PLACENTIA, California — In the days since the shooting, it’s been hard to sleep. They laugh watching cellphone videos of their fun-loving friend singing along to Bon Jovi. Moments later, they break down crying, clutching one another’s hands.
They went to Las Vegas to dance at a country music festival, seven members of a group of friends so close they call themselves “framily.”
They came back only six.
Now, a week after the massacre that stole 58 lives, including the one that mattered most to them, they try to carry on because they know that’s what 38-year-old Nicol Kimura would have wanted. They pose for a picture in front of a backyard block wall still graffitied in her handwriting: Kimura had led a group workout one weekend, scribbling “ropes,” ”wall squats,” ”curls” in blue chalk.
“The sun is the source of energy for everything else, right?” said Ryan Miller, one of the friends who survived. “That was her.”
Kimura was the one who would have helped them stay strong. But she’s gone and they’re still here, left mourning a best friend while wrestling with their own memories of that beautiful evening that in an instant turned into a slaughter.
Kimura was a relative newcomer to the group, many of whom grew up on the same street in Yorba Linda, in northern Orange County.
She was raised in nearby Placentia, where she played sports and was a high school cheerleader before heading to college. She loved hiking and her dog, Sadie, whom she’d take for nightly runs at a nearby park, said her cousin, Cynthia Kimura Donate.
After one of the neighborhood buddies married Kimura’s longtime friend, she quickly became one of the gang.
By then, they had all grown older and their circle had expanded to more than a dozen who gathered on weekends for pool parties or trips to the beach. They even made up their own celebrations – an annual friendship dinner at Thanksgiving time and an international-themed potluck modeled after a popular street fair that had gotten too crowded.
Kimura, who worked for a California tax agency, was loud and lively. She planned tea parties for her friends’ children and had them paint stars-and-stripes candleholders on the Fourth of July.
“When she came in, she kind of took charge,” said Chad Elliot, whose backyard was home to the workout session. “She was the life of the party without needing attention.”
When seven in the group planned to head to the Route 91 Harvest festival in Las Vegas – which was fast becoming yet another of the group’s annual traditions – Kimura had special T-shirts printed for each one listing their favorite drinks. They wore them their second night at the festival.
The next morning, they headed to the pool at the Mandalay Bay hotel for a day of relaxation before a final night of music.
The group had decided to make it a red-white-and-blue-themed night, and Kimura, who loved crafts and decorating, had dressed in colorful tank tops for the occasion.
Country music concerts were among the friends’ favorites. The songs and crowds were upbeat, and they always ran into old friends and made new ones.
Kimura was standing with Elliot and friend Tracy Gyurina not too far from the stage, enjoying the outdoor music in the crowd of 22,000 people.
Then the friends heard a popping sound and thought it might be a broken speaker. The noise returned. The lights went dark. Singer Jason Aldean was rushed from the stage.
People screamed and dropped to the ground.
What happened next was a blur. Bullets pinged off bleachers by the stage. Men threw themselves in front of women, hoping to shield them from what they then knew was gunfire.
They thought an assailant was running toward them. They thought they’d be shot any moment.
The friends huddled together, hands over their heads.
Kimura told them she couldn’t feel her legs. There was blood on her top.
“I just remember telling her, ‘We’re going to be OK, baby girl,'” Gyurina said. “And just telling her, ‘I love you.’ ‘We got this.'”
The crowd began to move during breaks in the gunfire. The friends scattered as people fled toward exits and hid under the bleachers.
Elliot tried to move Kimura but couldn’t. And so he stayed there, the bullets flying.
“I was just waiting to get hit, but I wasn’t going to leave her,” he said.
Finally, a man came over and said he was a doctor. He started chest compressions and told Elliot how and when to assist. The man kept going for a while, then turned to Elliot and stopped.
“He said there was nothing else that we could do.”
Elliot stood up. By then, it was eerily quiet on the concert grounds. There was hardly anyone around him.
Elliot and Gyurina called and found each other, dazed, outside a nearby convenience store. They swapped texts with others in the group, relieved to know they had escaped.
Elliot phoned Kimura’s dad. He told him she had been shot.
Her family rushed to Las Vegas and headed to the city’s convention center, where they and Gyurina fielded questions about what Kimura looked like and what she wore.
The friends were hoping for a miracle. They couldn’t bear to see Kimura’s bags in their hotel room. They couldn’t stand leaving the city without her.
It wasn’t until Monday night that officials confirmed what they all knew in their hearts: Kimura was among those killed by Stephen Paddock from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay.
By then, Elliot, Gyurina and the other friends had returned to California. They began dealing with the shock. They found bullet holes in the hat Miller’s wife wore to the concert. They comforted their children, who were devastated to learn they wouldn’t see Kimura again.
Several days later, they hadn’t returned to work, nor had they much time to dwell on the trauma of what they’d survived; they were still trying to cope with the loss of their friend.
Sometimes they turn on the television, anxious for updates on the investigation. Elliot said when he saw footage from the shooting, he felt mostly numb. For friend Casey Bodwell, a loud sound or a touching post online can bring it all back.
“Everything just kind of comes in waves, like you try to find some sense of norm – I don’t even know the word right now – normalcy?” Gyurina said. “But then all of a sudden something happens and it just hits you, and then you’re on the ground having to pick yourself back up again.”
The group started raising money to help cover Kimura’s funeral costs. A vigil was planned for Sunday night at an elementary school in Placentia. Kimura is survived by her parents and a sister, as well as her close group of friends.
Some in the group have tickets to another country-western show later this month, but Gyurina said she isn’t sure they’ll go. But she said their November “Friendsgiving” dinner will go on as planned, as Kimura would want it to.
“If it was somebody else, as devastated as she would have been,” Miller said, “she would have been the one to rally us back.”