Confusion and fear grips Orlando’s LGBT community
Locals grapple with raw emotions as names of massacre victims are slowly released
A man lights a candle for the victims of the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando outside the US embassy in Bangkok, Thailand. Photograph: EPA/DIego Azubel
Enakai Mpire did not want to stay at home on his own on Sunday night. He had been at the Orlando Regional Medical Centre all day Sunday with a friend, waiting along with relatives to hear what had happened to loved ones who had been at the Pulse gay nightclub during the gun massacre in the early hours of Sunday and who were still missing.
Describing himself as a performer, Mpire (27) had just been rehired at Pulse as a “shot boy” selling alcoholic shots to club patrons but had taken Saturday night off.
Standing at Orlando’s other best-known gay bar and club, Parliament House, he said he first heard of the attack from his brother on Sunday morning and turned on the TV.
“When I saw, immediately I broke down because even if it is one person who got shot, I would know that person, just because I have worked with all these gay clubs for such a long time,” he said.
Yards away from the club’s prominent outside neon sign are the words: “We are Pulse unbreakable.”
Orlando’s LGBT community has been struggling with a range of emotions since Sunday morning: confusion, fear, anguish, grief.
Mpire, his stage name, handed out blank sheets of paper to relatives and friends of the victims to fill in details that might help locate the missing
He recalled the devastating moments on Sunday when the relatives of the 49 victims finally learned that their loved ones were among those killed by the gunman Omar Mateen (29), a US-born citizen.
In a large conference room, while Mpire awaited news of a friend injured in the attack, a police officer and a doctor read out names of the patients who were in hospital and whether they were stable or critical. The list was short and did not mention everyone who was missing, adding to the anguish of family members and friends.
“One lady finally stood up and said, ‘so you are basically saying that all the names that you didn’t read, they’re dead and they’re still inside of the club. Those are the bodies still inside the club, the names you didn’t read?’ He just looked down and said yes,” he said.
“The whole room transformed. I’ve never seen anything like that. People just started fainting, people started screaming, people started punching the walls. It was horrific.”
Next of kin were still being notified about the victims by Orlando police yesterday. As of yesterday morning – local time in Florida – Orlando mayor Buddy Dyer said that 48 of the 49 victims had been identified and that 24 families had been notified of their deaths.
Outside the Orlando Regional Medical Centre yesterday, where most of the 53 people injured were taken, a church group was saying prayers.
One of their members, Jonathan Olivero (26), who works at a clothes shop, said that two work colleagues had been in Pulse but escaped.
The cousin of a friend and the brother of another were not so lucky. He had spent the day at the hospital with the first friend and found out yesterday morning that he hadn’t made it. Olivero witnessed the same scene when relatives learned about the deaths.
“It has definitely been a nerve-racking experience,” he said.
Michael White (55), a furniture retailer in Orlando, knew one of the victims: Eddie Sotomayor Jr (34), who worked for a company that organised gay holiday cruises.
“He was a really nice guy,” said White, standing in the courtyard of Parliament House on Sunday night, nursing a drink and clearly drained from the events of the day.
White decided to come out to Parliament House, refusing to stay home and let the gunman dictate how he lived.
“We are not going to let it get us down. We are not going to let it define us,” he said.
Eddie Sears (55) and Juan Yalinas (55) were also in Parliament House. Their phones buzzed throughout the early hours Sunday morning with messages and calls of concern from family and friends, fearing they had been caught up in the atrocity.
“I woke up to 106 text messages,” said Sears. “I had close to 80,” said Yalinas.
The city’s residents have rallied around their LGBT community with long queues of people at blood banks willing to donate blood for the victims.
“Orlando has a very close-knit community – you will either know the victims by name or because you just met them,” said Yalinas.
“It makes the impact even stronger. It is awful. It is senseless.”
A few miles from Pulse, the LGBT Centre of Central Florida is packed with volunteers dealing with the food, water and donations that have come in, and arranging for survivors and their friends from the community to meet grief counsellors.
“I have friends and family members in the area who have friends who are still missing and if you look around, people are standing here with tears in their eyes,” said Kelly Martin, the centre’s treasurer
“They don’t know what to do next. It is going to be a waiting game for the next few days.”
The owners of Parliament House decided not to cancel drag shows scheduled for Sunday night in the aftermath of the atrocity, refusing to cower to an act of terror.
There was a visible police presence at the club but it was not enough to ease Mpire’s concerns.
“I know there are copy cats. As people were praying inside at the vigil, they had their eyes closed,” he said.
“I couldn’t keep my eyes closed. I was looking around: what if somebody is going to come in to re-do this.”