Orlando Survivors Recall Night of Terror: ‘Then He Shoots Me Again’
ORLANDO, Fla. — The night was a getaway. A young woman fresh out of high school was on vacation with her cousin and close friend, dancing without a care. It was Latin night at the gay nightclub. She had suggested that the three come here and was so excited that she sprang onto a stage to dance as strangers tossed dollar bills her way.
The night was a reunion. Two old friends who had drifted apart bumped into each other in the swirl of salsa and hip-hop beats on the dance floor. They apologized, hugged, made plans to have lunch the next day. As they got ready to leave, one of them joked about being so young, the span of years lying before them.
The night was a party. At the back bar, another three friends sipped their final drinks of the night — vodka, soda and lime, a vodka and Red Bull — and scrawled playful notes to the bartender on their receipt. “Sexy Kitten.” “You the best.”
The night was ending. Just before 2 a.m., a D.J. on the club patio was spinning reggae to wind things down. Then, a noise. Firecrackers? The D.J. lowered the volume.
Jeannette McCoy was standing at the bar when the room exploded. “Boom, boom, boom,” she said.
She was hit with a flurry of debris as bullets tore into walls and plaster. A woman next to her was shot, and Ms. McCoy, 37, ran for the patio, climbing over people, tripping over them as they crouched to avoid the spray of bullets, trying somehow to brace her body to take the bullet she feared was coming her way.
When she got outside, she ran to the front of the club, now crowded with police officers and scores of the wounded. “And I’m screaming at them to go in the building,” she said. She found a friend, Juan, who had been shot in the leg. She took off her shirt and used it to stanch the bleeding.
‘He Shoots the Girl Next to Me’
Angel Colon was hit three times in the leg as he raced for the door. He fell and was trampled by fleeing patrons as he tried to get back up. His left leg was shattered. All he could do was lie on the floor, hearing screams and bangs as the gunman left the room. When he returned, he started shooting people on the floor to make sure they were dead.
“I look over, and he shoots the girl next to me,” Mr. Colon said, speaking to reporters at Orlando Regional Medical Center this week, where he was being treated. “And I’m just there laying down, and I’m thinking: ‘I’m next. I’m dead.’ So I don’t know how, but by the glory of God, he shoots toward my head but it hits my hand, and then he shoots me again and it hits the side of my hip. I had no reaction. I was just prepared to just stay there, laying down so he won’t know that I’m alive.”
The gunman turned his attention to arriving police officers, exchanging gunfire before backing off to another room. One officer dragged Mr. Colon through broken glass to the street and then to a nearby Wendy’s.
“I wish I could remember his face or his name,” Mr. Colon said of the officer. “I’m grateful for him.”
“I beenx shot at club…. dying i love u.”
“Dead bodies on top of me…. tell everyone i lovethrm.”
“Huh?” Santos replied.
Theirs was a relationship of sarcasm, Santos said. Always cracking jokes. This had to be another one.
But Jeff, who was bleeding, persisted.
Santos, 29, searched the internet and saw it was no joke. He woke his parents, told his wife to watch the children, and raced to Orlando, skimming across the dark freeway at 100 miles per hour.
It wasn’t until 7 that night that the family found out that Jeff Rodriguez, 37, had survived.
‘God Forgive Me’
As Leydiana Puyarena raced from the gunshots, people fell around her, some tugging at her feet and pulling off her shoes.
Ms. Puyarena, 33, saw a woman standing frozen, looking back toward the shots. She grabbed the woman, and they ducked into one of the bathrooms in the club, the one closest to the back patio. She tried to listen over the panicked noise of the 15 people in the bathroom, telling the others to calm down or they would all die.
She sat on the toilet, huddled with the bloodied group. She heard gunshots. She heard the gunman screaming in what sounded like a foreign language. She heard the gunshots getting closer.
“God forgive me for everything that I’ve done,” she prayed. “Take care of my kids, please.”
The gunman never came into their bathroom, she said, and after about half an hour, Ms. Puyarena said she looked to a man next to her, and they decided to try to run. But as they got up to leave, she said, a police officer banged on the bathroom door. The officer rushed them out through a back exit.
It was only after she was outside that an officer pointed out her bloody left calf, and she realized she had been shot. Only then did the pain set in.
‘I Don’t Want to Die’
Stanley Almodovar III, 23, was shot three times, staggered out of the club and fell to the ground. He was one of 49 people killed.
A young man stumbled into the bathroom, bleeding, and groped toward the stall. Mr. Casiano tried to pull him in underneath the partition, but there were just so many people and the young man was in such pain. Mr. Casiano tried to reassure him, saying that maybe the gunman wouldn’t find them in the bathroom.
“He looks me in the eye and said, ‘I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die,’ ” Mr. Casiano said.
Then the gunman was in the bathroom. He laughed.
“I just hear one solid gunshot, and you see the boy, just completely, you saw the life leave him.”
He started shooting at the stall. Two shots pierced Mr. Casiano. Another cut down a young woman who had been standing next to him. People begged him to stop, to spare them, trying to assure him they hadn’t seen his face. He reached his gun over the stall wall and shot into the cluster of people.
As the screaming died down, people slumped to the floor. Some were playing dead. Others were not playing.
When the gunman left the bathroom, Mr. Casiano knew it was time to go. He climbed out of the stall, stepping on bodies to make it out. He saw flashlights from police officers who were trying to penetrate the club and rescue people. He escaped. It was less than an hour into the three-hour siege.
‘It’s Not Real to Me’
Akyra Monet Murray, 18, was celebrating her high school graduation on a weeklong vacation from Philadelphia with her cousin, Tiara Parker, and her close friend, Patience Carter, both 20.
Ms. Murray, a basketball point guard who wanted to study criminology, and Ms. Carter, a New York University student, had made it out of the club. But when they realized that Ms. Parker was not with them, they went back in for her. “I told her, ‘Let’s get Tiara; we’ve got to get Tiara,’ ” Ms. Carter said at a news conference at Florida Hospital Orlando, recalling her words to Ms. Murray.
When they realized their way out was blocked, the three retreated to the cramped bathroom, struggling to fit their bodies inside an overcrowded stall.
The gunman entered the bathroom, grumbling that his gun had jammed, Ms. Parker said in an interview. Some of the people around her thought they could seize the opportunity and rush him, but as they tried to open the stall door, he began shooting, hitting the three young women and many others.
Ms. Carter fell to the floor, her femur shattered by a bullet.
Over the course of the siege, the gunman asked his hostages if they knew about the shooting last year in South Carolina in which a white man had killed nine African-Americans inside a prominent black church, Ms. Parker said. He got on the phone with the authorities, pledged his allegiance to the Islamic State and said he had enough bombs to “light up a city block,” Ms. Parker said. Then he asked about race; the three women are black.
“He asked if there are any black people in here; I was too afraid to answer,” Ms. Carter said. “But there was an African-American man in the stall where most of my body was, and he said, ‘Yes, there are about 6 or 7 of us.’ And the gunman responded by saying: ‘You know, I don’t have a problem with black people. This is about my country; you guys have suffered enough.’ ”
All through this, the three women devised a signal to show one another they were still alive. They began patting one another on the arm, scratching a wrist, grasping a hand and waiting for an answered grip. For three hours, pat pat. Pat pat. A Morse code of silent touches.
“Every time a phone rang or a text message went off, he would say, ‘Give it up, where is it?’ ” Ms. Carter said. When someone else’s phone rang, he demanded to have it. She slid hers out from the stall, hoping to appease him. Finally, right before the police burst in, there was another round of gunfire. Someone shielded Ms. Carter’s body with his or her own, taking a bullet to spare her.
Ms. Murray was bleeding, and the last time Ms. Parker saw her was as the police broke through the walls of the bathroom and pulled Ms. Parker away. As they left the club, she said she pleaded with them to take Ms. Murray out first. On Monday morning, the family learned she was listed among the dead.
Ms. Carter, racked with guilt, is second-guessing herself. “If I would have just told Akyra to stay outside,” she said, her voice trailing off.
Ms. Parker knows everything that happened is all too real, but sometimes it does not feel quite that way. Ms. Murray’s things are still in their vacation condo. The family is still in this palm-fringed world they had dreamed of visiting for the past six months.
“I want her to just walk through that front door,” Ms. Parker said. “I didn’t expect her to leave me like this. It’s not real to me. I know it. But I don’t believe it.”
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