NEW: "Orlando is stronger no matter their race, religion, gay or straight," vigil attendee says
Monday's vigil marks one year since a gunman opened fire at Pulse, killing 49
Love was in the air – and on signs, T-shirts and murals – as people gathered at the Pulse nightclub to remember those lost and mark the first anniversary of the worst terror attack on American soil since 9/11.
The crowd overflowed into the street, and people lined up outside the fence surrounding the club to pay respects. In the parking lot, flowers and handmade hearts were passed out as vigil attendees from across central Florida hugged, held hands and shed tears.
“We are here to pay our respect to those who were not lucky enough to escape,” said Travis Ohler, 26, from Orlando, who was at Pulse the night of the mass shooting but left before the horror unfolded. “Orlando is stronger no matter their race, religion, gay or straight. Orlando is coming together to show that we are stronger than that hate that was driven away.”
The names of all 49 of those slain were read aloud Monday, as club owner Barbara Poma and others heaped praised upon the first responders that horrific night, as well as the community that has wrapped its arms around Pulse and its clientele in the year since.
“We stood up. We stood together. And we took care of one another,” Poma said. “Orlando was proof love always wins.”
While Pulse will serve as a memorial, Poma said she expects another club catering to Orlando’s LGBTQ community to open in its place – lamenting that “your sanctuary was taken from you.”
“Pulse will always embody the memory of our 49, the survivors and all affected, and it will do so with honor and love,” she said.
Vigil attendees wore T-shirts saying, “We will not let hate win,” as live string music played. Police intermingled with people in the crowd, shaking hands and accepting hugs. A blood drive truck sat in the parking lot, a reminder of how Orlando flocked to help in the wake of last year’s tragedy.
And Mayor Buddy Dyer took to the stage to reinforce a message the Orlando community has been sending ever since a gunman stormed the club on June 12, 2016, and killed dozens before dying in a shootout with police.
“Orlando has your back no matter what. We are one Orlando,” he said.
The vigil experienced a rare spat of ugliness when two protesters showed up with a sign blaring homophobic slurs. A crowd gathered around the man holding the sign and chanted, “Love conquers hate” until police escorted the man down the street.
Witnesses said the other protester was arrested after pushing on officer. Efforts to confirm the arrest with Orlando police were not immediately successful.
“Last year, it really hit me hard and to come out to celebrate peace and love and to not let people like the guy protesting win,” said Brad Branscum of Winter Gardens.
CNN affiliate WKMG reported that, overnight, 49 people dressed as angels surrounded the club ahead of the private memorial service for friends and families of the victims.
The angels – wearing wide white wings and carrying candles – also shielded mourners at victims’ funerals in the days after the attack from anti-gay protesters.
At the overnight event, Poma said attendees had “gathered in the name of love,” while Dyer told victims’ loved ones they would “once again be able to smile, and dance, and laugh.”
“The sun always rises; the light always triumphs the darkness,” Dyer said, according to WKMG reporter Sachelle Saunders.
Families members read the names of the victims, WKMG said, with officials saying an estimated 1,000 people went to the club overnight to pay their respects.
Three other memorial services are being held Monday.
Orlando City, Orange County and Pulse declared June 12 “Orlando United Day” and many city landmarks have been lit up in rainbow colors, including the Lake Eola Park fountain, Orange County Convention Center, History Center and the Orlando Eye.