‘Orlando strong’: Wounded city bands together against hate

Updated 5:10 PM EDT, Tue June 14, 2016
(CNN) —  

Jason Primar and his brother were on their way to the Pulse nightclub early Sunday when they hit a police roadblock.

The officers who had cordoned off the street leading to the popular gay dance bar told Primar to turn around. They gave no explanation.

Then he heard the gunfire.

Knowing his friends Xavier Emmanuel Serrano Rosado and Leroy Valentin Fernandez were inside, Primar parked around the corner, where he and his brother stayed until about 7 a.m. They then went hospital-hopping in search of their friends, who they called “Eman” and “Roy.”

It was 10 p.m. when they got the news: Rosado and Fernandez were among 49 club-goers slain in the nation’s worst mass shooting.

“They were just out having a good time, enjoying life, dancing the night away,” Primar, 32, told CNN at a Monday memorial gathering in downtown Orlando.

Fewer than 48 hours after the shooting, Primar and about a dozen family and friends – all wearing matching “RIP Eman & Roy” T-shirts – attended the candlelight vigil in front of the Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, its façade alight in rainbow hues.

Thousands joined them, many wearing shirts or carrying signs intoning that – amid the chaos, the sadness and anger that descended on this city over the weekend – they will not cower.

“Love wins.”

“One Pulse.”

“Make America kind again.”

“People United Loving Society Equally.”

Black, white, brown, rich, poor, gay and straight were in attendance. Near a small gathering of women in hijabs, a middle-aged white man with a cooler offered free sodas and Gatorade.

“To the LGBT community, I am so very sorry. From an evangelical Christian,” read the sign on his blue cooler.

Much like Boston came together after the 2013 marathon bombing, Orlando is doing the same.

’Little big city’

Known worldwide for its theme parks and its inextricable ties to Mickey Mouse and gang, locals know Orlando as “The City Beautiful.” That’s especially true of its LGBT community, to which roughly 1 in 25 residents belong.

Orlando’s politicians go above and beyond, protecting LGBT residents from discrimination even when their state and nation won’t.

“It’s great to be LGBT in Orlando,” said Dr. David Baker-Hargrove, co-founder of Two Spirit Health Services, which provides mental health services to the community.

At 53, Baker-Hargrove says he’s too old to go to clubs like Pulse, but he knows many people who go there. And it seems like everyone does. Orlando’s LGBT community is so tight, most of its members are only two or three degrees of separation from each other, he said.

“We’re a little big city,” he said.

A woman holds up a sign urging solidarity in downtown Orlando on Monday. The community showed signs of resilience.
PHOTO: Wil Sands/Fractures Collective for CNN
A woman holds up a sign urging solidarity in downtown Orlando on Monday. The community showed signs of resilience.

That bears out if you talk to people around town, who were already jolted by Friday night’s fatal shooting of emerging pop singer Christina Grimmie at a theater here.

If they don’t know someone who was at Pulse on Saturday night, they know someone who does.

Perhaps that explains the anxiety that’s felt among those gathering at popular meeting spots around town. Many were happy to speak but didn’t want to be named. Others said flat out that they’re scared.

Baker-Hargrove was tasked with heading up mental health outreach in the wake of the shooting. Though he recruited more than 100 volunteers and set up camp at the First Unitarian Church of Orlando, he said there hadn’t been much interest in the free counseling.

“I think a lot of that has to do with our community is still in shock,” he said. “Most of us in the community did not sleep last night.”

People gather Sunday in the parking lot of a Subway blocks away from the site of the attack.
PHOTO: Wil Sands/Fractures Collective for CNN
People gather Sunday in the parking lot of a Subway blocks away from the site of the attack.

Tearful goodbye

Back at the vigil, Primar and his crew put on strong faces as they entertained reporters’ requests for interviews and told stories about “Eman and Roy,” the loved ones commemorated on their T-shirts.

Wilmariel Lozano, 34, the partner of Xavier Emmanuel Serrano Rosado and the mother of their 5-year-old son, recalled how Rosado, who was a performer, “never stopped smiling” and loved to dance. They used to salsa together, she said.

But as night fell and candles were lifted high throughout the crowd, the pain set in. Attendees, including Lozano, released Mylar balloons into the air.

Primar, meanwhile, clung tight to his own gold balloon, as if letting go made Rosado’s passing more real. Tears welled behind his sunglasses as a larger man reached out his beefy arm and pulled him close.

“He will always be in your heart. He will always be in your mind,” the man whispered.

’Nothing to do with Islam’

Maybe 50 feet away, near a row of palm trees planted among the masses, stood Cathy Morrow and her husband, Omar Patel, of nearby Lakeland.

Wearing a traditional hijab, Morrow said her brother heads an LGBT theater in San Diego and is afraid he could one day become a target.

Her face turned stern when asked what she’d say to those who would claim the Pulse gunman acted in accordance with Islam or Allah’s word.

“He clearly does not believe in Allah,” she said flatly.

“It’s impossible to do something like (that) in the month of Ramadan,” Patel said, referring to the Muslim holy month that ends July 5.

Patel is part of a group of interfaith leaders tasked with the heavy burden of informing relatives that their brothers, sisters, daughters and sons were among those killed. He said family members have cried on his shoulder.

“They will tell you and they will tell the media this has nothing to do with Islam,” he said.

Though Morrow said she’s still too distraught to see any silver lining in Sunday’s slayings, Patel explained that Monday’s vigil is the “perfect” response because it shows the world that everyone in Orlando is banding together.

Tareq Dajani leads a prayer service at the Baitul-Aafiyat Mosque in Orlando, honoring Sunday
PHOTO: Wil Sands/Fractures Collective for CNN
Tareq Dajani leads a prayer service at the Baitul-Aafiyat Mosque in Orlando, honoring Sunday's victims.

’It’s the same principle’

In Orlando, you’ll find little if any angst toward Islam over the shootings.

At a local blood bank about a mile from Pulse, six young people arrived Monday afternoon in a full-size pickup truck flying an American flag. Its bed was packed with snacks and bottled water for those waiting to give blood, lined up in the swampy central Florida heat.

Some of them met on social media in the wake of the shootings. Among them is Russ Ohl, 29, who was wearing a shirt that read: “I’m the infidel Allah warned you about.”

Ohl must blame religion, right? Not so. Ohl is a firm believer in the Second Amendment, he said, and the Pulse nightclub shooter no more represents Islam than it does Ohl as a gun owner.

“It’s the same principle,” he said.

Janna Siemer, 36, said the OneBlood clinic – which had to stay open until almost 4 a.m. Monday to handle the deluge of blood donations it received – was one of many she had visited.

“It’s all about, ‘We are Orlando strong,’ and that trend continues,” she said. “Everyone wants to do something nice. They want to spread that love. It’s beautiful.”

Meaghan McGurr and Xaymarie Torres donate blood Monday at One Blood, a non-profit blood bank.
PHOTO: Wil Sands/Fractures Collective for CNN
Meaghan McGurr and Xaymarie Torres donate blood Monday at One Blood, a non-profit blood bank.

’Come hell or high water, I’m giving some blood’

On the other side of the blood bank, a machine drew blood from the left arm of Justin Mrotz as he reclined in a chair.

The 26-year-old National Guardsman and correctional officer from Winter Springs, which is just north of Orlando, said he wasn’t aware of what had happened at Pulse until he arrived at church on Sunday.

His pastor offered a prayer for the victims and reminded parishioners, “the only way to come through dark times is with an overwhelming sense of love and joy.”

Rather than go to lunch after church as he’d planned, Mrotz went to a blood bank in Oviedo. But the facility was too overwhelmed and understaffed to take his blood.

The next morning, while driving his wife to work, he saw the fleet of news helicopters hovering over the crime scene – a reminder that the shooting wasn’t a bad dream.

That’s when he decided: “Come hell or high water, I’m giving some blood.”

Mrotz arrived at Orlando’s OneBlood clinic at 8:45 a.m. He was the 41st person in line. He was finally strapped to the machine at 2:30 p.m.

“Somebody’s got to be the foundation,” he said. “No matter how bad you’re hurting, you’ve got to help others get through the hurt.”

Raquel Plaza Brown, 48, knows the feeling. She attended Monday’s vigil with her friend, Eileen Cordero, whose son, Jesse, is part of the LGBT community and had celebrated his most recent birthday at Pulse.

Cordero, 57, knew her son was thinking about going to Latin Night at Pulse on Saturday, so she was relieved to learn he hadn’t gone to the club and was safe. Still, she could see he was shaken by the shooting.

Brown said she attended Monday’s memorial to show Cordero, Jesse and every member of Orlando’s LGBT community that she has no intention of letting hate win.

“Coming together as a community is really the only way we’re going to heal,” she said. “Orlando is The City Beautiful and what happened yesterday rocked us, but it’s not going to end us. We’re going to come out better on the other side.”