us to a safe place — they got us in a locked area. They gave us what they had for food, they gave us extra clothes because it was freezing in there. They gave us a safe haven.”

The men stood by the doors, in constant communication with security personnel in the Tropicana. At the time the rumor of another shooter had drawn a SWAT team.

Balas was amazed at the other small acts of heroism that she saw.

“There was a lady there who was a nurse — her name was Amber. She lost her daughter in the whole process of trying to flee. She didn’t know where her daughter was, but she was determined to keep her mind busy. All she did was help.

“She was carrying tourniquets on her wrist for whoever needed them. She was taking care of people. There was just courageous acts of kindness — not only to help people, but to keep their own minds occupied from what could be happening outside.”

Balas and her family spent a lot of the night in a large conference area in the Tropicana. She was impressed by the hotel staff who brought in blankets and water.

“The SWAT actually occupied the building so that we could get some rest. There weren’t very many people sleeping, but the hospitality of the Tropicana allowed for us to feel secure.”

Even so, Balas couldn’t wait to go home.

“When we finally got back to our hotels a little after 5 a.m., we packed up and left immediately — as soon as we could get our cars out of valet,” remarked Balas.

She returned to find a network of anxious friends who offered their help and support in the aftermath of the terrifying experience.

“But the bigger picture was how our Route 91 family — that’s what we call them now — carries on the memories of the 58 lost lives.”

Balas said that since the event she has joined some support groups on Facebook, where she talks with some of the Route 91 members. She shared the journey of one man she knows.

“There is a gentlemen who is traveling around the United States and into Canada, honoring the 58. The hashtag is #honor58, and he goes around doing 58 random acts of kindness.

“He is traveling around the United States to where all of these people live. He has bracelets with their names on them, and he finds someone — maybe in their church group or their family or someone who knew them — and gives them a bracelet.

“He left candy at a hair salon for all of the customers. He has donated several hundred dollars to homeless people so that they can eat.

“He has initiated a Route 91 familywide ‘58 Acts of Kindness’ trend, so everyone seems to be doing it now. It continues to carry on — the kindness that you see that comes out of something like this … it sometimes can be overwhelming.”

Story First Published: 2017-11-22