ORLANDO, Fla. — On June 12, 2016, Orlando came together in a way few cities can relate to.
Four years later, that hasn’t changed.
The City Beautiful continued to honor the lives of those lost in the Pulse nightclub shooting. But this year, the memorial service looked a bit different: Friday’s It was virtual, and streamed online.
If you missed the ceremony, watch it below:
The 30-minute, pre-recorded ceremony with messages from local leaders and musical performances was viewed by over a thousand people.
Each year since the tragedy, individuals typically pack the area around the memorial to share hugs and tears.
Barricades are in place at the memorial site until Saturday morning so that survivors, victim family members and first responders can safely gather and allow for social distancing.
“We have thousands of people who come every year, and we wish we could have thousands of people together this year, but to make sure we take care of everyone, we have to do our part,” said Pulse owner Barbara Poma.
Poma would like the public to post photos online to show how they are remembering the lives of the 49 victims.
“We just think it’s important to stand in solidarity that way," Poma said.
Brandon Wolf was inside Pulse that day a gunman opened fire. He survived, but his best friend Drew Leinonen and Drew’s partner, Juan Guerrero did not.
At Leinonen’s funeral, Wolf helped carry the casket.
“And I remember gripping the sides so tightly that my knuckles were white. And I think it's because inside, I didn't want to let go until I found the words to say goodbye,” he said
But he eventually did find the words: “I am never going to stop fighting for a world that you can be proud of.”
He said his friend would be proud of how Orlando became stronger and united.
“We literally painted the entire city in rainbow and said, ‘Everyone belongs here,’” Wolf said.
Wolf said he wants us to remember why we’re here in the first place.
“The hate that walked into Pulse, armed to the teeth, brimming with anger and opened fire on 49 people killing them is the same brand of hatred that we watched murder George Floyd,” he said. “Eight minutes and 46 seconds strangling him on the sidewalk.
Keeping a friend’s memory alive
Coming out of the house during a pandemic is a little scary for Daritza Velez.
But returning to Pulse on the four-year anniversary is even harder. But she put on her mask and showed up for her friend Stanley Almodovar.
"We ended up taking my friend from there, I carried his legs, and we carried him across the parking lot, the back way of Dunkin’ Donuts,” she said. “He just started telling me he was cold and we ended up putting him in a pickup truck, and that’s when he passed away.”
Velez survived without being shot. Because of her, Almodovar was able to spend his final moments the way he wanted.
"I actually got a hold of his phone, and I was able to get him to talk to his mom before he passed,” Velez said.
Velez said Almodovar was a “great guy,” and they had actually met at Pulse. They went to the nightclub together all the time.
For the first time in four years, she feels that love on these grounds again.
"Honestly, everybody is united and I like that," Velez said.
Among those who have stopped by the nightclub include those who were there that night, those who loved someone who didn’t make it out and the rest of the community who took it personally.
“It’s my city and it’s a terrible thing that happened no matter where it is,” Orlando resident Brielle Kardashian said. “But especially here, it gets you. It gets you.”
Velez’s brother, a first responder, helped pull people out.
“My brother was helping out people. I couldn’t get a hold of him. I just remember I just kept calling him and calling my parents because I didn’t think I was going to make it,” she said.
But since then, Velez and her brother have called on each other a lot.
“It did affect both of us but it made us stronger together because we had something to relate to. And I couldn’t really talk to a lot of people about it,” she said.
Many who are attending the ceremony are battling PTSD from that horrific night, in addition to being outside during a pandemic.
“It’s kind of hard because it’s scary to go outside now," Velez said, “but it’s not going to stop me from paying my respects.”
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