At Eagles haven in Las Vegas, solace and surrealism

Aubrey Whelan, Staff Writer

Updated: Wednesday, October 4, 2017, 1:18 PM

Chris Scarpulla at his bar in Las Vegas Tuesday night.

LAS VEGAS — Three days ago, Jason Grattini showed up here at the Great American Pub in his beloved Vince Papale jersey, along with legions of other displaced Eagles fans who know where to gather to see a Birds game. A hospital administrator from South Jersey, Grattini has adopted the place as his corner bar 2,500 miles from home.

Gregg and Gail Meister of Merchantville, N.J., with Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Philadelphia join political leaders, CeaseFirePA, and churches and synagogues at a vigil in Thomas Paine Plaza for victims of the Las Vegas shootings. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Lynne Honickman (right), who is on the board of CeaseFirePA, and Francis McCloskey of South Philadelphia at the vigil. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Governor Tom Wolf speaks. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Tiara Parker, who was shot in the Pulse nightclub shooting in June 2016, speaks during the vigil. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Political leaders, CeaseFirePA, and churches and synagogues hold a vigil in Thomas Paine Plaza for victims of the Las Vegas shootings. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Participants pause in prayer at the conclusion of the vigil for victims of the Las Vegas shootings. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Photo Gallery: Vigil for victims in Las Vegas

So has Mark Santos, a Toyota dealer from Oxford Circle, who has known bar owner Chris Scarpulla since he had restaurants in Philly years ago. All three are transplants, the kind Las Vegas is known for, lured by the city’s nonstop, never-sleep attitude, whether for a few days or a dozen years.

That’s one reason the growing list of victims from Sunday night’s mass shooting includes people from a dozen states and two countries. It’s why Santos woke early Monday to dozens of panicked texts from home, why Grattini’s job for a local hospital system became upended, and why Scarpulla’s bar has been busy the last two nights. Las Vegas natives or longtime transplants, they just needed to be around their people.

“It feels personal,” Grattini said Tuesday night, as he and others were back at the bar at a strip mall about 15 minutes from the site of the rampage, talking about friends wounded or shaken at the concert and the surrealism of the last few days. “It feels like someone reached out and threw a punch at us.”

The bar bills itself as an all-purpose sports bar — flags from every NFL team line the walls — but anyone from back East would note the Rocky poster and the ’80s-era Villanova football team photos and Scarpulla’s unshakably Philadelphia accent, even after 15 years in the desert.

A Norristown High School graduate, he left the restaurant business in Philly for video poker and big-screen TVs in Vegas and has cultivated a steady stream of Philly regulars with two area bars.

On Sunday night, Scarpulla was at a preseason hockey game for the fledgling Vegas Golden Knights and decided to take an Uber to his other bar, in Henderson, about 20 minutes southeast of the city. The bartender there (“from Swarthmore, by the way,” he said) grabbed him as soon as he walked in. There was a shooting on the Strip, she said. Outside the Mandalay Bay. Scarpulla realized his car passed right behind it as the gunfire started. He hadn’t heard a thing.

When he went to sleep, the reports were saying two dead. “And then I woke up,” he said, “and it was 50.”

In the days since, he, like many out here, began feeling the impact. A friend’s daughter had lost her best friend, he learned. Every one of his employees knew someone at the concert. His friends at the casinos on the Strip described the wave of people fleeing the country-music festival, how they had dropped everything and ran, or hid for hours in coolers, in offices, in basements.

And then he went to work, and his bar was packed.

‘And we just cried’

Grattini, who had come here from Willingboro, cheered the Eagles to victory Sunday, went home to bed, and then found himself listening to a police scanner in the middle of the night, as the news started to spread.

For a few years, he has worked as the manager of patient experience for Dignity Health Systems, which runs smaller area hospitals. His job requires him to ensure patients feel comfortable, looked after, and supported during some of the most difficult experiences of their lives.

By Monday morning, it was clear it would be a challenge beyond any he had faced.

His hospitals, which don’t have the trauma capacity of the city’s bigger medical centers, only sporadically get a gunshot victim, usually up by proximity or by accident. On Monday, they had 65.

He got to St. Martin’s hospital at 7 a.m. Monday — anyone besides medical personnel had been asked to stay out of the way, as hospital officials called in every staff nurse. The chaos of the night had passed, but there was still a pall over the place, he said. It was too somber even for a hospital.

Grattini spent most of the morning making the rounds, checking in with patients and his coworkers. In the hospital cafeteria, he found paramedics and emergency medical technicians who had worked through the night.

“I put my hand on their shoulders,” he said. “And we just cried.”

Everyone at the hospital has trained for events such as this, he said. But, on an emotional level, “we just assume caregivers are prepared for this, and they’re not.”.

As Grattini retold the story at the bar Tuesday night, Santos arrived.

Scarpulla handed him a beer.

Still so surreal

Santos said he had gone to bed early on Sunday night and awoke the next morning, confused, to a flurry of text messages from friends back east: “Safe?” “Safe?” “Are you safe?”

He was fine, he said.

And as he sat at the bar Tuesday night, he at first suggested he had no personal ties to the shooting. He knew none of the nearly 60 who died, he said.

But then, almost offhandedly, Santos mentioned that one of his employees was in a medically induced coma after being shot. He had other friends who had hidden under the concert stage Sunday night to escape the hail of bullets from Stephen Paddock’s 32nd-floor room at the Mandalay Bay. He described the video a coworker showed him of his mother hiding in a spa at the Tropicana after fleeing the gunfire.

“He played it for me. She was just saying, ‘I love you, take care of your brother,’ ” Santos said, and paused. “Just watching that — God, it was scary.”

Grattini said he’s been scouring the lists of the dead — so far incomplete. Before the hospital, he worked for years at MGM casinos — the same company that operates the Mandalay Bay. He’s certain he’s going to find a friend on the list. “To think that 12 hours before this happened I was jumping around this bar like a maniac because the Eagles won,” he said.

“It’s still so surreal,” Santos said.

For Scarpulla, though, it made sense to come back to work. It made sense that the regulars flocked to the bar the last few nights. It made sense that people had stood in lines to give blood, donated so much water and food that the police station refused the stack of pizzas he brought by Monday, raised millions for the victims fund, stood together at vigils and lit candles and carried flowers.

“When something like this happens,” he said, “no one’s going home to be alone.”

Aubrey Whelan, Staff Writer

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