Lives were forever changed on June 12, 2016 when 49 people were killed and 56 were injured in a shooting at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Not just a safe haven for the LGBT community, Pulse was a gathering point for all walks of life, and one year after this horrific incident, Dear World spent time interviewing and photographing survivors, first responders, and the loved ones of those involved.
For over four days, this group came together and was photographed by Daymon Gardner, with words from their personal interviews written across their bodies. Expressions of regret, hope, guilt, and forgiveness form a common thread through their experiences—from an ER nurse on duty that evening to a DJ struggling to overcome the impact of the tragedy.
Through words and portraits, the Dear Orlando project demonstrates how a singular event can forever change the course of a life. For better or worse, this group is bonded together by the tragic events of Pulse. By sharing their stories, they are allowing the public to feel the weight of their pain and to remind us that life is precious.
“Sometimes they cried, sometimes they laughed, but each one, without a shadow of cliche, told us that they get up each day, put one foot in front of the other, and no longer take life for granted,” Dear World founder Robert Fogarty said.
Read on for portions of each participant's interview and read their full stories on Dear World.
Dear World brought together survivors, first responders, and loved ones of those involved in the Pulse nightclub shooting. Their poignant portraits and interviews are a reminder of how this tragic event changed the course of their lives.
The music was cut off, just the disco lights. No sounds. Just us talking, our radios going and we had to lower them. My radio didn't work.
Phones start ringing all over the place. The one that gets me is the one iPhone that was next to my feet that just kept going and going and going. I'm looking at the wall, I'm looking at the opening and I looked down, I looked back up, looked down, looked back up.
I knew what it was.
After it happened, my mom and my brother had come to help take care of me and the kids. They were food shopping and they were feeding them and they were taking care of them constantly.
One day, I just looked at my mom, and I'm like, “I want to go to Publix. I want to be normal. I want to go food-shopping,” and she said, “Well all right.”
I drove there. I probably shouldn't have been driving, but I got us there. I wanted to buy turkey, so I'm standing in line for turkey, and I look at this guy behind me. He's just staring at me, and all of sudden he starts to cry.”
He says, “You're her, aren't you?”
I was like,
“Yeah. I'm her.”
You can probably tell by the bags under my eyes, I have a hard time sleeping. Honestly, it's been a rough year. I go to counseling. I think it's more the fact that I don't take anything for granted anymore. Sometimes my son will want to do something or my wife will want to do something. I'm just so tired. Now I make the time to actually say, “Okay. You know what? Let's go ahead and go.”
When I went to run, I hit the table, and I fell down. I made it past the bathroom. I looked in and people were piling up.
I could have gone in that bathroom, but I kept going until I found the patio. Once I got out there, I was pushing up against that fence. Everything was so fast that I remember being on one side and then I remember being on the other. I didn't even look back. I just kept running.
Someone said, “We're getting some shootings.”
Okay. We do that all the time, I’m thinking.
“There's 20.” I said, “20? You mean somebody was shot 20 times?”
They said, “No. 20 patients.”
I was still just trying to process that. About five seconds later that the first one came in the door and the next one came in the door and they just never stopped. Just didn't stop and it was devastating injuries.
The last time I heard from her she was when she was the karaoke host at a gay bar. She sent me a screenshot of her doing a frowny face because she was like “I tried to call you because I'm doing Karaoke but you're busy. ”
She wrote “I love you.”
I wrote “I love you.”
The next day she passed.
I actually worked at Pulse when it first opened. A handful of times, I worked as the off-duty officer. I've been there as a patron. I know how involved Pulse is within our gay community. I know how significant it is for our gay community. To stop short, look up, and see that Pulse logo, it was surreal for me because I'm like, “This is our club. This is our community. There's somebody in there that's targeting our community.”
Stanley was one of the first people that I met came out here. He was about 16, we used to work at McDonald's together. I used to take all the little teenagers with me everywhere, making sure that they got to work. That's how I became really best friends with Stanley. I moved him in with me to make sure that he stayed on a good path. And he did.
2:06 a.m., I got a text.
“I love you Mom.”
And I was like, what is this boy doing?
Then, the phone rang. It was him.
“Call the police.”
So I'm on my work phone calling the dispatcher.
“Mom, tell them to hurry up, I'm in the bathroom. He's coming.”
I feel stupid, I really do, because I said, “Get off the phone so he won't hear you. Text me.”
So he got off the phone.
My mom always told me, “If you ever have an opportunity to praise, worship, and ask God for forgiveness before you pass away, then do so.”
All I could think of were my kids and how young they are.
God not now. And if it is now, please forgive me of all sins and watch over my kids and family.
“Hey, how you doing, Anthony?”
We hugged, I gave him a kiss.
“Hope you enjoy your night and have a good night.”
I went to the bathroom. Within minutes, I started hearing all those gunshots.
I said hello, but I didn't get a chance to say goodbye.
That's what gets me.
I was in a coma for three weeks.
On July 3rd, I woke up. The first person I saw was my mother. She was right there next to me because my mother never left my side. I remember seeing her and she started crying.
That was the first thing I asked. She didn't say anything. She just stood quiet.
That night she was joking with us and she said, “I’m going to change my clothes. I’ve got a bad feeling something might happen.” Me and my brother went out so she said, “I love you guys so much.”
My mom never says it like that so I thought it was weird.
I'll think of all of them (victims) and how we used to see them every week. And now they're not here. I still had their credit cards in my cup. You know, next to my computer at work. That was a thing for me.
I don't know why.
I thought it was so weird that they're no longer here and their credit cards are still by my little computer.
I don't know why.
We were friends since the seventh grade.
We used to write our initials on everything. JAM.
Josean. Amanda. Mercedes.
I took the phone. “Ma'am, I apologize, but at this time we have not heard from your son. But if we do, we will take down your number and call you back immediately”
Of course, we never did.
And that haunts me.
We would always play hide and seek because there's three different rooms, and I remember one time we went up to the balcony and we played up there.
I went inside Pulse after it happened with my mom, she was telling me how somebody that I knew was hiding up there, and it hit me.
People had to go up there to protect their lives.
We used to go up there for fun.
The next day when they were giving the names, his came up. I was devastated. I did not know how to call his mom because he was the only son. I did not how to call her or say, “Listen, I was there,”
I did talk to her at the funeral. I apologized.
She said, “Don't worry. There's always a reason. It was not your time,”
She hugged me and then she said, “He was so cute.”
My nieces sent a desperate message: “Please answer. Please tell me what happened.”
They knew it was true because it was all over the T.V. in Mexico. But they don't know what happened until the Mexican consul opened phone line for all the families. The consul told me “Don't worry. We're going to bring your family. Who do you want?” I told my mom, my son, and they told me “Don't worry. We're going to bring them.”
And they did it very fast. Four days later.
It was a dream, but it felt so realistic. I was by my car, in a parking lot. It was like I was in heaven.
Eddie gives me a hug and he gives me a kiss. And the kiss and the hug felt, so real. I'm not joking, it felt really real. I've never felt a dream that real. He said, “thank you.” Those words: Thank you.
He said, “I love you”, and I was like, “I love you too.”
It was extremely busy. Things were happening rapidly and a pretty good pace. There's really no time to think about or reflect upon anything else except the matter at hand. And that went from the safety of the officers to the safety of the hostages, to the rescue operation, to the moment where the suspect was killed. And then, the task of notifying the community about what happened.
What we were going to do moving forward? How were we going to handle the investigation? How were we going to continue to keep this community safe?
Throughout my life, especially when I was younger, I had nightmares where someone’s chasing me and I’m running and hiding. I find somewhere to hide, a closet, and sure enough I’m found.
That night was just like that but this time it was real.