In the dark of the morning on June 12, 2016, a shot rang out.
Then another, and another, and another.
Bullets were tearing through Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and at first, clubgoers didn’t know what was happening.
But then the terror of what became the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history set in and people started to scream.
They started to run.
It was 2:15 a.m. and people were on the floor – some dead, some dying – while the gunman continued to fire.
People in the club that morning described a hellish scene lit, almost as if in slow motion, by a strobe light.
By the time the attack was over, 49 people were dead, dozens were injured and Orlando would never be the same.
WFTV’s Daralene Jones was startled awake that morning by a phone call from a friend in Houston who had seen posts about the shooting on social media.
As she made her way to the office in the dark, Jones was hit by a flood of emotion.
“The drive on the highway is foggy; I remember being scared,” she said. “I didn’t know if there was a shooter on the loose.
“I remember floods of law enforcement passing me and that’s how I knew this was major.”
WFTV reporter Julie Salomone was one of the first on the scene and saw the chaos, terror and sadness firsthand.
“My most vivid memory of Pulse is meeting a mother on the sidewalk near Orlando Regional Medical Center,” Salomone said. “It was right as the events were unfolding. She was next to a few others who told me they just escaped the club.”
With a hint of uncertainty in her voice, Salomone reported from the scene as victims’ family members arrived at Pulse, hoping their loved ones were OK.
“This mother had spoken to her daughter who said she was shot inside the club,” Salomone said. “Her daughter would later turn out to be the youngest victim, 18-year-old Akyra Murray.
“Her mother sent me a text message after she learned her daughter had died. I could see the worry in that mother’s eyes. It was easy for me to picture my own mother and frantic she would be.”
WFTV reporter Karla Ray had ended a long, busy Saturday shift and remembered hoping that Sunday would be different.
“We all left the newsroom around midnight that night saying, ‘I hope tomorrow is a slow day,’” Ray said. “When (my husband) Brandon’s phone rang around 5 a.m., and I heard (WFTV executive producer) Jason (Balthazar’s) voice ask for me, I thought it was him playing a joke.
“As soon as I heard his voice, I knew it was serious.”
Jones said she was still haunted by the worry in Christine Leinonen’s voice as she spoke from Orlando Regional Medical Center, hoping that her son, Christopher, was safe.
“During our coverage that morning, even as I sat on the anchor desk going from reporter to news conference to the scene, I prayed for her,” Jones said. “I prayed for her son. I wanted him to be alive. He was her only child.
“Unfortunately, we could later learn that he did not survive.”
“I’m the mother of an only son,” Jones continued. “My husband is an only son. My heart hurt, and still does, for her.
“And my heart aches for the person who had to tell Ms. Leinonen that her only son was killed.”
WFTV reporter Field Sutton remembers being at Parliament House Sunday evening when an impromptu candlelight vigil took place.
“The club’s largest dance floor was silent. The lights were off and it was packed wall-to-wall with people who didn’t know what else to do,” he said. “They told me they came to Parliament House because they weren’t sure how else to respond, where else to go.”
It was only after the people at Parliament House started to file out and someone thanked Sutton for being there to provide what information was available that the depth of the attack and its aftermath became apparent.
“I think sometimes in the news business, we take for granted the access we have to information,” he said. “It was then that I realized how helpless so many people felt in this community as they waited to hear the next name released of someone who died.
“Hoping and praying the next name would be a stranger instead of a loved one. And then wondering whether it was wrong to hope to hear it was someone else’s loved one who died.
“Thinking about the scale on which that was happening was mind-blowing,” he added. “I’ve never empathized with friends and neighbors more completely than in the moments after that interaction.”
Reporter Cuthbert Langley started at WFTV the day after the attack and remembered how helpless he felt in the chaos.
“I remember standing on Orange Avenue that day,” he said. “It wasn’t a street; it was more of a parking lot, filled with countless people, the hums of dozens of generators and the glare from so many lights.
“As I was standing there on a platform to get above some of the tents … I had a brief moment of, ‘Where the hell am I?’
“I felt guilty. Guilty because I didn’t know anyone who was at Pulse that night. Guilty because I didn’t go through the panic. Guilty because I was ‘too new’ to Orlando to be impacted.”
Langley was numb that day, but when he saw Orlando pull together in the wake of the attack, that changed.
“I was explaining to (a woman at the scene) that I had just moved to Orlando, and her reaction was what you’d expect,” Langley said. “I was telling her how amazed I was to see how strong this community was and she asked a question that has stuck with me a year later: ‘Do you have a community here?’ ‘No,’ I said.
“She didn’t hesitate,” Langley continued. “She reached over and gave me the type of hug usually reserved for best friends who have known each other for years. She said, ‘I’m your community today.’
“She asked me how I was feeling. This is quite personal to share, but I am gay. I have spent many nights in clubs like Pulse, celebrating the freedom to be myself,” Langley said. “I was numb to think of what happened in a ‘safe place’ for many people. And just hearing a good person, a stranger nonetheless, authentically interested in how I was doing, made me cry.”
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