The night did not seem like anything special but it is now a night that I will never forget.
June 12, 2016.
The night before, I had gone to one of the many tourist attractions near International Drive in Orlando, Fla. It was a museum/interactive exhibit about the sinking of the Titanic.
It was nothing special. Very tourist-y but, honestly, I like “very tourist-y.”
Our drive home took us eastbound on Kaley Avenue, just off I-4.
If I recall correctly, it was midnight or perhaps 11 p.m.
Either way, we had no idea of knowing that as we crossed Orange Avenue on Kaley, we drove past what would become the site of one of the worst terrorist attacks on U.S. soil just hours before it would become so.
The buzzing cell phone
The cell phone started its incessant buzzing early in the morning of June 12.
First, it was an alert from the newspaper I worked for, The Orlando Sentinel, saying there was a shooting at the Pulse nightclub on Orange Avenue.
Initially, I shrugged because those alerts, sadly, are not uncommon.
However, before long, as our alerts became both more frequent and more dire, I knew this was something different.
I got out of bed far earlier than I was accustomed to on Sundays because I wanted to monitor our website to see what my talented coworkers were discovering.
Before long, as the numbers started rolling in – 3, 12, 22, 34, 49 – it became clear that today would not be a day off for any of us.
I put myself together, jumped in the car and was in the office before noon.
Not surprisingly, I was not alone.
Driving past Pulse
When we drove through that neighborhood the night before, our path literally took us about one block from the club.
I had never known about Pulse, a gay nightclub tucked away in the South Orange neighborhood of Orlando.
I would come to learn that the club was a hotspot in the gay community and, on this particular Saturday night, was packed.
The story does not need to be retold in detail. If you are reading this, you probably know what happened.
A gunman entered and, within minutes, murdered 49 people, sending tremors of pain and emotion across Central Florida.
In the aftermath, heroic stories of the paramedics would be told.
I will never forget reading the story of the paramedic who swore to keep wearing the blood-soaked shoes he had on that night until the last patient related to Pulse left the hospital.
Politicians from local city council all the way up to then-President Barack Obama would visit.
And we’d be charged with telling the stories about that night, the aftermath, obituaries and policy-based questions long after the national media left their ratings-driver of the moment.
The social media swamp is real
One of the greatest technological advances in recent memory is social media, if you ask me.
As a longtime tech reporter, you learn that there is real power in being able to disseminate information freely and, often, with few limits.
But, man, when a tragedy happens, you see the other side of it.
As usually happens in these kinds of situations, conspiracy theories popped up immediately online.
Was it a hoax?
Was it “fake news?”
I tried my best to keep out of these discussions but, well, sometimes I could not.
How dare you call this a hoax when my community is experiencing it in real time?
There was anger.
There was sadness.
And then, there was the reality of knowing that it would be our job to tell the stories that unfold.
Telling their stories – a responsibility
One of the greatest responsibilities I have ever felt journalists have is telling stories about people who have passed.
As a journalist, I had reported on popular local figures passing.
However, I also had to interview a mother of a teenager gunned down just hours before.
Why do I feel that is a great responsibility? You are charged with telling what could be the last story told about another human being’s life.
To be assigned an obituary, for me, was both an honor and a sad event.
Now, however, we had 49 to write.
I was not certain how to contribute to what had been happening in the aftermath.
I was a technology reporter for the Orlando Sentinel.
Sure, the occasional tech story popped up.
A team in New York, for instance, created a video game mocking people who continued to call for “thoughts and prayers” while not advocating for real action.
I wrote about how social media contributed to both the nightclub and the police department getting the word out to the community.
But I also wanted to contribute to the major project of telling the stories of the victims.
I volunteered when I could, partnering with a colleague on an obituary of 37-year-old hair stylist Juan Rivera Velazquez.
A strange thing happened to me when that story was published. Immediately, I felt a kinship with him.
Anytime I’d see something written about him, I’d smile and think about his life.
Facing the pain through vigils
The aftermath of a major event like the Pulse shooting takes many forms for journalists.
Some hold public officials accountable for their actions and reactions, attending endless news conferences where police officials mix the sharing of tragic news with the sometimes unbelievable telling of how they messed things up.
Others bring home the story of how schools talk to students when these things happen in their community, because we cannot forget that while we have to deal with the trauma, so do many who are less-equipped to do so.
To let my colleagues do their job as best as they could, I made a conscious decision.
I would volunteer for as many candlelight vigils as I could, both day and night.
I cannot recall how many vigils I ended up covering.
I do not think it would be an exaggeration to say I must have covered dozens, although it is all a blur.
It could have been over 8 days or 8 months, for all I can remember.
But there is one that stands out.
On June 15, 2016, I attended a vigil at Christ Church Unity on Holden Avenue, about three miles from the Pulse nightclub.
I met people there who were directly affected by the shooting. A 60-minute service helped people heal.
I wrote in the story that the Rev. Cynthia Alice Anderson thanked first responders and told people to love and not hate.
“This is a safe place to be to process what happened,” she said that night.
The stranger’s gesture
There is a fantastic memory of that night that will never leave me and it is difficult to admit it because, well, nothing during that time was supposed to be positive or encouraging.
But one thing stuck with me and represented the spirit that would help Orlando rebound as well as it did from this tragedy.
After that vigil at Christ Church Unity, I lost it.
After I finished filing my story, I sat down on a stoop near the door and started crying.
I tried to hold it back but I could not.
Granted, this did not end up being the last time this happened (I’d end up attending several more vigils and funerals).
But at this particular moment, the emotion of vigil after vigil after vigil and that these were vigils born of hate, prejudice, evil all got to me simultaneously, it seemed.
As I tried to hold my tears back, a stranger approached me.
He asked me whether I knew some of the victims of the shooting.
I did not, I told him, which made it even more crazy that I was tearing up.
He said he understood.
He put his arms around me.
He told me it was OK to cry.
I sobbed uncontrollably into his chest.
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