Pulse Orlando, the gay bar where early Sunday dozens of people were massacred — 49 slain, 53 wounded — is one of Central Florida’s most popular LGBT nightspots, according to several stunned former employees.
“Pulse is like a family. Everybody who works there is treated equally. Treated like brothers and sisters. When somebody is hurting or in need, we always look out for each other,” said Benjamin Di’Costa, 25, a former Pulse dancer who later lived in Broward County and now works as an HIV counselor in Chicago.
The nightclub, which caters to a younger clientele, is about a half-mile from Orlando’s downtown area, Di’Costa said.
“This is one of the No. 1 destinations for LGBT people to attend in the summertime,” he said. “Mostly people from Central Florida, some people come from Tampa to Orlando.”
Di’Costa described the Orlando club as “like the equivalent to the Manor,” a popular nightspot in Wilton Manors.
“Very trendy club, mostly younger, different demographics. It’s been one of the most popular clubs. They’ve been around about 10 years,” he said.
Di’Costa said that on most nights, Pulse would be filled with between 500 and 600 patrons, but that on a “high capacity” night like Saturday, up to 800 people might be there.
The shooting happened about closing time, so probably fewer people were still at the club, he said.
“Saturdays are Latin nights, so it’s primarily Latinos of all ages,” he said. “It’s usually a later crowd, so people come closer to the close of the club. They close at 2. It was right at the time of closing, when people are starting to exit.”
The club is usually well-secured, he said.
“Pulse usually hires armed off-duty police officers who stay in the parking lot outside. They have security inside, the bouncers. Trouble before? Not to my knowledge, nothing that involved weapons.”
Alex Choy, a former club employee, also said Pulse’s LGBT patrons could be rowdy, but not violent.
“We throw a lot of shade, a lot of attitude, we never throw gun violence,” said Choy, 33, now a registered nurse at Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital at Memorial in Hollywood.
Choy waited for news about friends at Pulse, but Sunday morning after he finished work had still heard nothing.
“A lot of my friends are entertainers at the club. I come from the family of bartenders and DJs and dancers and they all work at Pulse,” Choy said. “It’s one of the few high-end gay clubs. Orlando doesn’t have that many gay clubs. Pulse is one of the high-end ones that offers great entertainers, many from RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
Di’Costa and Choy both described Pulse as being a cozy club with two main rooms. Patrons enter and either turn left to a smaller performance space with dancers and drag shows, or right to a larger dance space that connects to an outdoor patio behind the club.
“It’s a very, very small space. Either room you go into,” Choy said. “If you go to your left, there’s a small room with the stage. That’s what worries me, if there was any type of shooting, it wouldn't take much to get everyone. Very close range.”
Choy, who grew up in Miami and lived in Orlando from 2001 to 2014, said Pulse’s usual patrons were “really young, really young — 22, 23.”
Everyone there is really close, he said. “They’re the families gay people pick when their own families don’t accept them.”
Blood drives are being held throughout the state, but the federal U.S. Food and Drug Administration bans sexually active gay men from donating.
Equality Florida, the state’s leading LGBT rights group, on Sunday launched a GoFundMe page with a goal of raising $1 million for victims of the Pulse Orlando massacre. In less than 10 hours, the campaign had raised more than $764,000.
Nadine Smith, CEO of Tampa-based Equality Florida, said she happened to be in Orlando on Sunday.
“We are reaching out to local leaders to see how our community can respond,” Smith said. “Clubs have been a safe haven. Sometimes the only safe haven in our communities. This strikes at the very heart of us.”