After saving others, Pulse survivor struggles to save himself
Chris Hansen keeps his woven straw fedora in a plastic bag.
He takes it out only for media interviews, panels and memorials. With it on, the 32-year-old is one of the most recognizable survivors of the deadly Pulse nightclub shooting.
Early media footage showed him and others carrying wounded people out of the LGBTQ club moments after a shooter killed 49 and wounded dozens more.
The next morning, he kept the fedora, with the addition of a rainbow flag he said was gifted to him by a woman getting chemotherapy at the hospital.
He wore it for the dozens and dozens of interviews he’s done over the past year, where he talked about how he only vaguely understood that the pops he heard were gunshots through the haze of his fifth double-jack-and-ginger. He tells reporters about vigils and memorials and mourning.
Then he takes off the fedora.
He walks into his cluttered apartment and drops the plastic-bagged hat on a chair near the door. Inside his home, flowered sheets cover the windows. Hansen prefers the dark.
When he gets out of the shower, more often than not there are no towels. He forgets to do laundry a lot. When he trimmed his red beard in preparation for a CNN interview, he noticed glitter in the razor. He didn’t realize the last time he shaved was for Orlando Pride months earlier.
The evening the Orlando Police Department released the body cam footage that later aired on ABC’s Nightline, Hansen wants to find it. He needs to find it.
But he has no cable or antenna and the Android TV Box does not have current episodes. He hasn’t had internet in his home for months, so in the darkness he scours his phone for the episode. Instead, he finds old Pulse-related newscasts and watches them, sometimes repeatedly, and it’s as if in that moment he is reliving the massacre. Again and again and again.
That night at Pulse now defines him, he admits, and he doesn’t like it.
He finds purpose in a four-room studio on top of an Orlando pizza shop.
A worn-out wall unit feebly attempts to cool the space, the temporary living quarters and studio for a pair of international artists. Michael Pilato and Yuriy Karabash are creating an elaborate mural of the people affected by the Pulse massacre: victims, survivors, loved ones and public figures.
One of the first people they painted was Hansen, wearing his fedora. The teal handprint over his heart is from Felecia, one of the women he saved that night.
Hansen says he feels useful here. He gets to be “the voice” again.
Sometimes his visibility brings pain. He gets thousands of Facebook messages from all over the world. Some are survivors who thank him for speaking up. Some are conspiracy theorists who think he’s a crisis-actor paid to help fake the shooting. They tell him, “I hope you choke on that food from your blood money.”
Hansen says those messages hurt. He doesn’t understand how anyone could think he’d fake such a terrible tragedy.
“This was real life. This was my life. This was her life, her life,” he says, pointing at the victims painted on the murals around him.
He prefers to be surrounded by other Pulse survivors. They go to dinner and movies and even venture out to Orlando’s other LGBTQ bars when they feel strong enough. They understand what others don’t: Just because he wasn’t physically injured in the shooting doesn’t mean he’s not a victim.
“People don’t know that we’re falling apart,” he says.
Hansen hasn’t held a job since just before Pulse. He doesn’t have much money, and because he wasn’t injured in Pulse, his payout from the OneOrlando fund was a lower amount. He hasn’t seen his mom since before he moved to Orlando from Ohio six weeks before the shooting. Neither has enough money to visit the other.
As he talks about his mother, who begs him to come see her, he starts to cry.
“I want to go home so bad,” he says through a choked sob.
He left Ohio because he wanted to live somewhere he could freely express his sexuality. In Orlando, he has to work to build an identity separate from the first step he took toward joining the city’s LGBTQ community.
“I don’t want Pulse to define me because I am not Pulse.”