In Orlando, grief tempered by a deepening resolve

In the aftermath of a terrible terrorist attack, the people of Orlando are finding their voice and a renewed sense of unity. 

Chris Urso/Tampa Bay Times/AP
Thousands gather to remember the Pulse nightclub shooting victims at a vigil Monday in Orlando, Fla.

The bell in the church spire pealed 49 times, for what seemed to thousands gathered in downtown Orlando a small eternity – once for every life lost in America’s deadliest mass shooting, and the biggest terror attack against the homeland since Sept. 11, 2001.

As the final bell faded, a constellation of candles rose.

Omar Miranda wept as he carried a framed picture of his friend Javier Jorge-Reyes, who was identified Monday as one of the victims. “This is going to mark our lives forever.”

That murderous hate and global terror had pierced the hub of American tourism – “the happiest place on earth,” as Walt Disney World claims – continued for many to seem incongruous and surreal. A day after the massacre, planes heavy with Disney-bound tourists continued to land. At Lake Eola downtown, children fed the swan colony as usual.

But what resonated for Mr. Miranda and thousands of others was also a deepening resolve amid the grief, and the signs of shifting views of LGBT equality.

“I’m still trying to grasp the enormity of it, but at the same time it’s really amazing how everybody is coming together, and it all happened in an instant,” says Eric Clough, a local carpenter. “This move to compassion shows how, for the gay community, this is going to make it stronger.”

Lines of people waiting to give plasma for the wounded became emblematic of Americans jumping into action not just to help their fallen friends, but to display the strength of what President Obama called “our pluralistic nation.” An online GoFundMe campaign to support the victims of the attack hit $1 million faster than any other campaign in the site’s history and now stands at more than $3 million.

In Orlando, Mayor Buddy Dyer, who has presided over same-sex weddings on the steps of City Hall, said that “we will not be defined by a hateful shooter.”

The city is known as an emerging gay mecca – where nightclubs and tiki bars thrum deep into the night – and is, residents noted, uniquely vulnerable as a terror target. 

Indeed, Omar Mateen, the American-born terrorist, reportedly scouted the theme parks as possible targets before settling on Pulse, a club that regulars say he frequented. Reports that he also used a gay dating phone app raise questions about his relations with the local lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community. He was killed by police Sunday morning after heavy machinery punched large holes in the concrete block club in a hostage-rescue attempt.

Many residents, especially younger ones who crawl the downtown scene on the weekends, struggled to rise above fear. “You just don’t know where to go anymore, it’s scary,” says college student Alexis Mallic, laying roses at a downtown vigil.

As she waited for word Monday morning on whether her friend had been killed, Catherine Edwards, a hair dresser, remembered Pulse as a place of “unbridled joy” for primarily Puerto Ricans and African-Americans, but also anyone looking for a sanctuary from a sometimes belittling world.

But for all its horror, the attack also appears to have jarred many here awake to a revived unity of purpose.

From the blood drives to vigils, the city expressed not just grief but also a bootstrap volunteer response. Groups of people dog-walked victims’ pets, and organized “all the little things you never think of,” as one such volunteer noted.

Several Chick-fil-A restaurants, known for being closed on Sundays and for having an executive who opposed same-sex marriage, prepared food on Sunday for those responding to the shooting. Some employees also passed out iced tea and sandwiches to those giving blood, according to a Fox affiliate.

At the Universal Orlando theme park, employees gathered in front of Hogwarts Castle Monday and raised wands in remembrance of Luis Vielma, who worked at the attraction and was killed Sunday.

“People live their little lives in their little worlds, and this cracks everything open,” adds Eugene Dibala, a 60-something Disney artist who stood on the periphery of the vigil, holding a single red rose. “It shows we’re all part of a bigger picture, with even more profound things to come.”

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