On the six-month anniversary of the mass shooting at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, survivors and supporters held a vigil on the site.
At 2:02 a.m. early Monday morning—the exact time lone gunman Omar Mateen opened fire inside the club on the night of June 12—mourners gathered in the nightclub’s parking lot to light candles and stand in silence. Star-shaped cutouts bearing the names of all 49 killed in the shooting stood propped up on the pavement in the shape of the Pulse logo, each name surrounded by delicate white roses.
A Facebook live video posted on the Pulse Facebook page showed family members being invited to approach and light the candles corresponding to their loved ones. As the names of the mostly Latino, LGBTQ victims were read out loud, many in the crowd could be seen crying and covering their faces in grief as they reached out to comfort one another.
Once all 49 names were read, the small crowd stood in near-silence, only the quiet sounds of weeping and nearby traffic to be heard.
As the first winter approaches after the Pulse shooting, families and friends of those lost face a new struggle: celebrating holidays without their loved ones.
“It’s the hardest time of the year,” Terry DeCarlo, executive director of The Center Orlando, told NBC Out. “With the holidays, this is when families are celebrating — and those families are going to have an empty chair at the table. It’s a very, very hard time of year.”
DeCarlo said that while some families were beginning to heal, for most the six-month mark “seems like the blink of an eye.” He spoke with NBC Out just after hosting a press conference at the Center, Orlando’s LGBTQ community hub, at which police announced a new community initiative called Safe Place—which lets local businesses mark themselves as LGBTQ-friendly using window stickers.
The Center’s director said that police asked him if they should be on alert for any Westboro Baptist Church-style protests on the anniversary, after that group protested the funerals of Pulse victims earlier this year. DeCarlo said the church hadn’t applied for any permits—but he was still cautiously on guard: “These people just come up out of the dirt.”
Just in case, a group called Angels in Action was preparing to attend Monday night’s planned memorial services at locations around town—complete with giant angel wings to block the view of protestors from grieving families and friends.
“The Angels are Orlando’s symbol of love, and they’re our protectors,” DeCarlo said.
Though the early morning candlelit vigil was closed to the media and the public, one survivor of the shooting spoke with the Associated Press just after leaving the memorial. Orlando Torres told the reporter that he had hidden in a bathroom in order to survive Mateen’s shooting rampage.
"Time really does fly," Torres said of the early morning memorial. "It was very somber and very touching.”
Javier Nava also survived the horrendous violence that fateful June night—despite taking a bullet to the abdomen. In a December 10 profile in the Orlando Sentinel, Nava described running upstairs to hide in the club’s office as soon as he felt the sharp pain in his stomach.
"I was scared. When I got shot, I knew I had to move,” Nava told the Sentinel. “I wasn't safe staying there. I just tried to hide.”
Six months later, Nava is finally out of the wheelchair he had to use during recovery. He’s had trouble sitting down but no longer needs help showering or getting dressed. Nava told the Sentinel he’s in therapy and has a new job—one that takes him, on his daily commute, right past the Orange Avenue club where his life nearly ended.
The memories of survivors were jolted on Sunday when police released surveillance video of the shooting for the first time. The grainy, late-night security camera footage shows Omar Mateen pulling his minivan into Pulse’s parking lot at 2 a.m., then police arriving just four minutes later after the first shots were called in.
The newly released footage shows clubgoers running for their lives through the parking lot, then police beginning to move in. It also shows injured victims collapsing in the parking lot after making their way out of the massacre.
A number of local and national LGBTQ organizations and political figures issued statements of support and remembrance on Monday.
Memorials and vigils were planned throughout Monday in the Orlando area.
While the Orlando events were expected to draw large crowds, DeCarlo told NBC Out that messages of support were also pouring in from outside of the city.
“I’ve gotten a lot of emails this morning from people around the world who are recognizing the anniversary,” DeCarlo said. “It warms the heart to know that people are thinking of us, saying ‘We’re still standing with you.'"
At the Orange County Regional History Center Monday evening, mourners gathered holding candles and glow sticks to pay respects to the fallen and console the survivors.
Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs said at the gathering that while they were all their reflect on the memory of those lost, they were "also here to reflect upon our response to June 12, because in the wake of the attack our community came together like no other, we showed the world what community truly is."
Orlando City Commissioner Patty Sheehan thanked first responders for putting "their lives on the line" on the night of the shooting and praised the community for coming together in the wake of the attack.
"Orlando didn’t react with hatred to this horrible hate crime we reacted with love," she said.
The owner of Pulse nightclub, Barbara Poma, also spoke, calling on “Orlando and the world to never forget the feelings we had that morning, six months ago today.”
“It’s important that we never forget, so that we are forever changed and so that we forever act with kindness and love,” she said.
The names of the victims were then read aloud one by one as the crowd was told to raise their candles and glow sticks in remembrance.
At the end of the reading, the Orlando Gay Chorus performed several songs including "I heard the bells on Christmas morning" and "Beautiful city," while the history center was lit in the colors of the rainbow.
Mourners then made their way to the site of the nightclub, for a public memorial at Pulse featuring local spiritual leaders from LGBTQ-affirming churches along with the Orlando Gay Chorus.