There are a handful of days that stick out in my mind. When I was 6 years old and my parents separated. The morning I immigrated to the United States. September 11th, 2001. And then today. June 12th, 2016 when one crazy man caused mass devastation one mile from my house. My first knowledge that something was wrong was when I opened my eyes at 8:30am and checked my phone. A single text from my older sister asking, “Are you seeing this?” and I was confused. I asked what was going on and the news was delivered that overnight, a man had opened fire at Pulse (a local nightclub) and twenty people were assumed dead.
That alone shocked me to core. I felt a little lost. This isn’t New York. Things like that don’t happen here! But like most of life’s tragedies, we never really understand the experience until we live through them. And there’s no preparation for something like this. I preface my piece with saying I didn’t know any of the victims personally, but it feels like I did. Pulse was a favorite place of mine. Before it was Pulse, it used to be an Italian restaurant called Dante’s that we frequented (heavily) for happy hour prior to having children! My bachelorette (hen) party ended up at Pulse and it was the best of times. And now this.
I didn’t know what do this morning. I saw a post on facebook about blood banks and 50+ people being injured so by 9.30am, I was off in the car. I dropped my kids with their cousins and hit the road. But the drive to the cousins meant driving past Pulse. The road was blocked off and the reality of the swirling lights began to sink in. Every second car was from the Sheriff’s department or a forensics mobile lab. The news that the death toll was 50 hit me like a truck. I began shaking and crying.
I arrived at the blood bank just after 10am and already, there were 100 people ahead of me. Thus ensued one of the most amazing expressions of humanity I’ve personally witnessed. This blood bank is half a mile from where the tragedy happened.
People came from all over. By 11am, 1000 people lined the streets to donate blood. Cases of water were being delivered, snacks, orange juice began to pile up in corners from people randomly donating supplies. As the heat index climbed to the high-90’s, volunteers were circuiting the throngs to hand out water, warning against dehydration. By 1pm, pizzas turned up. Sunscreen was being passed throughout the crowds. Someone brought ice. By 2pm, Publix subs were being passed throughout. Tijuana Flats burritos were handed out to whomever wanted them. Ice cream trucks arrived. There was so much ice water, that volunteers began packing it up and delivering it to the other blood bank centers. Some kind souls thought of the things that we don’t normally think of and were handing out items such as hair ties, and umbrellas. Orlando Magic players were handing out water to the crowds, and not in any way that you’d even know they were Magic players (no egos in sight here). They were doing their utmost of make the crowd cheerful, and help as much as they could.
By 3pm, the volunteers were warning everyone that it could be another 5-6 hours before anyone would get to give blood. People were welcome to stay or to leave and come back another time. No one moved from the line.
At about the 5-hour mark, my sister and I learned that we were not eligible to donate blood because we were residents of the EU between 1985-1996 which automatically disqualifies us. But none of us wanted to leave. My niece was with us, and had no such restriction in place, so we waited with her to keep her company. It felt good to be a part of the bigger picture.
Once she moved inside to the office area, my sister and I finally withdrew ourselves so as not to occupy room inside the precious air conditioning. We did what any self-respecting Irish person does and hit the pub. At first, it felt weird that other people were sitting around, chatting away. Didn’t they know what had happened? And then my sister saw this man sitting at another table. His eyes were raw from crying and without a word, we both got up and gave him a hug. He sobbed uncontrollably, hanging on for dear life to those hugs. We learned a little while later that he’d lost 5 friends this morning.
At 6pm, the entire establishment screeched to a halt for a moment of silence. You could hear every heartbeat in the room. All I could think of was the bodies of those poor souls are still lying there. They can’t be moved out until the crime scene is processed completely. We learned the local hospital, which is around the corner from Pulse and happens to be the only Level-1 trauma center in Central Florida, was closed to any incoming patients. They had accepted all but 2 of the high level traumas. Performed 25 operations last night. They couldn’t do anymore. The other area hospitals had to coordinate.
My brother-in-law is a firefighter and paramedic. Downtown units were dispatched to the crime scene and his unit jumped in to pick up for where downtown OFD couldn’t be. At the time, they didn’t know why they were taking the calls for downtown. They just did it, because that’s what those band of brothers and sisters do.
Now I’m home. My children are safely tucked in bed, asleep. And my mind won’t stop racing. All I can think of is the cell phones that are ringing next to those people who lie there. Calls that will never be answered. Texts will never be seen. 50 families have been destroyed. Torn apart. Forever. As someone who lives only a mile away from this devastation, I’m shook to the bone. I’d love to eloquently describe how I feel, but I can’t. This is something that I never, ever possibly imagined I’d experience. The worst massacre in US history. In my hometown. In one of my favorite places. Words fail me.
I remember the Paris attacks, and facebook being flooded with messages of solidarity. I remember absently thinking, “what good does that do?” and now I know. Because every message of solidarity is a message of support. Every profile picture is a symbol that those people are not forgotten. It’s a recognition of our grief, and believe me, we are grieving. Our town has been ripped to shreds in an instant and we need all the support we can get. So thank you. Thank you for caring about us. Thank you for including us all in your prayers. It might not matter to a lot of other people around the world but it matters to us, the people of Orlando.