It was a hate crime against the LGBT community and a terrorist attack against the people of Orlando as a whole.
Twelve months ago, Pulse was a popular nightclub and gathering spot for Central Florida’s large LGBT community.
In the early morning of June 12, 2016, during the club’s Latin themed night, Omar Mateen came in with a Sig Sauer MCX rifle and began firing.
Forty-nine were killed that night, and at least 50 more were injured. And while the wounds will never fully heal, those affected and those who care have been supporting each other and working to overcome this, the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history.
Pulse has since shut down and will not reopen as a gay nightclub; it will become a memorial. The families and friends of the 49 victims will not get their loved ones back. Those who survived will never be able to forget the horror of that night.
Mateen entered the nightclub around 2 a.m. with a rifle hidden in his clothes. When he got to the dance floor, he pulled it out and began his rampage. Orlando police responded within minutes, but a three-hour standoff ensued. Survivors would hide anywhere they could throughout the venue, trying desperately to get away from the violence.
They sent text messages and called loved ones frantically, some thinking it was their final moments.
Then, after the longest three hours of their lives, the survivors were saved. Police smashed through a wall of the building with an armored vehicle – after sneaking some survivors out through a back wall – and shot and killed Mateen. He was an American, 29 years old, and from Fort Pierce, Florida.
But the story was never about him; it was about the innocent victims – who did nothing to bring such horror upon themselves. People who were just trying to enjoy a Saturday night out.
President Barack Obama addressed the nation less than a day after the attacks. “We know enough to say this was an act of terror and of hate,” he told a grieving nation. In the year since the attack, the tears and cries have subsided, but the scars are still fresh.
INSIDE PULSE: BEFORE, DURING AND AFTER THE ATTACK: Stories chronicling the horror of that night
Pulse branded itself as the hottest gay bar in Orlando. It was a sprawling bar, with several rooms, several dance floors, and a few bars. It served food and drinks – and a rousing good time. There was a patio out back, too. In the lead up to their Latin night that Saturday, the bar was encouraging people to attend on Facebook. It was just a regular weekend.
The music was loud inside Pulse and the lights were low. Mateen would enter and leave prior to coming back with his weapon. When he did come back and did start opening fire, not everyone realized what was happening right away: the loud music and dim lighting caused widespread confusion for the patrons.
In the aftermath, the list of victims would grow. Five dead, 10 dead, 20 dead – eventually the number rising to 49. The ages of the victims ranged from 18 to 50.
It wasn’t just the youth. It wasn’t just the old. Family and friends wanted answers. Why? The reason for the attack has been blamed on many things, from religion to simple hate at the sight of two men kissing each other. Whatever the reason – hope wasn’t extinguished that morning. A community began coming together – and still is.
Orlando City Commissioner Patty Sheehan woke up on June 12 that fateful morning to a flurry of frantic phone calls. A mass shooting in a district she represents and at a club she knew well.
“When I first got on scene, one of my friends, who is a local reporter, called me and he was crying and I said, ‘it’s going to be OK,’ and I looked down and I realized I was standing in a pile of blood on the street,” she says. “There were two bodies behind me and I had never seen anything like this.”
In the days after the attack, the FBI, Florida Department of Law Enforcement, local police and other law enforcement organizations all began investigating with the attack with intensity. “No one can prepare you for what those officers encountered that night,” Orlando Police Chief John Mina told reporters. “They stood toe-to-toe and face-to-face with a mass murderer.”
But it wasn’t just police that would face terror that night. While they faced down a psychopath with a rifle, first responders were doing everything they could to keep the injured alive.
Today, many of them are dealing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from the night. When it was time to suit up and save lives, though, they were America’s finest. No one could have prepared them for what they saw.
Photos: FBI investigation into Pulse nightclub shooting
SWAT team member Luke Austin carried a man with four gunshot wounds in his legs, hip and shoulder out of the bar after Mateen had fled that night. “Stay with me, keep fighting!” Austin shouted. “We will get you to safety, stay with us!” Austin’s account was chronicled by the Associated Press. But he isn’t the only one.
In all, 41 dispatchers, EMTs, paramedics and firefighters assisted on the scene that night. Nearly a year later, they were honored by Orange County for their work and sacrifice that night, the Orlando Sentinel reports. Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs, with tears in her eyes, thanked the crowd of heroes for their brave work.
“You just instinctively do something that most don’t do. You run into things that most of us run away from,” Jacobs said. “Today, our firefighters have to be prepared to be like medics on the battlefield.”
Sheehan, the Orange County commissioner, would agree with that statement. “[Pulse nightclub was in] an area I walk all the time,” she said. “This is my district and it had become a warzone.”
And it was.
One of the most widely shared photos from that night was the image of a Kevlar helmet with a bullet hole in it; the helmet saved the officer’s life. Police described the final exchange with Mateen as a hail of gunfire. No officers were killed in the shootout.
A DAY OF REMEMBRANCE, A DAY OF HEALING: Orlando United
“It was a horrible wait,” Sheehan says while waiting to hear how many were killed and how many were hurt. “We didn’t know exactly how many until a couple hours later when the mayor said 50.”
Fifty – including Mateen – and 53 others physically hurt by the rampage. Names would trickle out over several hours as family members waited desperately to hear news of their loved ones.
It was one of the first terror attacks where Facebook’s Safety Check would be used and activated. While it was extraordinarily helpful, it did nothing for the friends and family of those killed in the attack.
“Nobody was detached from this,” Sheehen says. “Everybody felt it.”
She will stand in front of her community on June 12 and speak a message of love in front of thousands on Lake Eola. “We have to reach out with love and stop the hatred and stop the violence,” she tells First Coast News. “It’s just killing too many people and we in Orlando are still trying to find ways to give mental health services and take care of these victims a year later.”
“A lot of people have been able to move on. We haven’t.”
But many are trying.
Rodney Sumter was there that night. He was hit with bullets three times. A day after the attack he was in stable condition after coming out of surgery due to his wounds. Both of his arms were broken, but he was reportedly in as good of spirits as possible after the attack. He had a bullet lodged in his back.
The Nease High grad played football at Jacksonville University. He knew Jacksonville well, and loved his community in Orlando. The young father would survive – chance smiled on him that night. It was the kindness of strangers that saved his life. Joshua McGill, 26, helped get Sumter to the emergency room that night.
McGill and a few friends were at Pulse that night. They were sitting on the back patio when they saw people running and heard someone shout “It’s a gun, there’s a shooter!” McGill and his friends then hopped the fence in the alleyway behind the bar and hid under cars.
While he was hiding for his life, he noticed Sumter on the ground nearby and covered in blood. He bear-hugged Sumter to try and stop the bleeding from his arms as they rode to the ER together.
“It’ll be OK,” McGill told his new friend. “We’re almost to the ER. I’m not sure if you’re religious or not, but I want to say a prayer with you.”
Be it the power of God or a strong will to live, Sumter survived. Six months after the shooting, he’d made a startling recovery. By January he was back in the gym and working to earn a spot on NBC’s hit show, American Ninja Warrior. The shooting still weighed heavily on him.
“The best thing you can do is stay positive and move on,” Sumter told First Coast News. “that’s what I have been doing. I can’t afford to sit there and dwell on the past and what happened. Physically, all I can do is try to get back to where I was.”
He’s referring to his physical strength before the shooting: he was in near perfect condition. He’d played football throughout high school and college and continued to keep in shape after school. While the tragedy will never be erased from his mind, he is thankful.
“I appreciate all the support from Jacksonville and it’s not just Orlando, I mean, one thing I do remember in the hospital was the unwavering support from my hometown, so I love you all,” Sumter said. He even got a visit from his famous high school teammate Tim Tebow while recovering.
Sheehan, the Orange County commissioner, is quick to denounce calling June 12 Pulse’s one year anniversary. She says anniversaries are to celebrate things – no one is celebrating this tragedy. June 12 is to be a day of remembrance – a day to honor those no longer with us.
Karen Brown is from Ponte Vedra Beach but lived in Orlando since the 1990s. She’s working to help set up the remembrance day events. “This is a healing event for the city of Orlando,” she says. “This is not about anything other than healing for the victims and their families and for the survivors and its about giving the city of Orlando something to hold on to.”
Photos: Jax vigil for Orlando shooting victims
Pulse has since shut down permanently. The owner said she did not feel right reopening the venue. Barbara Poma said last month that she established onePULSEFoundation to work to transform the site of the former nightclub into a proper memorial for the victims of the attack.
Events are scheduled to take place at the nightclub as organizers and attendees attempt to heal and move forward with their lives a full year later.
Brown’s event is at Lake Eola. Tens of thousands are expected to attend the Orlando Love: Remembering Our Angels program this coming Monday.
“We are united,” Brown says. “We are one. Absolutely, [the aftermath] was the best of our city. That’s a message Orlando wants to send out to the world. We are united. We are together all for one, one for all forever.”