One Year After Pulse Shooting, Orlando Honors Those Who Died

Jun 12, 2017
Originally published on June 13, 2017 8:06 am

Monday marks the anniversary of the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, when a gunman opened fire at Pulse nightclub in Orlando last year. The shooter killed 49 people and wounded more than 50. Pulse has become an unofficial site of remembrance.

Outside the nightclub, the Associated Press reports, hundreds of people gathered in the early hours of the morning, as the names of all of the 49 victims were read aloud. The AP reports that the recitation of names began just after 2 a.m., the time that Omar Mateen began shooting, during the gay club's "Latin Night."

"I realize that gathering here in this place, at this hour, is beyond difficult," Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said during the service, according to the AP. "But I also know that the strength you've shown over the past year will carry you through today and in the future."

All Things Considered host Ari Shapiro traveled to Orlando last year after the shooting; last week he returned to talk to survivors and others about their recovery.

Answai Bennett, 26, was one of those shot that night. He has a line on his hip six inches long marking where he was shot; doctors told him he'd probably never walk the same way again. After a year of physical therapy and going to the gym, his limp is gone.

As Ari reports, Bennett recently came back to Pulse for the first time in almost a year.

"I just felt like I could hear them if I was praying here and talking here. Like I could come here and talk with my friends."

Among Bennett's friends who died that night was Paul Terrell Henry.

"Paul, I think about every day," he says. "He was a part of my everyday life. He was my best friend, so I think something about him every day."

Olivia Baez, a nurse at Orlando Regional Medical Center, cared for victims the night of the shooting. She says she comes to the memorial outside Pulse almost every day.

"I still come back sometimes and go back to that night, and it's like I know we need to go on with our lives, especially with the type of work that I do. I know a lot of people say divide the work and the personal," she says. "You can't. Not in this case, you can't do that."

Florida Gov. Rick Scott ordered the state's flags flown at half-staff Monday, which he declared Pulse Remembrance Day throughout the state.

As Amy Green of member station WFME reported Sunday, Pulse owner Barbara Poma is turning the building into a memorial and museum. Two groups of survivors will oversee the effort, funded by Poma's onePULSE Foundation; eventually she will solicit bids from designers.

"We have no idea how long it's going to take," said Poma. "We don't know if it's going to be one year, three years, five years. And I think putting a time on it is unrealistic. ... [Some] people aren't ready yet."

Mayra Alvear, whose 25-year-old daughter was among those killed in the attack, hopes the memorial will be a space of peace. "My daughter's life was taken there and so many others," she told Green. "And somehow, when I visit there, it's just like the angels embrace me somehow. It's just I feel their love, you know? ... And I don't want that feeling to go away."

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

One year ago today, a gay club in Orlando became the scene of the worst mass shooting in modern American history. It was Latin night at Pulse. Bartenders had just done last call when the gunman started shooting. By the time the sun came up Sunday morning, 49 people were dead. More than 50 were injured.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

I flew to Orlando that Sunday to report on the shooting. And last week, my producer Janae West (ph) and I went back to talk with survivors, doctors, gay community leaders and others about how they remember that day and how they're doing one year later. We started outside of the club where the shooting took place.

Workers are putting up a sign that says welcome to the future site of the permanent Pulse memorial honoring those affected on the morning of June 12, 2016. And then at the bottom, it says, we will not let hate win. Ever since the shooting, the club has been surrounded by chain-link fence, and now those fences are covered in artistic murals done by local Orlando artists showing rainbow-colored doves. Another one says love more, hate less.

OLIVIA BAEZ: With this weather, it's kind of hard to keep anything standing, but I try to. You know, that's the lease that we can do, you know?

SHAPIRO: On this wet and windy day, Olivia Baez is straightening up the offerings people have left here. She's putting vases upright, rearranging flowers, making sure everything looks nice. She's a nurse at Orlando Regional Medical Center, and she cared for victims the day of the shooting. Today she's on her way home from work still wearing her blue scrubs.

BAEZ: I come back, sometimes, you know, and I still go back to that night. And it's, like, I know we need to go on with our lives, but - and especially with the type of work that I do. I know that a lot of people say divide the work and the person. Well, you can't, not in this case. You can't do it.

SHAPIRO: How often do you come here?

BAEZ: Almost every day.

SHAPIRO: Almost every day.

BAEZ: I work at Orlando Regional, so how could I not?

SHAPIRO: There are signs all over the city that say Orlando united and hugs, not hate. That layer of solidarity and love is real. And at the same time, underneath it, many people are struggling. There is survivor's guilt and PTSD. Some families are fighting over money, and some survivors are only starting to come to terms with what they lost that night.

ANSWAI BENNETT: So right there where that wall is was actually where we were held in. And they, like, bombed that whole wall down...

SHAPIRO: Wow.

BENNETT: ...To get us out. But it's actually crazy, like to see it again.

SHAPIRO: This is Answai Bennett. Friends call him Swizzy. He's 26 with a wide, bright smile and long, curly eyelashes.

So are your physical scars pretty much totally healed now?

BENNETT: A little bit. I can...

SHAPIRO: Oh, wow.

BENNETT: Somewhat.

SHAPIRO: So on your hip, you've got a line that's, like, six inches long.

BENNETT: It's where I was shot right there.

SHAPIRO: You were shot right there in your hip.

Doctors told him he probably wouldn't ever walk the same way again. He spent the last year going to the gym and physical therapy. He just got back on the StairMaster, his favorite, and now his limp is gone. So he's decided it's time to start on the emotional work. He does therapy and meditation, and he recently came back to Pulse for the first time in almost a year.

BENNETT: Probably, like, a month ago, I, like, came here, and I kind of was, like - it was, like, late at night, and I sat down. I just, like, felt like - I, like, felt connected to my friends and stuff. So I was, like, sitting around, talking to them and stuff.

SHAPIRO: He means his friends who died that night, especially Paul Terrell Henry. They were inseparable.

BENNETT: I don't know. I just felt like I could hear them if they - if I was praying here or talking here. So I felt comfortable coming and, like, just, like, talking here to my friend.

SHAPIRO: And how often do you think about your friends who died that night?

BENNETT: Paul I think about every day. He was a part of my life, everyday life. So he was my best friend, so I think about him - something about him every day.

SHAPIRO: Friends know Swizzy is somebody who keeps up a relentless pace, but he's only slowly started getting back to part-time work. He just graduated from Valencia State College and is hoping to find a job in finance. Certain memories from the shooting only recently started coming back vividly.

BENNETT: I think my biggest memory is being dragged from the club to Wendy's.

SHAPIRO: Wendy's is just across the street. From there, he was taken to the hospital. Orlando Regional Medical Center had never gone through something like this before. The country had never seen a mass shooting like this before.

WILLIAM HAVRON: I mean, you know, in the operating room, every single person that came to me was young.

SHAPIRO: Dr. William Havron was at home with his 5-day-old newborn when he got the 2 a.m. call to come in.

HAVRON: I never really kind of stopped to think about what the gravity of the whole situation during the event. It was just, like, I was seeing one roll in, another one roll in. And you know, recognizing that three of my partners were doing the same thing that I was, you know, in the operating room, operating all night, was - it kind of hits you that there's a huge number of patients that have been involved in this.

SHAPIRO: Not one patient who was taken to the hospital that day died of their injuries. And Dr. Havron says that has to do with a lot more people than just the surgeons.

HAVRON: You know, we had people - we had, you know, administrators helping to mop up blood off the floors. We had nurses, physicians taking patients to anywhere in the hospital they needed to go. You know, additional nurses came in and worked in units, in areas of the hospital that they were completely unfamiliar in just to help.

SHAPIRO: For Dr. Havron, this tragedy will always be tied to the birth of his youngest son, something beautiful paired with something horrific.

HAVRON: When I finally got to go home, you know, I walked in the door, and my wife and kids were sitting there. And they ran up to me and gave me a big hug. And I just lost it. I mean it was the - that was the minute that I finally was able to just let it out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIREN)

SHAPIRO: A few blocks from the hospital is the Beardall Senior Center. This is where families waited to find out whether their loved ones had survived. The doctor in charge of giving them that information was Chris Hunter. He met us at the building. It was his first time back.

CHRIS HUNTER: It's weird. That room is a gym now, and that's where we kind of set up as an office with the medical examiner and the FBI and law enforcement and where we are starting our process of trying to identify everybody. And then...

SHAPIRO: As an ER doctor, he has a lot of experience breaking bad news to people. And that still didn't prepare him for what he had to do in this building a year ago.

HUNTER: There was so much more pressure here, just the momentousness of the occasion and the lack of intimacy and privacy. You know, you have everyone here. They knew that their loved one was dead, but they didn't know until someone identified them and said, this is it. We do have him. He's at the medical examiner's office. And then all these other families would hear shrieking and crying.

SHAPIRO: He remembers a moment when there was only one patient at the hospital who they still couldn't identify. The patient was intubated with no ID. Doctors brought a photograph here to the Beardall Center to show the families and ask if they could identify the young man.

HUNTER: It turned out to be one of the only bright spots of a really awful day because a family was here, assuming their loved one was dead and found that he was not.

SHAPIRO: And how did the family react in that moment?

HUNTER: Well, I mean they were overwhelmed, as you can imagine. He was alive. He was very sick, but he was alive. But you can also imagine the moment for everyone else because that is the moment where it was very, very clear that there was no one else that was at the hospital. And at that point, it's been 24 hours. So you know, from that - it was already very emotionally difficult here. But from that point on, it was very clear what was happening. And you could just see everyone else falling apart.

SHAPIRO: Some of the relatives came to Orlando in such a hurry, they didn't even bring a change of clothes. And these are some of the small details that stand out a year later to Terry DeCarlo, who runs the GLBT Center of Orlando.

TERRY DECARLO: You know, one mom I took shopping at Macy's personally.

SHAPIRO: The department store had given The Center gift cards to help out.

DECARLO: So we grabbed one of the gift cards, and I took her shopping over at Macy's. And the next week, I went back to Macy's with her because I actually had to buy a suit for her son to be buried in.

SHAPIRO: DeCarlo lost friends in the shooting. He says even today, saying their names out loud turns him into a blubbering mess. He got a tattoo on his upper arm - a heartbeat pulse line in rainbow colors with the date of the attack and the words, never forget our 49.

For a month leading up to this first anniversary, volunteers at The Center have been sitting at a long table, making rainbow ribbons to send all over the world.

DECARLO: We're getting up to a million ribbons. The sheriff's department just took 25,000 ribbons. We sent them to the Tony Awards. We've had ribbon-making parties here every single day. And we're getting orders like crazy from around the world.

SHAPIRO: What does that say to you?

DECARLO: That on this June 12, the world will turn rainbow once again.

SHAPIRO: DeCarlo had a conference call last week with LGBT centers around the country. He told them...

DECARLO: If you do a vigil, if you do a candlelight, if you do something, take pictures and send them to us so that we can show the families that you're not forgotten about.

SHAPIRO: One year ago on the night of Sunday, June 12, I went to another gay club in Orlando, Parliament House. I watched a legendary local drag queen named Ms. Darcel Stevens take the stage. Tears streamed down people's faces as she offered words of support and courage to people whose young friends had just been killed.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: When I was back in Orlando last week, I visited Darcel as she put on her makeup in the dressing room backstage for a midnight show.

DARCEL STEVENS: So I can multitask.

SHAPIRO: All right.

She told me gay people often look to the drag queens in moments of adversity.

STEVENS: I come from a long legacy of female impersonators who are movers and shakers in the community. You know how Stonewall got started. It was the drag queens who had just had enough of it, wasn't going to be bullied anymore, wasn't going to be arrested, you know? So whenever there's a social movement within our community, it's usually the queens who go to the front.

SHAPIRO: For the last year, I've been wondering what it took for her to walk on stage that night a year ago, how she knew what words to say.

STEVENS: I could profoundly say in that moment, I had no idea what I was going to say. I had prayed to my maker and asked him to give me words of encouragement and words to say. And I hope that I said something.

SHAPIRO: She told me she doesn't know what her words were that night, and she doesn't want to. Someone sent her a recording of it, and she hasn't even listened.

STEVENS: I'm in a better space right now, but I'm not where I should be right now with that tragedy. I can't even go on the property. But...

SHAPIRO: You can't even go on the property. You mean you can't go back to Pulse.

STEVENS: No. I tried doing that. I stepped on the property, and I lost it. Me and my entourage got me to the car, and - I just can't do that. It's not that time for me right now.

SHAPIRO: One year after the shooting, this is a long journey that is not even close to over. And the words that Darcel Stevens said on stage at the Parliament House that night are as needed now as they ever were. So Darcel, if you're listening and you don't want to know what you said, this is the moment when you turn off the radio. Those words were, you are brave, and you are stronger than you think. We are going to get through it.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSIONS IN THE SKY AND DAVID WINGO'S "OLD PEASANT LIKE ME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.