I stood naked watching the water slip past my feet and circle the drain. I couldn’t help but wonder how many people rinsed off blood today — the Orlando police officers, the hospital workers, all emergency services employees that were involved, most of all, the innocent patrons who watched their friends, family, partners, and loved ones, brutally massacred in front of them.
Those attacks were coupled with acts of heroism. Orlando is full of super heroes (and not just ones who work at our Theme Parks.) These are their stories shared at the first candlelight vigil in Orlando, FL just hours after the attacks Sunday.
My home was attacked and my community was attacked; both places where I feel safe.”
Says Ivory McNeal, a 28-year old man who was inside the club that night. He shares how he had to crawl out of the club in hopes to find safety.
“It was like, 1:40am when it started. All my friends were together one minute and everyone was gone the next. Everyone was running out the backdoor but I didn’t want to go with everyone. I thought, there is a massive amount of people over there, where is a shooter going to shoot — at one person hiding, or a mass group of people in one area? I was on the inside patio. I had just run out from the main bar, but it was still an enclosed area. The only place I could think to go was behind furniture and palm trees and pots. I just got really low and hid. I was thinking, they’re going to get us, they’re going to kill everyone. I thought, I’m a grown man, and I’m hiding from gunshots! It was like something you would see in war movies.”
“When I first got out, I was crawling on the ground. We thought it was multiple gunmen because the gunfire was so rapid like, pop pop pop pop pop pop, and it just kept going. We watched a video today it was so traumatic listening to that noise. This is not just something happening to our city, it’s something happening to our people; our community. It hits “home” the hardest, I don’t know how it could get any closer.”
Within minutes of getting to safety, McNeal’s friends and family began contacting him, “I started getting emails and texts from my friends in Australia, Germany, all over the world. Social media has allowed instant notifications to become a real part of our everyday lives. The entire world knew about what was happening in my city within minutes.”
McNeal and his best friend, Ariel Hermino, both made it out alive but, forever changed. They have still not heard from their dear friend, Leo. I hold Ivory and tell him I love him and send him hope.
I met Hayley, Emily, and Angie who told me how they lost their two friends and another’s cousin, three total. They were at Southern Nights, another popular LBGTQ+ club in Orlando, but could have easily been there, it was just a simple decision to go to one club versus another.
The vigil almost didn’t happen. I woke up at 5:50am Sunday to texts, missed calls, facebook messages, and Snapchat messages. I didn’t know what to do. I was absolutely exhausted from crying and holding the people I love on Friday night, then didn’t sleep, and did the same thing all day Saturday.
On Sunday afternoon, some of my staff and I began to gather at my home — scared, sad, and angry. It quickly became clear we needed to spread our love to the community and came up with a “Candlelight Vigil” in a public place.” Almost immediately, the City of Orlando cautioned us and advised us to cancel our event due to concerns of safety. We could not cancel the event. We needed this. And, if we died holding hands, crying together, spreading love, we knew more love would take our place. We believed.
A miracle happened. Hundreds of us gathered in a half moon shape around the edge of the lake where we laid our candles and thoughts and flowers and goodbyes. One-by-one, we stood up and shared our hearts. Many of us prefaced our thoughts with “I’m not very good at public speaking.” Every voice was warmly welcomed. We held hands, cried, and cheered for our brothers and sisters who needed to be heard. We were there to listen and love.
“Violence will never win over love.” Says an Orlando, FL resident in front of the world.
“Today’s vigil changed my life.” – Maria Belen Matijas
“My heart is so full seeing how strong my city is.” – Dani Bucaro
“I’m proud to call this my home,” says Kevin from Canada who just moved to Orlando today, after a month long journey through the United States.
Katie from Orlando shares her initial shock when she woke up and says,
Today I woke up and had Facebook ask me if I was Ok. I’ve never had that happen to me before.”
A foreign resident shares, “I moved here from Ireland ten years ago. This is the kindest city I’ve ever lived in with the nicest people I’ve ever met.”
The heavens roared angry cries in the distance. Maybe it was our lost friends roaring down in thanks. The light rain was fitting. The ducklings walked between the empty wet-grass spaces where we sat. They represented new life and brought us our first smiles of the day.
“I waited in line for 6 hours to donate blood. It’s like an entire city woke up and decided to fight off darkness,” says Orlando resident, Horus Anderson, a brewer at Orlando’s Ten 10 Brewing company who shut down operations to donate.
Today we made a difference. We fought for what we believe in. We fought against terror, evil, darkness, hate, and sadness. We left that evening with dry eyes, hope, and hearts full of love and strength and unity. We are the burning representation of light and kindness and love. Today, in Orlando, love wins.
Orlando Strong Vigil Photos by Marc Graham.
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And, our voices we heard around the world. Here’s all the additional coverage we received:
BBC Radio, 17 minute mark:
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