Miami-Dade County

Pulse shooting: Orlando mourns and memorializes the dead

These are flowers and the photo were left by Chris Drozd and Stefan Salvatore as they memorialized three friends of their friends who were killed at Pulse nightclub in Orlando.
These are flowers and the photo were left by Chris Drozd and Stefan Salvatore as they memorialized three friends of their friends who were killed at Pulse nightclub in Orlando. emichot@miamiherald.com

In the 48 hours since a lone gunman transformed a Saturday night party into the nation’s deadliest shooting massacre — 50 dead, 53 injured — the city of Orlando has shifted from the shock of the unthinkable to the dread of the known.

On Monday morning, in a bricked building normally reserved for seniors, a crowd of shell-shocked family members learned the worst as authorities read the names of the dead aloud. By lunch time, a steady stream of mourners left flowers and farewell notes in a growing memorial at a downtown plaza. Not far away, Florida’s governor visited the injured. And in the evening, 90 minutes before sunset, vigils honoring the victims blossomed across the city.

“Today was different,” said Pastor Billy Brath, of the Trinity Downtown in Orlando. “Today, families were finding out if their loved ones made it. Now the reality has set in.”

Inside the center in Delaney Park, more than 200 families and friends, including some from out-of-state, were crowded into a room where a list of the confirmed dead were read at about 10:45 a.m. They were young — mostly in their 20s and 30s — students, a dancer, a bouncer, an accountant.

The grief was crushing.

“There was screaming and tears. Some did not know for sure until they walked into that room,” said Angel Marcial, the Church of God’s Hispanic Region youth director who helped with translations. “It was devastating. You could feel the pain.”

Julissa Leal and her mother, Esmerelda, were desperately hoping that brother and son had somehow escaped the shooting. Julissa, 18, who just walked across her high school graduation stage three weeks ago, had driven all Sunday night — 12 hours from Louisiana to Orlando — to find her older brother, Frank Hernandez, 27.

She received a phone call from her brother’s boyfriend on Sunday. He had been shot but would survive. But in the chaos of bullets and screams, the boyfriend had lost track of Hernandez, who moved to Orlando three years ago and worked in retail.

“He told us that when the man started shooting, he got hit and started running,” Leal said. “But when he looked back, he didn’t see him.”

Leal said she had been scouring websites and making phone calls but didn’t get any information, so she and her mother made the overnight drive. “I talked to my son three days ago. He was just talking about work,” said Hernandez’s mother, Esmerelda Leal.

Leal last saw her brother in May at her high school graduation.

“I haven’t given up hope,” she said tearfully this morning. “I am hoping to see him again. He was the best person.”

Within three hours, they learned the news: Hernandez was among the dead.

Amanda Alvear and her best friend, Mercedes Flores, were at Pulse together on the night of the shooting. Alvear, 25, was recording Snapchat clips from inside the club. In her final video of herself, a burst of loud gunshots can be heard.

Her cousin Lizbeth Benabe said the family gathered at Amanda’s house while they waited to find out whether she was dead or just hurt.

“We were devastated. We were hoping she was in critical condition without her phone or something,” she said.

All but core family left at midnight. Two hours later, police officers knocked on Amanda’s mom’s door and delivered the bad news. Flores, 26, also died.

Amanda’s older brother Brian has refused to leave his mother’s side as she grieves. He posted on Facebook that he has turned down high-profile interviews, “not because I don’t want to spread info but because I’m not leaving my family, and my mommy doesn’t want me to, and right now she is ALL that matters.”

With Amanda’s death, Brian is her last surviving child. Another brother died of cancer in 2005.

Lizbeth and Amanda had the kind of relationship where they could not see each other for months, but the minute they got together they’d be inseparable. “You just know we’re gonna have a great time.”

Gov. Rick Scott spent the day making personal visits to the hospital rooms of shooting victims at Orlando Regional Medical Center on Monday, speaking with staff members and making phone calls to the families of victims, his staff said. The governor visited the senior center across from the hospital and called the families of the deceased.

“Here we had all these individuals, young individuals primarily — in this case, mostly Hispanic. We’re a big melting-pot state,” Scott told Fox News Monday. “I talked to some of their families. It’s just devastating.”

He named two of the victims whose families he met — K.J. Morris, a bouncer at Pulse, who recently moved to Florida from Hawaii to take care of her mother and grandmother, and Luis Vielma, who worked at the Harry Potter theme park at Universal studios. “I was just there last week. Maybe I met him,” he said.

On the lawn of the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, about a mile from the club, dozens of floral bouquets lay next to candles, which lay next to cards. Mourners also left notes on a paper banner: “Pray for Orlando” and “Love Wins.” And from someone who apparently escaped the bloodshed: “I am sorry you didn’t have the same outcome as I did but I will never forget you. Love is love is love is love is love.”

Some who added to the memorial were grief-stricken strangers who simply wanted to honor the dead with flowers. “I didn’t know anyone here, but I was drawn here. I wanted to come and pray and show my respect. I had dreamed of bringing flowers and woke up and decided that I wanted to do it,” said Betty Alvarez, a nursing assistant who moved to Orlando from Miami ten years ago. “I brought flowers that were pink to represent love.”

Giovanni Nieves, 32, stood in the shadows with a friend quietly weeping. He had five friends who were killed in the shooting.

“We were all part of a very close circle,” said Nieves, a hair stylist who also performs as a drag queen. He skipped Saturday night at Pulse to attend a birthday dinner. “I brought white roses to honor them.”

Stefan Salvatore, 27, made the trip from Miami to pay his respects. “I just wanted to honor those that died,” he said.

Yulicer Ponce De Leon was at home Sunday evening when he learned the fate of Peter O. Gonzalez-Cruz, 22, a close friend he had once dated. “I received this text,” he said, gesturing toward a screenshot of the first six casualties reported on the news. Gonzalez-Cruz was the last name on the list. He said his friend had moved to Orlando from Puerto Rico a few years ago and worked at a UPS store.

On Monday, he shopped for the perfect bouquet, pink and yellow daisies to bring to the memorial. “I wanted something bright because he was such a happy person,” said Ponce De Leon. “I like to imagine that he would like these.”

Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.

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