"Beyond difficult:" Hundreds reflect on anniversary of Pulse shooting that killed 49
ORLANDO, Florida — Church bells tolled 49 times, a giant rainbow flag hung from a county government building and the names of the victims of the Pulse nightclub attack were read aloud at various ceremonies Monday as people in Orlando and beyond remembered the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
At 2:02 a.m., survivors, victims' families, club employees and local officials were gathered for a private service at the gay club at the exact time Omar Mateen opened fire a year ago and pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. He was eventually killed by police after a three-hour standoff on June 12, 2016.
"I realize that gathering here in this place, at this hour, is beyond difficult," Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said. "But I also know that the strength you've shown over the past year will carry you through today and in the future."
The service began what would be almost 24 hours of solemn remembrances. During a midday service, the Orlando Gay Chorus performed Cyndi Lauper's "True Colors" and speakers talked less about the tragedy and more about how Orlando area residents came together in the aftermath.
Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs said the city will only partly be remembered for the shooting. Most of the patrons killed were gay Latinos.
"That will be a part of the history books, but the true legacy of our community is going to be in our darkest hour we responded with love and compassion and unity," Jacobs said.
At noon, church bells throughout the Orlando area rang 49 times. Gov. Rick Scott ordered U.S. flags around Florida to be flown at half-staff and a gay-pride flag was unveiled at the Orange County government building.
Pulse owner Barbara Poma said when people ask her what has changed in her life since the tragedy, she tells them "everything." But she said she is grateful for the outpouring of support. She plans to build a memorial at the site of the nightclub, which has been closed since the tragedy.
"I miss Pulse," she said. "I miss everything it stood for."
President Donald Trump tweet out a photo of the victims and said: "We will NEVER FORGET the victims who lost their lives one year ago today in the horrific #PulseNightClub shooting. #OrlandoUnitedDay."
Local leaders said Mateen's hateful act caused an outpouring of love from Orlando and the wider world.
"What a terrorist tries to do is divide us," U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson said. "Isn't it interesting it had the opposite effect? It brought us together in unity and love."
Outside Pulse, hundreds of people dropped off flowers, drawings and cards.
"It still hurts, it's still very raw," said Erin Anderson, a friend and former co-worker of Pulse victim Xavier Serrano Rosado.
Jeannine Williams used to live within walking distance of Pulse and was a frequent visitor. She had made plans to be there the night of the shooting but decided to go another night club.
"A year later I think the thing that is most important is this community and why I live here and why I'm so happy to live here," Williams said through tears. "The support we not only have from our city government, it's not fleeting support, it's not support on certain days. It's the way the community is. This is Orlando. This is why I just love living here."
Next door to the club, an anti-gay protester was pushed to the ground by an officer and handcuffed as the crowd chanted "love conquers hate." Local television stations showed police officers talking to two protesters with an anti-gay sign and wearing anti-gay slogans on their shirts, as the men argued with the officers that they had a right to be there.
An officer can be seen holding out his hand to keep one of the men from walking any further as the man pushes back against his hand. Moments later, the officer pushes the man back and the man falls down. Spokeswomen for the police and city didn't return an email or phone call, and it was unknown if the man was taken into custody or charged.
A steady stream of visitors came by the Orange County Regional History Center to see an exhibit of memorial items, including 49 crosses with the victims' names and photos attached.
"The crosses were incredibly impactful," said Monique Stewart, an Orlando resident. "I feel like every piece that they collected was deliberate and serves a point and it just ties back to remembering those 49 people and spreading love."
Mateen's wife, Noor Salman, is facing charges of aiding and abetting and obstruction in federal court. She has pleaded not guilty to helping her husband.