A Heroes welcome home after a Vantage healing cruise

Vantage Travel Team November 16, 2018

They came together, each carrying the memories of loved ones lost or the physical and psychological scars from surviving the horrific 2017 Las Vegas shooting tragedy, and yet they were smiling. On our 2018 Vantage Heroes autumn departure, nearly 40 heroes in all arrived in Mainz, Germany early this month, where they began strengthening friendships forged over the past year and meeting new friends on a cruise along the Rhine River — Heart of Germany.

Among the many highlights of their trip was a tour of Heidelberg Castle, which dates back to 1214, as most in the group had never come that close to ancient history before. There was some personal history to be discovered also as "Irish Jimmy" Weinberger, a Vegas survivor, led a large group on a trek to a small tavern named The Red Ox, where his parents had met in 1969.

"I figured that I'd find the place on my own, but to have my friends share this experience with me was pure magic," said Weinberger.

Drinks were ordered and soon everyone raised their glass in honor of Jimmy's parents. But smiles and laughter soon turned to concern as news spread of another mass shooting in Thousand Oaks, California.

Our Vantage Heroes leaned on each other for support throughout the day, as many relived their own nightmares. Before a group dinner on the ms River Splendor where survivors signed a Country Strong flag, they all bowed their heads in a moment of silence for those lost in California and families that would be changed forever.

After a difficult evening facing the harsh realities of another tragedy back home, the survivors received a much-needed break and enjoyed the day in the city of Würzburg touring its historic palace and marveling at the works of Italian painter Giovanni Battista Tiepolo and architect Balthasar Neumann.

The group was also treated to a holiday market in the village square, where many shopped for holiday gifts and enjoyed their first taste of glühwein.

As the healing cruise continued to Bamberg, Germany, the Las Vegas survivors began to express how much this trip has meant to them.

For survivors who consider themselves lucky to have escaped that terrible night with their lives, there was some trepidation about meeting others who lost spouses and children. "I have all the right words to say," one survivor told a grieving mother. "But I know they are meaningless."

Still, the memory and spirit of those lost could be felt by each member of the group along with other passengers on the trip. Survivor Brian Ahlers, whose wife Hannah Ahlers was shot and killed in Las Vegas, handed out #cheerstoHannah bracelets while showing some passengers the tattooed remembrance of his wife that covers his arms.

In Bamberg, the group took photos as a group by the river and toasted Vantage Deluxe World Travel for bringing them together.

"It's an experience of a lifetime," said Tom Durell, who had saved his girlfriend Julie Dove after she had been shot. "We'll pay forward the incredible gift this company and its staff have given to us."

The most poignant moment for many, one that captured the true spirit of the Vantage Heroes program, occurred when "Irish Jimmy" Weinberger shared a cell phone video he had taken while bartending at the Route 91 concert just moments before gunfire erupted. "I didn't know who these people were but they were having the best times of their lives, so I stopped serving drinks for a moment and took out my cell phone to share their joy," Weinberger said.

He showed the video to Brian Ahlers who studied the images and recognized a familiar face.

"That's Chris Roybal," he told Weinberger.

Roybal, a navy combat veteran who had survived multiple deployments to Afghanistan, was among the 58 people killed in Las Vegas.

Roybal's mother Debby Allen had joined the healing cruise hoping to find new memories of her son in photos and videos in an effort to stitch together his last joyous moments on earth.

Weinberger handed Allen his cell phone and together they watched and wept. "I was hoping this trip would bring me closer to my Christopher," Allen said. "At every church I visited on this trip, I said a prayer that my son would give me a sign that he was with me. He finally has."

On the last night of the healing cruise, survivors gathered in a prayer circle and reflected on their trip and their friendships. They also made a pact to reunite a year from now and raise funds to bring other survivors on a Vantage Travel cruise.