ORLANDO – When Cedric and Andrew Linton have friends in from out of town, they frequently suggest a night out at Pulse.
“It’s a home for the LGBT community, “Cedric Linton said. “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 gathered in a communal spirit of support and grief the day after the worst mass shooting in U.S. history.
A gunman wielding an assault-type rifle and a handgun opened fire inside the crowded nightclub early Sunday, killing at least 50 people before dying in a gunfight with SWAT officers, the Associated Press reported.
Authorities were investigating the attack on the Florida dance club as an act of terrorism. The gunman’s father recalled that his son recently got angry when he saw two men kissing in Miami and said that might be related to the assault.
The shooter called 911 shortly before the attack and referenced ISIS, FBI agent Ronald Hopper said.
The crowd milling nearby as authorities still processing the scene came and went struck notes of dismay and defiance, of mourning but determination not to let an evil act scrub the happiness from a town known the world over as a vacationer’s paradise.
“We’re known for being a place to have fun,” said Karina Tabuteau, whose personal trainer was among the survivors.
As soon as Diana Nunez heard the awful news she hopped in the car and roared in from Gainesville, to make sure her friend Caleb Collins was OK. Caleb 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.
Adrian Colon, a U.S. Army vet, came wearing his dogtags, an Army shirt and a rainbow-flag scarf. He and his fiancee, Jamie Huftill, lamented the horrible reason their town had attracted the nation’s media.
“We have friends in the family in the LGBT community,” Colon said. “It has definitely rocked our world.”