Families wait for news on loved ones in Orlando
It was 100 steps of pain.
Relatives and friends of the victims of the Orlando massacre walked across a lawn to learn whether their sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, cousins or friends were alive or dead.
They walked into the Beardall Senior Center, one mile from the site of the shooting, to a meeting of about 150 people that lasted a little more than one hour.
For many, it was a tragic end to an agonizing wait.
Before she walked into the center, Esmeralda Leal, born in Mexico, said she still had hopes for good news about her son, Frank Hernandez.
“I have hope, to find my son alive,” said Leal, who described her 27-year-old son as “very cheerful.”
Leal had driven for 12 hours from New Orleans, with daughter Julissa Leal, desperate for news about her son. All she knew was that her son and his boyfriend were in the club Pulse early Sunday when the shooting started at the end of a Latin-themed night.
The boyfriend “told us that when the man started shooting, he was shot and started to run,” said Julissa Leal, 18. “But when he looked back he did not see” Hernandez.
Inside the Beardall center on Monday, Julissa and Esmeralda Leal received the worst news possible. A few hours later, around 1 p.m., the name Frank Hernandez was added to the list of the dead that the city of Orlando updates as relatives are notified.
Another mother who came out of the center crying could barely speak. She did not give her name but said she was the mother of Miguel Honorato. The 30-year-old man was also on the list.
“They killed my son. They killed my son,” the woman wailed as she walked to her vehicle, escorted by a dozen volunteers who cleared a path through the waiting group of reporters.
At least one person, Arlin Villegas, left the Beardall center without knowing the fate of her friend. She said Angel Candelario did not appear on the list of dead and wounded. One hour later, Angel L. Candelario-Padro, 27, was added to the list of the dead.
At 2 a.m. Sunday, Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old man from Fort Pierce, walked into the club Pulse and opened fire, killing 49 people and wounding 53 before he was shot to death by police.
Doctors and nurses at the Orlando Regional Medical Center treated dozens of people over the next 48 hours as citizens jammed blood banks to make donations. Dozens of the wounded were still hospitalized on Tuesday.
Most of the victims were Hispanic, ages 20 to 40. Pulse, a club that the LGBT community has described as a safe haven, was celebrating Latin Night.
Eduardo Cornejo, the Peruvian pastor of a Seventh Day Adventist church in Columbia, N.C., drove to Orlando and helped to organize a prayer chain. The messages were an opportunity “to express the pain, the wishes and the hopes of the people,” he said.
“Evil is real and it exists, but seeing these people joining this chain, we see there's hope, the desire to move forward,” Cornejo said.
A few hours earlier at the Beardall center, several pastors were helping to console the relatives and friends of the victims while psychologists and FBI officials offered help and information, said Jorge Figueroa, an Adventist pastor in Forest City north of Orlando.
“These are very deep wounds,” Figueroa told el Nuevo Herald. “I personally helped a Puerto Rican mother who lost her son, and another pastor and friend helped a Mexican family. Most were relatives of victims from Puerto Rico. There were also Cubans, one Mexican and one Venezuelan.”
The pastor said families also discussed funeral arrangements, and many asked what would happen to the victims' vehicles still parked at the club. Figueroa said authorities replied the vehicles would remain there until the investigations are completed.
Cesar Florez, whose daughter Mercedes, 26, was among the dead, said between tears that he did not want to harbor hatred for her killer.
“I forgive my daughter's killer. I cannot live with such a big hatred,” said the Guatemalan native. “I want you to bring your children closer, to see what I am going through, to be an example, to be all together, in peace, for everyone to love each other because we cannot continue with this hatred.”
Flores, who went to the Beardall center with one of his two surviving children, said he came to the United States in the 1980s and Mercedes was born in New York. He received a telephone call Monday from Gov. Scott directing him to the center.
An unknown supporter put white carnations on the windshields of all the cars parked near the Beardall Center, along with pieces of poster paper bearing the message, “Be strong, you are loved.”
Follow Enrique Flor and Brenda Medina on Twitter: @kikeflor and @BrendaMedina