Gator attack is third horror, but Orlando vows to heal

On the fifth day — as a shaken city held prayerful vigils remembering shooting victims, and families continued making funeral arrangements — Orlando faced its third unthinkable horror in less than a week.

The trio of tragedies: A promising young singer was gunned down Friday night while signing autographs after a performance. In the predawn hours of Sunday morning, a gunman shot his way through a popular club in a savage early morning spree that left 49 dead, 53 wounded and a nation staggering. Two days after that, a toddler visiting a Disney resort with his family was snatched and drowned by an alligator on Tuesday night.

The random sequence of events, beginning at 10:30 p.m. Friday at a concert hall and ending at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday with the grim discovery of the toddler’s remains by divers in a lagoon, are now dreadfully strung together by timing, dateline, and tears.

The collective response may be best captured by the social media hashtag #prayfororlando and #orlandostrong, both trending, but also standing tall in the tangible world: scribbled on posters and highway billboards, on cards with fresh flowers at growing memorials, on T-shirts, on personal notes addressed to the dead, even atop a building near City Hall.

“This week in Orlando has been a week of a lot of pain,” said Terence Gray, senior pastor of Saint Mark AME Church, who held a unity worship service Tuesday night. One of his parishioners, Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings, had just finished reading some of the names of club shooting victims aloud, when he left the service to respond to the gator attack on a Disney property.

Since Friday, Gray said, “there is not a moment in which you can find yourself handling an incident without trying to recover from that, and next thing you know you have another incident occurring.’’

The week has been a gruesome mix of heinous crimes and death and shock and grief — but also unity and empathy and resilience. In describing the response, particularly to what is now the nation’s deadliest mass shooting, leaders called it nothing less than transformational, not only pulling the community together with support and resources, but also fostering greater acceptance of the LGBT community.

“It’s hard to say we might find a silver lining in this thing — but the way our community has come together and stood united and started thinking about different ways to approach each other,” said Mayor Buddy Dyer at a news conference on Wednesday.

He noted that at the interdenominational prayer service held at the First Baptist Church of Orlando Tuesday night, some members of the LGBT community attended. “There was a lot of reflection by those who might not have been supportive of that community in the past. There’s some healing and I think there’s going to be more understanding, more discussion, more willingness to be open and embrace diversity and equality. So if there’s anything at all that could come good out of this, it is the fact that we stand more united than ever and that we are more understanding of each other.”

Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs offered a similar observation.

“This is an opportunity for us as a community to learn how to care more, how to understand more, and I think we owe it to every one of those victims to re-evaluate as a society — and certainly as a Central Florida society — how we treat those who think and feel differently than we do,” she said.

She said the prayer service Tuesday night was “the most dramatic change that I have ever seen in how our churches respond to the LGBT community.”

The night before, her Catholic Church dedicated its service to the community.

“Sometimes, it’s been a little hard to be Catholic, to be honest with you, but we have a pope who has brought a new light and a new way of thinking,” she said. “Last night, having all those faith-based leaders saying we want to pray for everyone in the LGBT community who are either directly affected or indirectly affected, that’s transformational.”

On Wednesday, the mayors announced the opening of a Family Assistance Center at the former Citrus Bowl that will include child and family services, grief counseling, ground transportation and airlines assistance for family members; language translation; and legal help. It will also provide assistance with funeral arrangements.

“This has been a tumultuous time for us. The Pulse shooting was an attack on the LBGT community. An attack on Latinos. And an attack on Orlando,” said Daisy Nonsant, who works at a hotel less than a mile from where Lane Graves, 2, was attacked by an alligator near the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa. Nonsant had three friends killed in the club shooting, and two of them were former employees of hers. “I think part of our healing is actually being with and spending time with your community.”

Both Monday and Tuesday, thousands attended vigils and memorials across the city, calling for the wounded city’s healing but also continuing strength for what comes next: funerals, the final farewell. Singer Christina Grimmie, 22, a The Voice contestant and YouTube star, will be laid to rest in her home state of New Jersey later this week. With her death Friday night, she was the first victim of the week’s horrific stretch.

Cesar Rentas, 59, visiting from Puerto Rico with his wife and daughters, summed up the week:

“It's a painful situation — extremely,” said Rentas, who describes himself as deeply spiritual. “...What ails me are the people affected. The fathers and mothers, the brothers and sisters.”

He added, “Orlando, we’ll be back. We don’t let fear limit us in life.”

On Wednesday morning, Jann Austin, a lifelong resident, detoured from her normal route to work as a legal secretary to lay a single red rose with baby’s breath at the impromptu memorial spread across the front of Plaza Live, where Grimmie was shot.

“I am crying for Orlando,” said Austin. The week has “changed us because of the pain and heartbreak that everybody is feeling, but it’s brought us together as a community and I hope that lasts.”

Not more than an hour later and three miles away, Carolyn Allgood brought a bouquet of yellow carnations to another memorial in front of Orlando Regional Medical Center, where 44 of the club shooting victims were brought and 27 remain. The past several days, she said, have been trying. But better days are ahead.

“A dark cloud. It’s not going to last,” she said. “We have sunny days . . . and our hearts are broken right now . . . but, believe it or not, Orlando is going to rise again.”