“Your brother is dead,” I thought as she talked. I hoped I was wrong.
She’d hurried to Orlando after the Pulse nightclub shootings in June 2016, desperate for news. Her brother had been in the club the night evil arrived in a hail of bullets and left 49 dead.
“It’s going to be the longest day ever,” she told the media scrum packed around her, adding that she’d seen her brother only the month before, at her high school graduation. “Nobody can tell us anything. Nothing at all.”
Omar Mateen, an American-born 29-year-old who voiced allegiance to ISIS in a 911 call, died in a shootout with law enforcement. His widow, Noor Salman, was arrested by the FBI last month and faces charges of obstruction of justice and aiding and abetting the attempted provision of material support to a foreign terrorist organization.
“We’re suffering right now,” the friend of one victim said the day after the attack. “This is just too much.”
America woke up to the awful news on June 12, a Sunday. By Sunday afternoon I was a block from Pulse, popular in the LGBTQ community and beyond, talking to stunned neighbors.
AJC reporter Ernie Suggs and photographer Curtis Compton also dispatched to Orlando, while more than 30 of our colleagues gathered in the AJC’s newsroom to put out first a special afternoon digital edition, then an eight-page special section for Monday’s print newspaper. Ernie, Curtis and I stayed in Orlando for about a week, reporting from the shooting scene, the hospital where survivors were recovering, downtown Orlando when thousands gathered for a candlelight vigil, a Methodist church that hosted a huge interfaith prayer service and the airport, when then President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden arrived to pay respects.
The current president finds the efforts of my and the hundreds of other news organizations that covered the Pulse nightclub shootings lacking. The tragedy made the White House’s recently released list of “underreported terrorist attacks.”
“It’s gotten to a point where it’s not even being reported,” President Donald Trump told a group of military leaders and troops during a Monday visit to U.S. Central Command and U.S. Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. “And in many cases, the very, very dishonest press doesn’t want to report it. They have their reasons and you understand that.”
Other “underreported” attacks on the White House’s list: the 2016 bombings at a Brussels airport and subway station that killed 32 civilians; the deadly 2015 rampage in San Bernardino, Calif. that left 14 dead and 21 injured; and a 2014 standoff in Sydney, Australia involving an attacker at a chocolate shop who demanded an ISIS flag. All three events, as with others on the list, received blanket, often global coverage.
“A close review of the 78 attacks listed by the White House shows almost all the attacks were reported by the news media and that many were widely covered by local and international outlets,” the Associated Press noted. The White House’s list, posted here by the Washington Post, repeatedly spells “attacker” wrong and sometimes uses the term “ISIL,” instead of ISIS.
Trump’s remarks condemning the press happened about 90 minutes from Pulse, a travel fact I happen to know because I flew into Tampa’s airport and drove over to Orlando hours after the shooting spree. That got me to the scene quicker than flying into Orlando, where flights during the busy summer tourism season had less last-minute availability.
My two colleagues and I spent about a week in Orlando (in a cruel twist of fate, a child died in a freak alligator attack at a nearby Disney resort, and part of our reporting that week dealt with that tragedy). As the week progressed, the security perimeter established around the shooting site expanded, as law enforcement broadened their investigation. More and more streets around the scene were blocked off, meaning more and more walking. Spending hours on the asphalt in Orlando in June starts to feel like walking on the sun after a while.
By the time that week was over, the soles of my shoes had melted. I took a photo in case anyone questioned the $8 pair of sneakers I bought at Target. (No one did.) About two weeks later, my new shoes and I were off to Dallas for another sad week of reporting, after five law enforcement officers were shot to death. (That incident did not make the White House list).
By the way, the young woman I mentioned earlier, who came to Orlando hoping to find her brother? She did not hear good news when she entered the counseling center officials hastily established near the shooting scene. Frank Hernandez was dead at 27.
We quoted Hernandez’ sister and ran her photo at the time, but I’m not going to name her again here. The photos I’ve posted of her being interviewed do not show her face.
She’s been hounded enough by reporters.