The world is reeling from the gay nightclub massacre, in which the gunman killed 49 people and injured 53 more.
Sunrise Mass is from 5:30 a.m. to 6 a.m. EST. I’ve been seriously ill for several months, so I watch that Mass on ABC every Sunday, a Mass specifically for folks who are sick and/or homebound, because I’m unable to go to church right now.
The early news comes on right after the Mass. Perhaps not the best thing to watch to maintain a state of grace, but a lot happens on a Saturday night in my city – shootings, stabbings, killings – and I write for a local newspaper, so I have to know what’s going on.
I wasn’t expecting this.
No one could have expected this.
It was breaking news.
It had just happened.
There had been a shooting at the Pulse nightclub, billed as Orlando, Florida’s “premiere gay nightclub.” The news was just beginning to come in then – “mass casualties” was the term being used.
The TV would be on for hours in our house – the longest I can remember since 9/11. ABC reported straight through from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Decades as an investigative reporter took me everywhere. I made some phone calls – I used to write for a newspaper in Miami. I sought out all the news sources online. I checked Twitter for Orlando sources.
I reported as I went on Twitter, keeping others informed, even as I was closer to this news story than I ever like to be to any news story.
I’m not sure exactly what time it was when the numbers changed, but it was so sudden that I thought it must be wrong, because the numbers – 20 dead, 42 wounded – were already intolerably high.
50 dead. 53 wounded – most in critical condition, several in “extremely critical” condition.
My wife had been watching the news with me. We weren’t prepared for that number. I wasn’t prepared for that number.
50 mostly gay men, some lesbians, a well-known drag performer.
And the alleged killer, Omar Mateen, 29. He was killed by police. He was the 50th body in the club, a club that had been alive with dancing and joy. The club that would be, according to Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) a few hours later, “awash in blood, a scene of incomparable carnage.”
It was inconceivable.
Amanda Alvear, 25, Mercedez Flores, 26
KILLER HATED “HOMOSEXUALS”
Sitora Yusufiy, Omar Mateen’s ex-wife, said Mateen was mentally unstable, quick to anger and “hated homosexuals.” She said he had abused her mentally and physically throughout their short marriage. It was Mateen’s father who helped her escape his abusive son and took her to her own family.
According to CBS News, Seddique Mateen, Omar Mateen’s father, and a self-declared supporter of the Afghan Taliban, “hosts a program on a California-based satellite Afghan TV station, aimed at the Afghan diaspora in the in the U.S..” The TV show is aimed at American and European Muslims.
Seddique Mateen, who attended mosque with his son every week, said his son “hated the gays.”
While on vacation in Miami a couple of weeks earlier, Omar Mateen had seen men kissing and it had upset him. CBS news reported that the elder Mateen had told his son, “God will punish those involved in homosexuality. It’s not an issue that humans should deal with.”
The elder Mateen said in a Facebook post that he was “saddened” by what his son had done during “the holy month of Ramadan.”
Omar Mateen disagreed with his father about “the homosexuals.” He wanted them punished now.
On June 11, he drove from his home in Port St. Lucie County to Orlando to the Pulse nightclub with a .223 caliber AR type rifle and 9mm semiautomatic pistol and more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition.
It is believed Mateen chose the Pulse because it would be full of gay people on a Saturday night and the Pulse has its own parking lot and easy access from several entryways.
According to survivors, the shooting began at around 2 a.m. Last call had already been announced. Everyone had gotten their final drinks. The music was loud, of course – it’s a dance club. One cell phone video surfaced of the sound of the shots being fired over the music. People thought it was something the DJ was doing. No one thought it was gunfire.
Until they knew.
LATIN NIGHT AT THE PULSE
It was Latin night at the Pulse during Pride weekend. It was, survivors said, a fantastic night with a drag performer. Anthony Luis Laureanodisla, 25, a gorgeous tattooed Latino gay man, went by Alanis Laurell on the drag scene, and was beloved by everyone.
Anthony Luis Laureanodisla, 25
After Laureanodisla was identified, Drag Around the World wrote in a post, “Alanis Laurell was a amazing performer and a beautiful person inside and out. She will be missed deeply. You are now an angel looking down at all of us.”
In addition to Alanis Laurell’s performance, there were DJs and a large mix of people – more than 300 people in the club at peak time. Somewhat over 100 were still there at closing, when the shooting started. The majority were Latinx, but there were also many black and white patrons.
The Pulse was a diverse space that welcomed everyone. That’s why Brenda Lee Marquez McCool was at the Pulse on Saturday night. Nearing 50, the mother of 11 loved to dance. McCool was there with her son, Isaiah Henderson, 21. She was, according to her other children, “really cool” and “the best mom.” McCool was also a protector – she took in people with nowhere else to go.
Brenda Lee Marquez McCool
McCool, whose youngest child is 12, did not survive. Her son did. He called his oldest sister, Khalisha Pressley, from the club. He was, Pressley told NBC News, “screaming.”
Pressley said, “He had to watch his mother die. He saw everybody getting killed.”
Kimberly “KJ” Morris, 37, was one of the first to die. The club’s lesbian bouncer had only moved to Orlando a couple of months before the shooting. She was there to help her mother and grandmother in Orlando. She told friends the Pulse “felt like home.”
Kimberly “KJ” Morris, 37
The former college basketball player was also involved in MMA fighting. A college friend who played basketball with her at Post University in Connecticut, Narvell Benning, told the Orlando Sentinel, “She was just the sweetest person. I can’t think of a time when I did not see a smile on her face. I’m so thankful of the good memories I have of her. This is just unreal.”
Morris’s former girlfriend, Starr Shelton, told the Orlando Sentinel, “She was so excited. She’d just started working there and told me how she was thrilled to get more involved in the LGBT community there.”
Shelton added, “She was such a great person and so full of life. I can truly say heaven has gained an angel.”
No mother ever expects to be awakened from a deep sleep the way Mina Justice was on early Sunday morning. Texts were coming into her phone, one after another from her gay son, Eddie, 30.
Eddie Justice was hiding in the bathroom at the Pulse where he and others had fled when the shooting began. All of the people hiding there would be killed by Mateen, who sprayed them with gunfire repeatedly.
Eddie Justice, 30
The victims – as well as many of the survivors – had multiple gunshot wounds to the torso, arms and legs. It was, one law enforcement official noted, “overkill” – a term used for extremely rage-filled killings.
The exchange between Mina and Eddie Justice is hard to read. At 2:06 a.m. Eddie texted his mother, “Mommy I love you. In club. They shooting.”
Mina called her son, but got no response. She texted him: “U ok”
2:07 a.m.: “Trapp in bathroom.”
He texted that he was at the Pulse, downtown. He asked her to call police.
2:08 a.m.: “I’m gonna die.”
Mina called 911.
She texted her son that she’d called the police, asked if he was still in the bathroom, told 911 – who felt maddeningly slow – where her son was, what was happening. They wanted her to stay on the line. She wanted to talk to her son.
The texts flew. She wanted him to call her. He couldn’t. He was trying to stay quiet. Hoping to stay alive.
At 2:39 a.m. he texted her: “Call them Mommy… I’m gonna die.”
She asked if others are hurt. He told her, “Lots.”
Minutes passed. Unbeknownst to either of them, police were beginning to arrive, but couldn’t enter the club. It would be hours – 5 a.m. – before they would finally use a bearcat to smash through one of the club’s walls and toss in flash-bangs, rescuing the remaining 30 hostages.
Justice would already be among the dead.
Mina heard nothing from him. She hoped the police were there. “Text me please,” she begged.
Four agonizing minutes passed, minutes in which others outside the bathroom were being massacred by Mateen.
The police aren’t there, Eddie told her. “Still here in bathroom. He has us. They need to come get us.”
2:49 a.m.: Mina told Eddie the police had arrived. She told him to let her know as soon as he saw the police.
He texted: “Hurry. He’s in the bathroom with us.”
Mina asked: “Is the man in the bathroom wit u?”
2:50 a.m.: “He’s a terror.”
Mina Justice never heard from her son again.
Orlando Victims (clockwise from top left): Kimberly Morris, Stanley Almodovar III, Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo, Juan Ramon Guerrero, Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera, Edward Sotomayor Jr.
THE KILLING CAME IN THREE ROUNDS
There were three rounds of killing by Mateen. The first occurred when he entered the club and sprayed the first patrons and Morris, the bouncer, with bullets. They all died where they fell from multiple wounds. People ran to try and escape. One survivor told ABC News that lesbians were being trampled on the floor and no one stopped to help them.
It was a scene of chaos and mayhem, according to survivors. People fled to the patio. Others tried to hide. Still others managed to escape while the slaughter continued. In the parking lot there were wounded. Some survived to be taken to the hospital. Others died of their wounds on the scene. Some were saved by other patrons who applied tourniquets from their shirts and belts.
Inside it was carnage as Mateen moved throughout the club, killing everyone in his path. In the final moments of the attack, the bathroom, where Eddie Justice hid, became an execution chamber. The other was a hostage center. It was from there that Mateen allegedly called 911 and pledged his affinity with ISIS.
Survivors describe Mateen as preternaturally calm, despite the killing.
Deonka Deidra Drayton, 32
Police described him the same way. According to Orlando Police Chief John Mina in a press conference on the morning of June 13, the first officer on the scene at the Pulse was an “extra-duty police officer who engaged in a gun battle with Omar Mateen and his AR-15 assault rifle.”
Mateen retreated to the bathroom with about 30 hostages when other police arrived on the scene. Mina said Mateen was “cool and calm” while negotiating with police.
Mina told the press, “He really wasn’t asking for a whole lot. We were the ones doing the asking.”
And then at 5 a.m., the police moved in, killing Mateen and rescuing the remaining survivors, some of whom were wounded.
Outside the Pulse, there was blood, there were police and there were throngs of people – people who knew those they loved were inside the Pulse. People who feared the worst, and hoped for the best.
Scene after scene on every TV network showed gay men and lesbians carrying the wounded, like a montage of some Syrian or Yemeni city after an attack. Not Orlando, Florida, home of Disneyland.
There were more than 100 police, SWAT teams, the bearcat.
There was waiting. So much waiting.
Twenty were known dead. Another 42 known wounded.
Christine Leinonen became the face of that anguish as she sobbed outside the club, searching for news of her only child, Christopher, 32, who was at the Pulse with his partner, Juan Ramon Guerrero. She was inconsolable as she cried out for news.
Leinonen had been awakened for no apparent reason at 3 a.m. – likely the time her son was killed, given Eddie Justice’s timeline of the shooting. She had seen a Facebook post from one of her son’s friends talking about seeing Guerrero carried out with multiple wounds. Guerrero would not survive his injuries. No one had seen Christopher. She had driven to the Pulse hoping for news.
As dark turned to dawn turned to daylight, Leinonen was interviewed on This Week with George Stephanopoulos from outside the Pulse. She wasn’t leaving until she knew where her son was.
It was almost unbearable to watch her anguish. Her son’s name had not come up at the hospital, which meant he was likely still there, in the Pulse, his body among the 49 other bodies.
She told ABC the last exchange she had with her son had been at 6 p.m. Saturday.
“I left him with ‘I love you, Chris,’” she said.
Leinonen told ABC she was very proud of her son, who had been active in the gay community for years. She said that he established the gay-straight alliance at his high school and received a humanitarian award as a result.
Christopher Andrew Leinonen, 32, was with his boyfriend, Juan Guerrero, 22, who was also killed.
As Stephanopoulos started to end the interview she began sobbing again, barely able to get out her last words for her only child, “Please, let’s all just get along,” she cried. “We’re on this earth for such a short time. Let’s try to get rid of the hatred and the violence, please!”
THE DEATH TOLL RISES
It was a bright sunny morning by the time Orlando law enforcement gave their first press conference. The abject horror of the crowd of wounded and traumatized victims in the waning darkness had been replaced by eerily empty streets surrounding the Pulse as police cars cordoned off the crime scene.
Law enforcement officials reported, one by one, including the FBI. Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer spoke. So did Congressman Alan Grayson – both Democrats. Gov Rick Scott had come in, along with former Republican presidential contender Sen. Marco Rubio.
The details were both specific and sketchy. Omar Mateen had been identified early – in part because of his call to 911. He had been investigated several times by the FBI and had spent a year on a watch list. In the coming weeks, someone will have to answer for how anyone who spent a year on a terrorist watch list could buy an assault rifle and enough ammunition – we never talk about ammunition – to shoot more than 100 people, killing half of them.
A trauma surgeon from Orlando Regional Medical Center spoke. ORMC is the only level one trauma center in Central Florida, which, miraculously, is a block from the Pulse. He described the status of the victims – within hours, there were 26 surgeries – and the level of carnage – the majority of victims had multiple wounds to the torso and extremities.
The quick actions of many of the Pulse patrons had saved lives, he said. First responders were heroic. It was, it seemed, even from someone who only handled trauma, a level of horror even he had not previously witnessed.
There was no reason for either Grayson or Rubio to be at the Pulse, but both have political careers at stake. So they were there. Grayson at least reported extensively. Rubio did a walk-on and left.
President Obama talked to the nation on Sunday afternoon. It was the 15th time he had addressed the country about a mass shooting during his tenure, although that is just a fraction of the 179 mass shootings that have occurred since he took office. (Mass shootings are defined by law enforcement as shootings that result in four or more dead.)
Obama addressed the hate-crime aspect of the shooting immediately, saying, “The fact that it took place at a club frequented by the LGBT community I think is also relevant. We’re still looking at all the motivations of the killer. But it’s a reminder that regardless of race, religion, faith or sexual orientation, we’re all Americans, and we need to be looking after each other and protecting each other at all times in the face of this kind of terrible act.”
He said, “Today, as Americans, we grieve the brutal murder — a horrific massacre — of dozens of innocent people. We pray for their families, who are grasping for answers with broken hearts. We stand with the people of Orlando, who have endured a terrible attack on their city. Although it’s still early in the investigation, we know enough to say that this was an act of terror and an act of hate. And as Americans, we are united in grief, in outrage, and in resolve to defend our people.”
Concluding, he spoke to the LGBT community again, saying, “This is an especially heartbreaking day for all our friends — our fellow Americans — who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. The shooter targeted a nightclub where people came together to be with friends, to dance and to sing, and to live. The place where they were attacked is more than a nightclub — it is a place of solidarity and empowerment where people have come together to raise awareness, to speak their minds, and to advocate for their civil rights. So this is a sobering reminder that attacks on any American — regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation — is an attack on all of us and on the fundamental values of equality and dignity that define us as a country. And no act of hate or terror will ever change who we are or the values that make us Americans.”
On June 13, Obama addressed the nation again, updating the details on Mateen and the investigation. Details, he explained, would be released as they were known.
Hillary Clinton, the only candidate in the presidential primary who has run on addressing gun violence and gun control – one issue on which she has been far to the left of Bernie Sanders – issued a statement standing with LGBT Americans. On Facebook, she posted a long comment, which read in part, “Americans woke up to a nightmare: Another act of terrorism in a place no one expected it, a man with a gun in his hands and hate in his heart, apparently consumed by rage against LGBT Americans—and, by extension, against the openness and diversity that define our way of life.”
Clinton called on Americans not to engage in hate against Muslim Americans or Muslims anywhere. She urged calm and togetherness over hate.
“I want to say this to all the LGBT people grieving today in Florida and across our country,” she said. “You have millions of allies who will always have your back. I am one of them. From Stonewall to Laramie and now Orlando, we’ve seen too many examples of how the struggle to live freely, openly, and without fear has been marked by violence. We have to stand together. Be proud together. There is no better rebuke to the terrorists and all those who hate.”
On Monday, Clinton continued to address both the hate against LGBT people and the peril of gun violence in America.
We have to stand together and be proud together. There is no better rebuke to the terrorists and all those who hate. pic.twitter.com/jnFMG6J5Ac
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) June 13, 2016
Donald Trump did not address the LGBT community on Sunday. Instead he chose to address terrorism and the peril he asserts is caused by Muslims.
Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism, I don’t want congrats, I want toughness & vigilance. We must be smart!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 12, 2016
He called on President Obama to resign and Hillary Clinton to step out of the race for their refusal to indict all Muslims.
What has happened in Orlando is just the beginning. Our leadership is weak and ineffective. I called it and asked for the ban. Must be tough
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 12, 2016
On Monday, both Trump and Clinton were guests on all the morning news shows from ABC to CNN to MSNBC. There could not have been a more stark contrast between the two candidates as Clinton began each set of comments with her expressions of concern for the LGBT community and Trump began his with terrorism.
Trump asserted guns were not a problem. Clinton said the kind of guns being used in mass shootings created an atmosphere of terror here at home.
On Sunday, other politicians tweeted out their prayers and concerns for the victims and their loved ones. But it was particularly galling to see such tweets from people like Sen. Ted Cruz and Gov. Mike Huckabee and Rubio, who have made it their political mission to damn LGBT people. Huckabee made anti-gay clerk Kim Davis his special surrogate during his failed run for president and as recently as last month, before he dropped out of the presidential race, Cruz was saying marriage equality needed to be overturned.
Sunday LGBT pride parades continued around the country as the community determined to celebrate the lives of the dead and stand strong in the face of the violence against us, rather than be cowed by Mateen, the perpetrator of the violence, or ISIS, which applauded and took credit for his actions.
On Sunday night, spontaneous vigils sprang up around the nation, including in front of the White House, where the flag stood at half-mast upon order of the President. Members of the DC Gay Men’s Chorus sang “We Shall Overcome” as they stood arm-in-arm while other LGBT people waved rainbow flags.
On Monday morning, the NYC Gay Men’s Chorus appeared on ABC’s Good Morning America as the show was devoted to the Orlando massacre and interviewed a half dozen survivors, each of whom had been heroic in the face of the terrorist attack.
Late Monday night, Barbara Poma, owner of the Pulse nightclub, said that the club will “always continue to be the heartbeat of Orlando.”
Poma started the gay club in 2002 to celebrate the life of her brother, who died in 1991 from AIDS. She said, “I will not let hate win. For nearly 14 years, Pulse has served as a place of love and acceptance for the LGBTQ community. It should be the last place for such a tragedy.”
More will be revealed in the coming days and weeks, but for now, the dead continue to be identified, communities continue to come together and the Twitter hashtag #LoveWins with its rainbow heart stands as small punctuation on our collective grief, a grace note to our dead and a reminder that homophobia may take our lives, but it cannot take our love for each other and our community.