Hundreds crowd Flagler Beach to honor Pulse shooting victims
The crowd of about 700 watched a lone figure climb to the top of a fire truck ladder hoisted high above Oceanshore Boulevard across from the pier, high above the roofs of the tallest buildings, then cheered as she strung a gay pride flag to a cable hanging from its apex. The American flag followed.
As dusk fell June 17, candlelight flickered across hundreds of downturned faces as people gathered on the beach with lit candles in a moment of silent recognition of the 49 people killed by a gunman at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando.
For a few hours June 17, Flagler Beach was a place for LGBT people and those who care about them and about the Pulse victims to gather among friends and mourn — a safe haven in a world that felt more dangerous than ever since the June 12 shooting, attendees said.
"It's overwhelming, to see this much support," said Amanda Waldman, 27 and a Flagler Beach resident. Waldman's company, Magik Audio, provided sound support for the vigil. She said she hasn't always felt entirely safe in town when she's been out with her girlfriend. "You get the stares, you get that kind of walk-to-the-other-side-of-the-sidewalk thing," she said. "This really shows you that the people who aren't accepting really are the minority now."
The city of Flagler Beach donated 400 candles for the event.
Local businesses donated items to be raffled off to raise money for the shooting's victims.
The donations and raffle raised $1,721 for the Pulse Victims Fund, organized by LGBT rights group Equality Florida, vigil organizers said.
Local politicians and officials attended the vigil, among them Flagler Beach Mayor Linda Provencher, Flagler Beach City Commissioner Jane Mealy, County Commissioner Nate McLaughlin and Sheriff Jim Manfre.
Speakers urged solidarity and thanked attendees for their support.
"I’ve lived here for 22 years here in Palm Coast — never in my life did I ever think that this whole town would come together to support human equality," Quincy Black said, addressing the crowd through a speaker system set up on the bandshell next to the pier. "Most of the locals here that are a part of the LGBT community know Pulse like the back of our hand. That was one place we could go, because there’s not many around here."
Flagler County doesn't have any gay clubs or bars of its own.
When Palm Coast resident Tina Luciano, 25, created an event on Facebook for a memorial candle lighting at the pier, she didn't expect much of a turnout. Maybe 25 people, mostly members of the LGBT community.
But people started sharing the event on social media.
Soon, more than 400 had signed on to attend, with hundreds more marking themselves as interested — far more than she'd expected for the vigil.
"I knew it meant something to people, but I had no idea it as going to mean so much," she said.
Luciano and friends got in touch with the city government, which waived its usual event fee and provided the Fire Department ladder truck, and police officers to direct traffic.
Luciano said she'd gone to Pulse for the first time the day she turned 18.
"It was our safe place to be who we were," she said. "A lot of people from the Jacksonville/St. Johns area, St. Augustine area all made their way to go to this one place."
Luciano's friend Corey Zywics helped organize the vigil and had planned to speak at the event. He was too emotional.
Luciano read his speech for him: "We are here today to be strong and show support to the fallen in our community. ... I'd like to give a special thanks to the individuals that support the LGBT but aren't part it the themselves. You support us in the fight against hate and discrimination. You are the people making the change. You stand strong with us now in a time of sorrow. For that, I can not thank you enough," she said, reading Zywics' statement.
Speaking to a reporter during the vigil, Zywics said that Pulse was one of the first gay clubs he'd ever been to. As he walked into the club for the first time, he said, "An older gentleman looked at me and said, 'You don't accept it, do you?' He said, 'You are home. Your community supports you.'"
Life in the days after the shooting has been "a rollercoaster," Zywics said, but the vigil helped.
"It's so much more than I ever could have thought of. It makes me feel so much better," he said.
Waldman hoped vigils like the one in Flagler Beach could help the shaken community recover.
"I think it's a start," she said. "The first start to healing is accepting, and we have to not look for a scapegoat. ... There's one person who was responsible: the person pulling the trigger. I think once people really start to grasp that, that's when the healing will really start. I want people to know that our community is a strong one."