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Palm Coast Friday, Jun. 17, 2016 2 years ago

Flagler County residents respond to mass shooting at Orlando gay nightclub; vigil planned for June 17

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A vigil will be held on the beach just north of the Flagler Beach pier at 8:30 p.m. June 17.
by: Jonathan Simmons News Editor

The text messages started flooding in during the early morning hours. By the time Palm Coast resident Andrew Tyler, 22, awoke at about 5 a.m. June 12, there were more than two dozen, most of them seeking one thing: confirmation that Tyler was alive and unhurt, that he was not at his favorite nightclub in Orlando when a gunman barged in and killed 49 people in the deadliest mass-shooting in the nation's history.

Tyler was safe. He'd canceled plans to visit the Pulse gay nightclub in downtown Orlando that evening, opting to stay with friends. 

"It was my sanctuary, and it was violated in a way that no one’s home, no one’s sanctuary, no one’s safe place should ever be violated. ... Before Sunday, I would go into Pulse and not worry. I never worried about someone coming up and shooting me in the back. I never worried about that, and I never thought about that. ... Now, I feel paranoid. I shouldn’t feel like that, but I do."

— ANDREW TYLER, Palm Coast resident

"I woke up at five in the morning to my phone having 24-plus text messages, countless Facebook messages, countless phone calls from all over this country, from people trying to get in contact with me," he said.

That was how he heard about the shooting that killed two of his friends — Chris "Drew" Leinonen, 32; and Leinonen's boyfriend Juan Guerrero, 22 — at Pulse during the club's Latin theme night.

"To get news like, 'I’m so sorry Andrew, but you really need to read this,'" — linked with news articles about the shooting — "I could do nothing but sit in my bed, curl up in a ball and cry," wondering if his friends were safe, Tyler said. 

Then, Tyler said, "I had to do the hardest thing I've ever had to do, call my mom and tell her, 'I’m safe, I’m OK, I didn’t go to Pulse, but I don't know where my friends are.'" When he saw her, he said, "I ran to give my mom the biggest hug and the biggest kiss ever."

FAMILY

Pulse was the first real gay club Tyler had ever been to — a place where he could feel safe in his identity after years of schoolyard anti-gay bullying that made accepting his own sexual orientation a battle.

Gay clubs and bars, for members of the LGBT community, have been more than just spots to get a drink or meet someone: They've been some of the few places where gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people didn't have to worry about someone giving them a dirty look, or worse, for holding a same-gender lover's hand or sharing a kiss or an intimate look. 

"A lot of us, sadly, don’t have the opportunity to have family, so we kind of pick and choose our family. I'm lucky enough to have my family by my side, but others aren’t so lucky. Pulse was home."

— ANDREW TYLER, Palm Coast resident

"The first time I went there, it was an eye-opening experience," Tyler said. "I felt proud. I felt empowered to be who I was. It was such a sense of freedom. " 

Tyler had been going to Pulse for about four years. He'd never worried about anti-gay harassment when he walked into the club each week. Sometimes, he went two or three times a week. He used the same parking spot. The shooting June 12 shattered that sense of safety.

"It was my sanctuary, and it was violated in a way that no one’s home, no one’s sanctuary, no one’s safe place should ever be violated," he said. "Before Sunday, I would go into Pulse and not worry. I never worried about someone coming up and shooting me in the back. I never worried about that, and I never thought about that. ... Now, I feel paranoid. I shouldn’t feel like that, but I do."

For many members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community, Tyler said, places like Pulse created a sense of family for those who'd lost their own when they came out. 

"A lot of us, sadly, don’t have the opportunity to have family, so we kind of pick and choose our family. I'm lucky enough to have my family by my side, but others aren’t so lucky. Pulse was home. It was the base for everyone. You could not hear from somebody for two days, and you’d go, and lo and behold, they’d be there with a drink ready for you."

ORANGE AVENUE

Other Flagler County residents rushed to contact friends and loved ones in the Orlando area as news trickled out about the shooting June 12.

"I couldn’t get ahold of her. I didn’t get a Facebook check-in. I called her, texted her, called her mom … getting no answers." When the friend finally called around 11:15 a.m., "I was really overwhelmed. ... I think I was a lot more upset than I realized."

— JENICA “HEN” FREDERICKSON, Palm Coast resident

Jenica “Hen” Frederickson, 37 and a Palm Coast artist, saw the news on her phone when she woke up June 12, and frantically searched for news of a friend who is an Orlando resident and film location scout who'd mentioned that she planned to scout a location on Orange Avenue, the street Pulse is on, the previous night.

"She was looking at a section of that street," Frederickson said. "I couldn’t get ahold of her. I didn’t get a Facebook check-in. I called her, texted her, called her mom … getting no answers."

When the friend finally called around 11:15 a.m., Frederickson said, "and I heard her voice, I was really overwhelmed. ... I think I was a lot more upset than I realized."

OFFICIALS RESPOND

National and state officials spoke out about the shooting, with President Barack Obama addressing the nation at 1:30 p.m. June 12 and calling the attack "an act of terror, and an act of hate."

"This is an especially heart-breaking day for all of our friends, our fellow Americans, who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender," Obama said. "The shooter targeted a nightclub where people came together to be with friends, to dance and to sing, and to live. The place where they were attacked is more than a nightclub. It is a place of solidarity and empowerment where people have come together to raise awareness, to speak their minds and to advocate for their civil rights.”

Florida Governor Rick Scott traveled to Orlando and declared a state of emergency in Orange County June 12, saying in a news release, "Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims, families and all those affected by this horrific tragedy. We are a strong and resilient state and we will devote every resource available to assist with the shooting in Orlando."

In a Facebook post, Scott wrote, "This is an attack on our people. It's an attack on Orlando. It's an attack on FL. It's an attack on America. It's an attack on all of us."

The Facebook post drew immediate and angry responses from people saying that Scott should have mentioned the gay community, or that he should have called the attack "Islamic terrorism." Like the Facebook post, none of the news releases posted to Scott's official webpage at flgov.com as of the morning of June 13 mentioned the LGBT community or the fact that the shooting took place at a gay club, and none mentioned the shooter's religion. Scott requested a federal declaration of emergency June 13.

Local officials also took to social media to address the community.

In a news release posted to its official Facebook page, the Flagler County Sheriff's Office said the agency was "continuing to monitor the overnight Orlando mass shooting." In addition, the news release said, Sheriff Jim Manfre "offered his personal condolences to the LGBT community."

"Those who were killed, injured or otherwise affected by this heinous and atrocious event are in my thoughts and prayers," Manfre said in the news release. 

No heightened terrorism alerts have been issued. Still, the Sheriff's Office news release said, "the (Flagler County Sheriff's Office) reminds everyone about the national 'See Something, Say Something' campaign and to be extra vigilant in our communities. If you see someone or something suspicious, please call law enforcement immediately."

In a public post on Facebook, Palm Coast City Councilwoman Heidi Shipley wrote, "Very sad day. The world is so scary these days. Prayers to the families of the Orlando victims. It's getting too close to home. How do you fight an enemy that can blend in so well? This is just horrible."

Councilman Steven Nobile wrote, "Sad day for America. My families prayers go out to the injured and to the friends and families of those killed."

The Flagler Beach Police Department tweeted, "Our thoughts & prayers are with the Orlando shooting victims & their families. Thanks 1st Responders for your heroic effort to save lives."

REMEMBERING

Vigils were held across the state, the nation and internationally June 12-13 as people mourned those killed in the Pulse shooting. 

June is gay pride month in the U.S., when the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community have historically held marches to commemorate the 1969 riots at the Stonewall Inn in Manhattan that have been credited as sparking the modern gay rights movement.

After the shooting June 12, organizers planned for extra security at marches and other gay pride events, and planned ceremonies and vigils to honor the 49 people killed and the 53 injured in the massacre.

"This could have happened to anyone, but it happened to my group of people. I am so grateful to everyone who has come out to help us, and who has opened their arms and opened their hearts to keep us warm and keep us safe these next few days."

— ANDREW TYLER, Palm Coast resident

Tyler was on his way to an evening vigil at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, in Orlando about a mile and a half from Pulse, when he spoke with a reporter the evening of June 13. 

"I know I will go to the clubs, and I won’t see (Leinonen and Guerrero) anymore," he said. "I won’t get that hug from (Leinonen). That will be the last hug I’ll ever get from him and his boyfriend. And that hurts knowing that they won’t be there to pass on that positivity, that greatness, because of one man’s actions."

Tyler was going to the vigil both to remember friends who died, and to connect with others.

"I want to feel that Pulse that I lost; that pulse that I lost, it lives in all of us," he said. "Some of our pulses might not beat on the same frequency, but we all have a pulse and it unites us. And I know that some of my friends lost more friends than I did. ... I just want to go there and give them hugs and kisses."

Tyler said he was "grateful to everyone who has come out to help us, and who has opened their arms and opened their hearts," and that he had a message for the community.

"I just want to tell everyone to call someone they haven't talked to in a while, and tell them that they love them and miss them," he said. "Because some of these people that I lost, I hadn’t talked to them in a week — but I feel guilty that it was a week, because now I've lost a week with that person. ... Regardless of sexuality, race or gender, I just want everyone to stand together and be there for one another. That’s all I want."

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