Manny Carames woke up before sunrise Sunday morning to the sound of his phone buzzing with text messages from friends asking if he was safe. About a mile away, a heavily armed gunman had opened fire at the Pulse nightclub, a popular hangout for members of the LGBT community to which Carames belonged.
On Monday night, Carames, 44, was one of thousands of mourners who crowded into a field in downtown Orlando for a candlelight vigil in memory of the 49 dead and more than 53 wounded in the worst mass shooting in American history.
“This is a way for us to get closure, to show that we’re not afraid,” said Carames, who had just returned from fetching candles for his friends. Like many others in attendance, he wore a purple T-shirt, a color that has symbolic meaning among many in the gay community.
The vigil capped almost two days of heartbreak and horror in Central Florida since Omar Mateen, 29, an American citizen of Afghan descent, entered the nightclub with an assault rifle and a handgun and began gunning down people inside. Mateen, who called 911 during the shooting and declared his allegiance to the Islamic State, was killed by police after a three-hour hostage standoff. Officials announced Monday that they had identified all of the dead and notified the next of kin.
Nadine Smith, chief executive officer of Equality Florida, an LGBT activist group, said donors had thus far contributed $2.4 million to help the victims and their families.
Monday night’s vigil on a muggy evening outside the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts featured an array of speakers, including Islamic and Latino community leaders, gun reform activists and LGBT leaders, and elected officials. Many spoke of the need for Americans to show tolerance for different sexual orientations and faiths, and to love one another.
“We are a city that’s wounded, but we will recover, and we will be stronger than ever,” Imam Muhammad Musri, president of the Islamic Society of Central Florida, told the crowd.
Mursi and other speakers, including Carlos Guillermo Smith of Equality Florida, also called for stricter gun laws to keep deadly weapons like the AR-15 used by Mateen out of the hands of would-be killers.
Perhaps the most somber moment came when speakers read out the names of each of the dead. People lit candles and the church bells tolled once for each of the 49 killed. As the bells rang, mourners cried, bowed their heads and put their arms around one another. The only sounds other than the bells was the whirring of two helicopters overhead, people sniffling, and the flutter of news cameras.
“I grew up here, and I have never seen anything like this,” said Jordan Eichenblatt, 26, who had also attended a rally the night before that he said drew a much smaller crowd. Asked what message he hoped the vigil would send, Eichenblatt alluded to Orlando’s popularity as the home of Disney World, saying, “Orlando’s not just a place for Mickey Mouse. It’s a strong community.”
Melanie Maxey, 34, showed up with a sign that read, “ONE LOVE ONE PULSE.” She said the city was still struggling to process the tragedy. “I think I’m still a little bit numb to the fact that it was in my backyard,” she said.
Orland Mayor Buddy Dyer, who wore a white T-shirt featuring a rainbow-colored heart, said he couldn’t imagine how it must have felt for those who had to wait to find out what happened to their loved ones. He said the shooter purposefully sought out members of the LGBT community, calling it a “hateful, senseless act of violence.”
The speakers also commended the community’s response to the massacre. Several thanked Orlando police, who have been credited with saving many lives by storming the nightclub. Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs said thousands had turned up to donate blood to help treat the injured.
Several employees of the Pulse, including the two owners, also appeared onstage at the vigil, vowing to rebuild the club.
Carames said he found the whole event heart-wrenching, but he said he was proud of the turnout. “I expected Orlando would bring out thousands of people to show support and love,” he said. “I’m not surprised.”
A medical software trainer, Carames moved to Florida from New York after high school and said he stayed in Orlando because it had the trappings of a big city with the personal closeness of a smaller town. The LGBT community is especially tight knit, he said, and gay clubs have always been a place where they could feel safe.
Asked if the shooting made him feel unsafe going to clubs now, Carames noted that the LGBT community had endured several frightening and discriminatory eras, and said it would prevail. He said he hoped the vigil would show that “we’ll remain strong no matter what’s thrown at us.”