ORLANDO — It rained like hell in Central Florida on Sunday afternoon. It beat the hot pavement like a fist and the sky turned the color of a bruise. It does that most steamy afternoons this time of year here, but in the hours after the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, it felt like the world itself was crying.
The scene outside Pulse nightclub, where authorities say Omar Mateen pledged allegiance to Islamic State in a 911 call before spraying the crowd with bullets from an AR-15, was one of grief and support as residents gathered in a show of unity among their sorrow.
“It’s a home for the LGBT community,” Cedric Linton said of Pulse, where he frequently takes visitors from out of town. “It’s a judgment-free zone.”
On Sunday, it looked like a war zone. The air thrummed with the sound of news helicopters, emergency lights blinked incessantly and the streets close to the club were blocked as residents struck notes of both dismay and defiance, of both mourning but determination not to let an evil act scrub the happiness from a town known the world over as a vacationer’s joyland.
“We’re known for being a place to have fun,” said Karina Tabuteau, whose personal trainer was among the survivors.
Diana Nunez had roared down from Gainesville, about two hours north, after hearing the awful news, to make sure her friend Caleb Collins was OK. He performs at the club occasionally and enjoys hanging out there even when not in costume.
“When she got here, she just held onto me and cried her eyes out,” Collins said.
By Sunday afternoon, authorities had begun identifying a few of the murdered victims. Nunez and Collins, who have many friends among club regulars, awaited with awful anticipation further confirmations. Both predicted a chilling effect on gay clubs across the city and perhaps nationwide.
“This is going to affect everything,” Collins said, noting that a planned gathering at another of Orlando’s gay nightclubs fizzled amid concerns of amassing a large group in any one place so soon after the shootings.
But a few miles away, a huge crowd turned out at the Parliament House, a gay bar, club and hotel.
“Terror can’t win,” said Sister Christina Darling, wearing perfect makeup and a nun’s habit along with a neatly clipped beard. Darling was there with Todd White and Ollie Grossen, who shoved aside concerns about security to join the gathering.
“A lot of people said, ‘Don’t go out,’” Grossen said. “No. I’m going to show I’m not going to be afraid. I needed to be with my people.”
As dreadful as the killing spree would have been at any location, it was all the more dreadful at what for many was a crucial haven.
“You wouldn’t understand if you’re not gay,” Grossen said. “We spend a lot of time trying to find a place where we feel safe and can be ourselves.”
Still, he refused to let his town become synonymous with fear.
“We welcome tourists every day, but we also take care of each other,” he said.
The mood at Parliament was bittersweet, as friends greeted each other with hugs and some held candles lit in tribute to the lost.
Xander Negron was among a circle of friends who lit candles to remember the murder victims, some of whom were his close friends.
“I just found out five minutes ago,” he said, tears brimming in his eyes. He had planned to join them but changed his plans at the last minute.
“My heart just broke into pieces” when he realized the fate he’d been spared. He’s working two jobs while studying to be an aircraft technician, and said he will apply himself with renewed vigor at achieving his dreams.
“I changed my destiny,” he said. “I got another chance. I’m going to live my life to the fullest.”
A few raindrops still pittered here and there as day turned into evening, but they didn’t extinguish the candles someone placed by the Parliament House marquee.
“We are Pulse,” it read. “Unbreakable.”
The clouds parted before night fell, and the sun peeked out again.