Bloody, but Unbowed: Victims and Hostages Speak out after the Deadliest Mass Shooting in American and LGBT History Claimed 49 Lives at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando

By Moore, Chadwick; Lambert, Michael et al. | The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine), August-September 2016 | Go to article overview

Bloody, but Unbowed: Victims and Hostages Speak out after the Deadliest Mass Shooting in American and LGBT History Claimed 49 Lives at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando


Moore, Chadwick, Lambert, Michael, Barr, Natalia, The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)


Brett Rigas and his boyfriend of three years, Frank Hernandez, woke Saturday morning, June 11, to a SWAT team encircling the gated community in Orlando, Fla., where the two shared a home.

A gunman had led police on a chase and entered a neighbor's home, taking hostages. He faced down police in a standoff. After the SWAT team arrived, officers arrested the man.

Shaken, Rigas and Hernandez still started the weekend. They went shopping at the local mall. By nightfall, they planned on a quiet night in. Rigas was in bed when he heard the hair dryer going in the other room.

"C'mon, we're going to Pulse," Hernandez told him. "Just for one drink."

They stayed out at the gay nightclub on South Orange Avenue until 1:30 a.m. The two closed their tab and walked toward the door. But a generous friend working at Pulse corralled them back to the bar.

"Come over here and I'll get you a drink," the friend said.

"Get Brett whatever he wants."

By 2:02 a.m., the Orlando Police Department received the first report of shots fired at Pulse.

Omar Mateen, 29, of Port St. Lucie, Fla., had begun his rampage--the deadliest single-person mass shooting in American history.

A day that had started with gun violence would now end in more gun violence--and one of the two men who had just come for a quiet drink would not make it out alive.

MAYHEM AT PULSE

Rigas and Hernandez dropped to the floor. Many at Pulse thought the shots from Mateen's handgun and assault rifle were part of the music. Then, the music stopped.

Rigas lost Hernandez in the confusion. He crawled behind the bar and hid under the well along with a friend and a bartender, Juan, who had been shot in the leg. Bullets flew over their heads, shattering liquor bottles.

Mateen's attack claimed the lives of 49 people at Pulse that night. He wounded 53 others. He holed up in the bathrooms for hours, and there he called 911 to pledge loyalty to the Islamic State. He texted with his wife while his victims said goodbye to their loved ones for what they believed would be the last time.

Orlando police killed Mateen at 5:15 a.m. Sunday, June 12, after a three-hour standoff, when he fired on authorities. A SWAT team officer posted a picture on social media of his helmet, where one of Mateen's bullets had grazed the surface.

When officers finally escorted Rigas out of the bar, he looked for Hernandez among the bodies scattered across the dance floor. All were face down. He looked for the white and blue shirt Hernandez had been wearing.

Hernandez's name would later appear on the list of the 49 victims killed during the assault.

"I hope that it happened fast," Rigas says. "I just hope that he wasn't just hurt a little bit and then--maybe he got stepped on or trampled on by people trying to get out of there. I hope he didn't suffer there, because I wasn't able to get to him. I don't know where he was. I looked for him."

Three days after the attack, on Wednesday, June 15, Rigas sits in the apartment he shared with Hernandez, fighting through tears. Hernandez's body is on a plane to Texas. Rigas was shot in the arm, but he has not yet been to the hospital. Shoe boxes are stacked high in the living room. Both men loved shoes, especially Hernandez.

"He wasn't the cleanest person. And I think he left all this because he knew something was going to happen, so now I have to pick up everything," Rigas says, choking out a joke.

Rigas picked out the outfit in which his boyfriend was to be buried: "Some sparkly shoes he bought that are tacky, but I think he would want to wear," he says. "He's a little goofball.

I mean, he was always making people laugh. Everybody loved him. You have to make sure that the people in your life know that you love them."

He breaks down in tears.

'I'M GOING TO KILL YOU'

Inside Pulse, while Rigas lay under the bar well, Answai Bennett--his friends call him Swizzy--ducked into a nearby bathroom. …

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