ORLANDO—Joe Saunders told thousands of men and women gathered on a stretch of grass in downtown Orlando about the first time he went to Pulse.
“When I moved here to go to UCF, I remember when Pulse first lit up and opened its doors,” he said. “Pulse is more than a dance club. Pulse is us.”
The former Florida state representative addressed a crowd of mourners that reached from the doors of the Dr. Philips Performing Arts Center nearly a full city block to the hotels and parking decks behind them.
As Saunders spoke, a woman close to the stage pinned white ribbons with rainbow flags to everyone around her. Her daughter had made them, she said, and called them “her hugs.”
In moments, the box of hugs was empty—white ribbons and rainbows standing out on the collars of nearby mourners.
“Our hearts are broken. Our lives are upside down,” Imam Muhammad Musri of the Islamic Society of Central Florida told the crowd.
When Musri called for prayers, a nearby mourner holding a “pansexual pride” poster made the sign of the cross.
The multitudes stood vigil for the 49 dead and 53 injured in Sunday’s shooting at gay nightclub Pulse. The shooter, Omar Mateen, also died after attacking Orlando police. Mateen claimed allegiance to the Islamic State in a call to 911 during the attack.
“We call for all Muslim leaders to stand up deal with this cancer and remove it once and for all,” Musri said.
City and county officials followed religious leaders on the stage, thanking police and first responders to an outpouring of cheers from the crowd.
Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer confirmed to the thousands gathered that all 49 victims had been identified and next of kin notified. Blood donors ranged into 5,000 after the news broke.
“There’s an Orlando not everyone sees,” he said. “It’s a growing city that feels like a small town. It’s where we call home. It’s such a painful irony that a city of joy and love now has to wear the title of the worst mass shooting in U.S. history.”
The mostly somber crowd truly erupted in cheers as Pulse manager Neema Bahraim walked to the stage, flanked by the nightclub’s staff.
“We are not leaving,” he said. “We will not be defeated. We are here to stay.”
Equality Florida’s Nadine Smith, barely holding back the tears, echoed that sentiment—that Orlando and the LGBT community at large will grow stronger after the tragedy.
“When we say we’re in a ‘culture war,’ it’s no longer metaphorical,” she said. “Nothing good will come from this. We will make good come from this.”
To end the vigil, everyone lit candles and held them high, as the bell from the nearby First United Methodist Church of Orlando tolled 49 times—once for each victim.
An overwhelming hush fell over the huddled men and women as their flames burned in the humid overcast gloom of the Orlando twilight. As the bell rang, families and loved ones held each other. Tears fell.
The bell rang slow and steady with a deep, lonely sound. At some points, the tone echoed in the church tower and created a light, sweet reverberation—almost like a smile.
At the 49th bell, the candles rose again as one.
“Take care of each other,” Saunders said.